I tried to track down all the friends I grew up with in care – here’s what I found

Fifteen
years after leaving the care system, almost everyone I knew then was
reluctant to talk. Why had so many of them struggled or fallen off the
map?

Daniel Lavelle

Tue 22 May 2018

When
Lucy and I meet in the food court at the Arndale Centre in Manchester,
it is the first time I have seen her for 15 years. But we were close
growing up. We both lived in a children’s home in Chadderton, near
Oldham, where I described her to everyone as my sister. The last time I
saw her, she was being taken to a different care unit after giving birth
to her first child at the age of 14. I later learned that she was made
to give up the baby for adoption.

Now 29, Lucy has had four more children, who
still live with her. When we meet, she is accompanied by her
four-year-old son. Despite mental health problems, including bipolar disorder,
she is coping well and is a good parent: all her children are in
full-time education and well looked after. “I want to make sure that my
kids have a better life than we had,” she says.

When I decided to track down the people with
whom I was in care, I did so with reservations. The very fact that I
entered the care system is a painful subject for my immediate family,
especially my mother, who says she won’t read this story. Whatever I
write, she believes, people will say it was because of her failure as a
parent that I ended up in care at the age of 12.

But for me it has always been more
complicated. There are many reasons families break down and children go
into care. It is not always down to abuse or neglect. I want to stress
that I don’t blame my parents. I was a troubled child; the psychiatrist
who diagnosed me with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
when I was six said I was one of the most severe cases he had ever
seen. I had dramatic mood swings and a violent temper. I was also
extremely hyperactive and didn’t really sleep. My parents, who had
problems of their own, were not equipped to cope.

I wanted to tell this story because life is
difficult and distressing for many people who have been in care. An
estimated 74,000 of us are homeless, while young people who have been in
care are six times more likely to enter the criminal justice system
than those who have not. I was sure that a lot of the children I grew
up with during my five years in the system would have had similar
experiences.

I also hoped to hear some success stories. But
I have since learned that almost everyone has been in trouble with the
police, had stints in prison or struggled with drugs and alcohol. Almost
all the girls had had children before or around their 18th birthday.

The first placement I was sent to was a foster
home in Longsight, central Manchester, when I was 12. Before this, I
had spent two years in a residential unit attached to Rossendale school,
a special school near Rochdale for children with emotional and
behavioural difficulties, but I returned home at weekends and holidays.

The fact that I was in care did not register
at first. The place in Longsight was a normal family home and the first
few weeks were fascinating. The city was very different from Oldham,
where I had lived before, and I was captivated by its faster pace. The
family I lived with was also interesting. The woman who fostered me was
in her early 50s and white; her husband was a slightly older man from
Jamaica. I was introduced to 70s reggae and taught to make West Indian
cuisine, including fried dumplings, rice and peas. But the placement
fell apart when I got in trouble with some other kids from the estate. I
would also regularly abscond to my grandmother’s and ignore the curfew I
had been given.

From Longsight I moved to another foster
placement, followed by two children’s homes. It was in the homes that
the separation from my family hit me. I saw less of my younger brother
and infant sister, who was born when I was in Longsight. The children’s
home in Chadderton was a huge red-brick building; the bars on the
windows and the almost sterile interior made it clear that this was an
institution.

“This place will either make you or break
you,” said the staff member who took me to my room. He then supervised
me while I unpacked, checking that I had not brought in drugs or
weapons. That night, I heard the other children returning home late and
shouting abuse at the staff for not letting them into the kitchen; after
they made their way upstairs, they carried on yelling into the early
hours. For the first few nights, I cried into my pillow. I even moved my
bed against the door, scared someone might try to break in.

But, as the months rolled by, I got used to
the home and started to bond with the others. I got on with Andrew, whom
I first met while he was stoned in the kitchen. He was laughing
hysterically into a bowl of Coco Pops. There was John, with whom I used
to play tig around Chadderton, including in the local B&Q, from
which we were banned on more than one occasion. Graham loved trouble and
enjoyed nothing more than roping me into his schemes. Georgina, two
years older than most of us, was generally aloof – unless you got on her
bad side.

Finding them a decade and a half later has
been very difficult. Like me, many of the people I met during my years
in care moved between placements, sometimes beyond Greater Manchester.
In some cases, the last time I saw them, they were getting into a police
van. During my time in Longsight, the family fostered another boy. The
last I heard, he was being treated for an overdose.

When I left care aged 17, Facebook did not
exist and I could not afford a mobile phone. Over the years, I bumped
into my fellow care-leavers occasionally in the town centre or on public
transport, but we did not keep in touch. Many have experienced
tragedies that they don’t want to be reminded of. Others have changed
their names, often after getting in trouble with local gangs or drug
dealers. Most of us have struggled to settle down: at 30, I have had 23
addresses.

One person who proved impossible to locate was
Luis. The two of us were inseparable when we were younger; neither had a
school or college to go to, since I had been expelled from Rossendale
and he had passed school-leaving age. So, we would wander around town,
begging for cigarettes and getting into trouble with shopkeepers and
security guards. I suspect one of the reasons he was impossible to track
down is that I did not know his real name. Friends of his who we bumped
into back then would call him Leo, Manuel or sometimes just Portugal.
Portuguese by birth, he seemed older than the rest of us and once
confessed that he was older than we thought. Looking back, picturing his
bulging biceps and facial hair, I think Luis might even have been in
his early 20s. He may have been lying about his age so he could stay in
care; he had nowhere else to go and care-leavers were expected to fend
for themselves after turning 18.

The story of why Luis came to the UK and ended up in care was vague and some of his stories would have made Walter Mitty
roll his eyes. One particularly absurd yarn was that he was a sniper,
on the run from the Portuguese police after shooting one of them in a
notorious Algarve slum.

When our paths crossed over the years, Luis
would usually inform me of his latest scam. He told me, for instance,
that he had invested in a candle company, hollowing out the candles to
smuggle drugs into the country; this was making him thousands, he said.
Then he would ask to borrow a tenner. I later found out that he was
indeed selling drugs, but for a local dealer, receiving only a few bags
of skunk for his troubles. A mutual friend recently told me Luis was in
prison for drug dealing; without knowing his real name, that has proved
impossible to verify.

Kieran, a boy I lived with briefly in
Chadderton, was equally elusive. After he left that home, we met again
at Hawthorn Crescent in Oldham, a “semi-independent unit” designed to
prepare older children for life after care. He was known to staff there
as Tom. He only stayed at the unit briefly; he would run away to the
notoriously rough Limeside estate, known to locals as “Crimeside”. I
last saw Kieran/Tom when he appeared on the TV programme Amir Khan’s
Angry Young Men in 2007, in which Khan worked with troubled youths to
place them on the straight and narrow through “boxing and faith”. Now
going by another name, he talked about his violent upbringing and a
recent stint in prison for stealing a car.

Of the roughly 25 people I grew up with in
care, I managed to track down only a handful. Luke said he would talk to
me, but he wanted to be paid “for the trouble”. Luke was always trying
to make cash out of someone. He was reclusive when we were growing up
and seldom ventured out of the unit, but because of a learning
difficulty he had a bus pass that allowed him to travel for free. He
would hire this out to other kids at half the price of a weekly pass. I
told Luke that I could not pay him for an interview, but that I would
happily buy him lunch; he did not get back to me. I gathered from our
brief chats online and his Facebook posts that he had just left a drug
treatment centre.

Lucy was the only one who agreed to talk on
the record. When we meet, it is slightly awkward at first, but then we
start reminiscing about the trouble we got into and it is as though no
time has passed at all. “Some of the staff were horrible, but we were
little bastards, to be fair,” she says, giggling. She recalls the time
when we removed all our furniture from our bedrooms and threw it down
the stairs.

Then there was the evening when Lucy’s
boyfriend visited the unit and passed around a gun he had brought with
him. The gun’s barrel was soldered shut, but it looked dangerous enough
that when we waved it around the staff dialled 999. By the time the
armed police arrived, Lucy’s boyfriend and another boy at the unit had
viciously assaulted the two male members of staff on duty. We did not
hang around; Lucy went missing for three weeks.

She is reluctant to go into detail about her
life after care: “I don’t like to think about it that much. It just
makes me depressed.” But we stay in touch and over the next year she
gradually opens up. Did she receive enough support when she was in care,
I ask her. Was enough done to protect her? The boyfriend with the gun
was in his 20s and Lucy was only 14. She feels the staff at Chadderton
should have done more to stop her seeing him.

She tells me that her boyfriend would take her
out in his car and, although she was never coerced into having sex with
other men, there were a lot of other young girls who were seeing men
far older than them. “We used to go chilling in this guy’s shop and they
had a bed in the back of the shop where they used to chill with loads
of young girls.” Were they being trafficked? She does not know. “It was
normal for us. We thought it was fun; we thought they were our friends.
They’d take us out in their cars and buy us drinks …”

Were the staff at our home aware of any of
this? “They saw me get into taxis and other men’s cars, but they didn’t
do anything. I thought nothing of it at the time, but I shouldn’t have
been allowed out. I was just a kid. They took me off my mum because they
said she couldn’t take care of me, so they should’ve taken care of me.
But they didn’t.”

The Rochdale sexual abuse scandal did not surprise either of us.

Lucy says the support did not improve much
when she left care, even when she was looking after two younger
brothers. I share her disillusionment. At one children’s home, most of
the staff had a casual attitude to us attending school. We were never
prompted to take care of our personal hygiene and they tolerated
children smoking and drinking. Crisps, instant noodles and plates of
biscuits were often our only meals. The homes I lived in were mixed, and
the staff’s casual attitude to our welfare included our sexual health.
Many of the girls I grew up with became pregnant, sometimes by other
boys in the unit. I lost my virginity to a girl I was living with when I
was 14.

Not all of the staff were negligent. One of my
old care workers, Anne, was adored by most of the kids; we felt she was
one of the few staff who genuinely cared about us. Some of the others,
she agrees when I speak to her, should never have worked with kids. “I
gave the job up because of the staff I worked with. Too many of them saw
how little they were making, so they came in and went home and that was
it.”

Anne says she witnessed staff “winding up
children” and that there was physical abuse in the home where she
worked. “I remember once I was there with two male members of staff and
this lad was kicking off. They sat on his chest, and I’m thinking: ‘My
God – this lad is going to die if they don’t get off him.’”

She was later interviewed about it by the
manager. “They said: ‘Are you sure it was his chest? Are you sure it
wasn’t his stomach?’ And I told them that they shouldn’t have even sat
on his bleeding stomach. I felt as if I was in the wrong because I was
complaining,” she says.

When I turned 17, I was moved on from Hawthorn
Crescent into a place of my own, a two-up-two-down terrace in Oldham. A
private care management provider had taken over my case and I was
assigned a key worker to visit me a couple of times a week. I had lived
in homes or foster placements since I was 12. Although these could be
chaotic, sometimes frightening places, the presence of other people was
comforting, especially at night. I went from this to living on my own
and I don’t think I was ready.

A semi-independent unit such as Hawthorn
Crescent is meant to prepare you for life outside the system. It can
teach you to manage bills, cook meals and budget. What it can’t prepare
you for is loneliness. Before this, I had lived at 11 addresses,
attended six schools and left education when I was 15, after being
expelled. This is not the best way to build a strong support network. I
felt the need to plug the loneliness and my new home rapidly became a
doss house where other kids from the estate could drink, smoke weed and
act out away from adults. Like many care leavers, I drank heavily while
living alone and had regular panic attacks so severe that I often called
for an ambulance. Later, in my 20s, I experienced homelessness and long
periods of unemployment.

Many of the mistakes I have made are my own
and many of them were avoidable, but I can’t help feeling that I would
have had more of a chance if I had received better support when I left
the care system. Lucy agrees. “We were just thrown in at the deep end,”
she says.

In 2013, the government extended the age at
which a child could remain with foster carers to 21, but that change did
not extend to children living in children’s homes, who still have to
leave at 18. Ian Dickson, a care leaver, a retired Ofsted inspector and
one of the founders of the campaign group Every Child Leaving Care Matters,
believes the deadline should have been extended for everyone in care.
“Kids should have the chance to stay put if they want to,” he says. “One
of the first and key things the government needs to do is to listen to
the people who have been there.”

If a child is taken into care, it is usually
because their family is incapable of looking after them. It is not a
child’s fault if they have been neglected or abused, if their parents
have died or if their family has broken down. The average age for
children leaving home in the UK is 22 and most people receive long-term
support from their parents, so why should care leavers be treated
differently?

The fact that I have lost contact,
irrevocably, with so many of the people with whom I grew up tells me we
are not doing enough to ensure the future of care leavers. People who
feel loved and cared for, who are full members of society, do not simply
drop off the map.

“There’s a whole range of people who are
successful care leavers,” Dickson says. “When you sit down and talk to
them about why they made it, it always comes down to: someone, somewhere
believed in them.”

I guess no one believed in Andrew, Kieran, Luis, Graham or Georgina.

• Some names in this article have been changed.

Published by Residential Forum

The Residential Forum is to promote the achievement of high standards of care and support for children and adults living in residential care and nursing homes, supported housing, residential schools and colleges, hospices and hostels. It contributes to improving the quality of service to the public. Members of the Forum are people of standing and experience drawn from the public, private and voluntary sectors, as well as some who can speak for service users and carers.

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