Lemn Sissay: ‘A childhood in care almost broke me – I needed to shine a light on it’

The writer has finally won redress from Wigan council for his
mistreatment as a child. Now he hopes his story will inspire others.

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Lemn Sissay
has spent the past two years seeking redress from Wigan council for his
childhood in care. “I’ve heard some people have committed suicide going
through the legal process and I can understand how it could happen. I
didn’t know it would be so violently intrusive into who I am. You’re
sailing so close to the storm. You’re playing with a breakdown.”

Earlier this month, two years after the award-winning poet,
playwright and broadcaster made his compensation claim, and in a
last-minute attempt to avoid an expensive court case, the council and
its insurer finally agreed to award Sissay a six-figure sum, along with a
formal apology. “You ask for redress because of your own sense of self
worth. It wasn’t good enough for me as an artist to go banging on about
my story without getting the institution that was my parent to recognise
it on its own terms.”

Sissay has made several documentaries about the search for his family
and his 25-year battle to get hold of his files from Wigan social
services. He grew up in care even though his mother, a young upper-class
Ethiopian who came to Britain to study, wrote letters begging the
council to return her baby once she was better able to look after him.
Her requests were ignored. Instead, he was renamed Norman by a social
worker called Norman and permanently fostered by a local white family of
devout Christians.

When Sissay hit adolescence and became a bit rebellious (staying out late, eating cake when he was forbidden to do so), his foster parents told him he had the devil inside him,
returned him to Wigan social services like he was an overdue library
book and stopped all contact, leaving him isolated from everyone he had
ever known. He was 12 years old.

Over the next five years, he lived in four different children’s homes, ending up in the notorious Wood End assessment centre,
where he says he was imprisoned, bullied and physically abused by
staff. At 18, he left the care system, in shock, without a penny to his
name or any qualifications. He would not be reunited with his birth
mother until he was in his late 20s.

“In the past, reading my files from social services, I’ve said it
made me feel like I was a rat in a laboratory experiment. Now, I feel
like a lion. I feel like a warrior,” he says.

The council’s financial settlement was based on the difference
between Sissay’s low earnings for almost two decades after he left care
(when he worked, for example, cleaning gutters) and the wage earned by
the average UK worker.

“That was the only way the lawyers would calculate it, which is
ridiculous,” he says. “Had we not settled, the council would have
dragged people from my past into court and argued I was a liar. They
were going to get their psychologist on my case: a man who is known for
tearing people apart.

“The effects of that could have broken me. I’m aware they already
broke me as a kid and so my life as an adult is about acknowledging that
and mending. A legal case like this involves digging into the most
shameful parts of your past and trying to prove what people did to you.
Psychologically, it’s a nightmare.”

At the same time, his bid for legal redress was about becoming the
man he always knew he was. “Institutional shame is very powerful,
because it is insidious. It works its way into you to make you believe
it. A lot of kids in care think they deserve the shit they get. The best
thing I ever did was go into therapy.”

Battling this irrational sense of shame about what happened to him
was one of the reasons Sissay wanted his life story to be investigated
by lawyers and shared with the public. Last year, he even decided to
share, in a one-off stage performance entitled The Report, the deeply distressing psychologist’s report that his own legal counsel was submitting.

“It has been quite useful to feel supported by a country and I do
feel strongly supported now,” he says. But it was a different story when
he came out of care and needed help getting on his feet. “They said:
‘There’s no dark journey that you’ve been on. Just get on with your life
and become a responsible adult.’ Nothing was accounted for.”

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His going public has allowed other people to bear witness to Sissay’s
story, and settling his case means he will finally have full access to
his files without any of the redactions that kept names and other
secrets hidden from him for years.

“My life is full of known unknowns. When I left care I realised I
didn’t know anyone who had known me longer than a year. Making me
relative to no one was Wigan council’s biggest crime. So I became the
lithograph. I had the negatives of what had happened but nobody else had
the picture. I didn’t have witness because witness is what happens in a
family.”

He says he knew he had to do everything humanly possible to find
redress. He had made promises to himself as a child that he had to keep.
“Like in Hansel and Gretel, I had laid down pebbles so I could
say: ‘This is the darkest place I’ve ever been, but I’m here and I am a
child and here is the pebble.’ I knew I’d come back and shine light
into that dark space, that horrible cave, and say: ‘This is what they
did to me.’ The end of my court case is the echo, coming from that cave,
out into the bright sunshine.”

He plans to use the compensation as a mortgage deposit and, at 50,
buy himself a home he can call his own. He also hopes his story will be
an example to others. “Councils have insurance for cases like mine, but I
wanted it on their financial records. I wanted them to feel some of the
tremor I felt. The child in care is the most ignored child in society.”

Every social worker, every psychologist, every foster carer, every
cleaner in a children’s home … Sissay wants them all to know that
children in care need them, but equally, they need to be on their game.

“If they abuse us, we are going to come back. And we are going to make them pay for it.”

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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