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Why wouldn't they let me be with my dad?
January 27, 2005 permalink
Cassandra Jardine profiles a girl (Alice) in foster care. She thrived only because she had a father who cared for her. As soon as foster parents became attached to the child social serviced separates them with a new foster placement.
Why wouldn't they let me be with my dad?
What is life like for Britain's 59,000 foster children? Cassandra Jardine meets one girl who has lived with seven families in 11 years -- and feels damaged
Just before Christmas, I heard about a 15-year-old, whom I shall call Alice, who was desperate to talk. At the time, she was living with foster parents: "I want to tell you what it is like being in care," she said. "I'm strong, so I can speak out on behalf of all those who do not dare because they fear reprisals."
In the past 11 years, she explained, she had lived in seven different foster homes, often feeling like a cash cow and a skivvy. Worst of all had been the six months of last year that she had spent in a children's home in Kent, where she had been hungry and was subjected to violent methods of control. For a teenager who had been through so much, she sounded extraordinarily sane. "That's because I am one of the lucky ones: I have a father who loves me," she said, "though I'm not often allowed to see him."
All year, she had been looking forward to staying with him for her birthday in early December. Plans for the visit had been discussed at several meetings but, at the last minute, a new social worker had said the checks needed to be done yet again, and the visit had been called off. Alice had threatened to go on hunger strike, but her father persuaded her not to do so. Instead, he said he would write to me, as he had read articles I had written about the social services and adoption; he suggested I listen to her story.
Nick, a carpenter, wrote me a long, eloquent letter that detailed the agonies and frustrations he and his daughter had endured at the hands of a care system that seemed more concerned with covering its own back than meeting a child's individual needs. "But it would be wrong of me, much as I love her," he concluded, "to speak on Alice's behalf." I called her and we agreed to meet.
Her story is unique, but not untypical of the situations that fall to social services departments to sort out. Alice was just three weeks old when her mother walked out on her father, taking their two children. Later, she told them their father was dead. She became an alcoholic and the children were taken into respite care. Even though she went into rehab and has been sober ever since, they were not returned to her.
Social services wanted "a permanent secure solution" and a full care order was taken out. It was at that stage that Alice's mother revealed that Nick was still alive. "But it was too late to resist the momentum of the fostering machine," says Nick. His barrister did establish, at the three-day hearing, that if a placement were to break down, he would be considered as a possible carer. That has never happened.
I meet Alice at her father's home, where he lives with her half-brother, the child of his second marriage. The half-siblings have spent very little time together, yet they are happily mucking around with a pet ferret.
With her careful make-up - "she spends hours on it", her brother teases - and her tendency to shoot loving glances at the boots her father gave her for her birthday, Alice comes across as an entirely normal 15-year-old. But she says she isn't: "I am what foster care and the children's home made me.
If I can't be bothered with someone, I ignore them. And if I don't get sugar, I get depressed."
Digging into a strawberry yogurt, and sending her father out of the room, she describes her years in a system in which she never felt anyone really cared for her. Since foster carers are discouraged from becoming emotionally involved - and can have children removed from them if they show signs of being so - this is scarcely surprising.
The picture of fostering that Alice paints is a Dickensian one of being forced to work like a servant for several of her foster carers - sometimes, while being taunted by their natural children - and of being made to eat and watch television in a different room from the biological family. "If the family got a Chinese take-away, I was given chips," she says.
In her teens, she began to question some of her foster carers' motives, calling them "skimmers" and "nickers": "I know how much money they make," she says. The Fostering Network recommends allowances ranging from £108 a week for a baby outside London to £224 for a 16-year-old in London, not including any payment to the carers. Some of her foster carers, she claims, failed to pass on dress allowances and pocket money amounting to several thousand pounds.
Bizarrely, because her mother is half-Indian, light-skinned Alice was invariably placed with black families, the last ones being Jamaican fundamentalist Christians with whom she had nothing in common. For a while, though, she did have some stability. One couple, who asked her to call them "mum" and "dad", looked after her for six years. The woman dressed her in pink because it was her favourite colour, although Alice loathed it. But then they had a child of their own and suddenly she felt extraneous.
"They moved to a smaller house and said they couldn't have me any more." She was so distressed at "being dismissed like a domestic servant", as her father puts it, that she was difficult for the next foster family to manage.
Some of Alice's accusations of "unfairness" could probably be levelled by most teenagers at their natural families. She was not allowed designer label clothes; she was required to do constant housework and not given credit for it. The difference is that she felt powerless, unloved and that no one wanted to listen to her point of view. "I was sent to counsellors, but when they can't help, you feel betrayed," she explains.
Her father tried to see her, but his efforts were frustrated: social workers didn't return calls, he rarely dealt with the same member of staff for more than a few weeks and new ones didn't trust previous background checks. "The buck would be passed until it was lost," he says. "If you blamed them, they discredited the family. Because one parent had failed, the whole family was held in contempt."
"You don't deserve to live with a family," a social worker told Alice, before putting her in a children's home. "In the home, I was slapped, shoved and shouted at, and constantly hungry," says Alice. "Dinner was from five to six, even if you were out doing a recognised activity, so I often missed it. I lost loads of weight and eventually took to sleeping in the corridor to protest. Then I was picked up and flung against the wall and the ceiling. I've had blackouts ever since."
When she complained about the restraint methods, she was "treated like a freak", placed under constant supervision and bars were erected on her curtainless windows: "That made me want to escape even more," she says. On her fingers, she wears six rings, her most treasured possessions, as each one comes from a member of her family. They are her security. "They tried to take them off me at the children's home," she says, "but they are all I have."
With all this going on - and living with far more disturbed children than herself - she stopped going to school. The next step would have been a secure unit, but, fortunately, foster carers were found, though they lived far from anyone she knew.
Nick rang his daughter constantly on the mobile phone he gave her and was agonised by his daughter's distress: "Whenever I called her at the children's home, I could hear screams in the background. Social services seemed to be making no effort to get her back to school or plan for her future." He feared that she would end up one of the 60 per cent of children who leave care with no qualifications.
His attempts to meet were thwarted, but he was finally given permission to take Alice to see her mother on Christmas Day. On their way back to her foster carers, his car broke down and the rescue service said they could either take them to his home in Somerset or to the foster carers, but not both. At that point, he decided that, despite the care order, Alice was coming home with him.
At first, social services considered a forcible recovery, but Nick's lawyers fought. A social worker came to observe his calm and orderly home, his well-balanced younger son and found Alice happily painting her bedroom. Last week, a court decided that she could stay.
What angers Nick is that he had to break the law to reclaim his own daughter - and that, but for his determination to keep in touch, Alice would have lost contact with her family long ago.
"Social services had been doing everything they could to keep us apart," he says. "My daughter was being kept in captivity. Now, at last, I hope to give her the home she has always wanted." To his great sorrow, his elder son is so disturbed that he cannot look after him.
John Kemmis, chief executive of Voice for the Child in Care, is familiar with such complaints. "Our research shows it matters overwhelmingly to children to keep in contact with those who matter to them - not just parents, but grandparents, siblings, aunts." Numbers of children in care have grown to 59,000 from 44,000 in the past 10 years, as more children are fostered long-term. "But," he says, "many social services departments are in such disarray that they aren't child-centred."
Since she left care, Alice's life has improved dramatically. She not only has the family she longed for, she hopes to have a career, too. Her father is trying to get her into a local college.
Source: (London) Daily Telegraph