In Care : Where Did She Go?

Saturday, February 25th, 2006

Leanne kept disappearing from the children’s home on Saturday afternoons. If you want to read the first part, click here.

On my cold and lonely walk back to the Assessment Centre I tried to review the possibilities about Leanne’s Saturday adventures.

She was fourteen years old, petite, blonde haired and very pretty. She was also intelligent, polite, well spoken and well read. Some of the other kids called her a snob because she actually chose to read books rather than their diet of comics and teen magazines. Her school thought she would get to university easily.

She was also street-wise and knew things about people and places that even some of the staff didn’t. Every now and then she would surprise us with her quiet voice describing how to get somewhere, or how a particular scam worked, when we all thought she was reading and paying no attention to our conversations.

So she could have been a teenage model, or in the clutches of some gang, into pornography, or paedophilia, or drugs. But she always came back, at a reasonable time, by herself and with no indication that she had been abused or had been abusing alcohol or other substances. She didn’t even smoke. Her medicals also showed she was clear of signs of abuse or sexually transmitted infections. However, one examination suggested that she had had a baby, but she simply refused to discuss it with the doctor and the matter was dropped.

Maybe she did go shop-lifting, like some of the kids suggested. But if so what happened to the stolen goods? She only carried a tiny handbag. Perhaps she had a locker at a station – or an accomplice. Perhaps she was part of a gang, or a duo like Bonny and Clyde, but there was never anything relevant on the TV or in the newspapers that related to times when she was missing. No grainy CCTV pictures on Crime Watch of petrol station hold ups, or cash point scams (although Leanne knew several different ways they were worked). Nothing.

Perhaps she went to the museums or galleries, or did other tourist things. There was certainly enough to keep you going for a lifetime, entry to most places was free and she had her travel card, which all the kids were given, although some staff thought she shouldn’t get one. But can you really punish somebody who is a model resident except for a few hours every Saturday? In  any case, most of our anger and frustration was against ourselves because we continued to fail to stop her, or to find out where she was going and why.

Certainly I could understand how she might want to feel free and independent and that wandering round the parks might be attractive in the spring and summer, but who on earth would want to be out on some of those cold, wet, winter days? Even though I became her key worker and we talked about anything and everything Saturday afternoons were always off our agenda.

Finally we placed her with an older couple of ‘professional’ people, who saw her through university. After several years I was both pleased and surprised to receive an invitation to her graduation ceremony. I was amazed that she remembered me for a start, or knew where I was and wanted to make contact.
Normally kids came and went, and mostly they did not want to remember us, nor we them.

At the end of the ceremony the foster carers came up to speak to me. Amazingly we all remembered each other. They were so proud of Leanne and very satisfied that she had done so well. However, they said that Saturday afternoons had nearly disrupted the placement. Leanne had continued to disappear without explanation every Saturday for all the years she was with them. Wonderful in every way, but just not there on Saturday afternoons and whatever sanctions were threatened she would never open up.

Leanne came up and chatted with all of us for a few minutes, but the foster carers soon left. They had had lunch with Leanne earlier and wanted to get back home now. When they had gone Leanne asked if I could spare a few minutes. “There are some people I want you to meet”, she said.

She led me to a woman with a little girl who had been standing at the edge of the crowd. “This is my family”, she said proudly. I looked from one to the other.

“This is my Nan”, she said and the old woman nodded and smiled. She was old and looked tired, but still had an alert expression and a lovely smile.

“And this is my daughter Ashley”. Ashley dazzled me with a smile I remembered so well. I could feel my mouth opening and closing, but no words would come.

Finally a weak “Hello” trickled out. But my mind was racing back, trying to remember Leanne’s file from about five years ago. I thought she had come to us after being in a car crash, in which both her parents had been killed, but she had been amazingly only shaken up and a bit bruised. There was never any mention of any adult relative, although of course there had been that one unanswered query about Leanne having had a baby.

Leanne’s eyes danced with mischief as she watched my face while I tried to cope with all of this.

“I thought I would finally tell you, Jim, since you were so good to me, and I think you genuinely worried about me and not just about your own reputation or your job. But let’s get a drink and somewhere to sit. Nan’s not too good standing up for long.”

Once we had settled in a café and ordered teas and things Leanne finally told me about the mystery of Saturday afternoons.

Her parents had separated and she had gone to live with their father, with his mother nearby helping out. Although Nan was already elderly and unwell, Leanne and her father had pulled together and looked after both households. Then, one night Leanne had a night out with some school friends and much to her distress had discovered a few weeks later that she was pregnant.

Nan and her father had been dead set against abortion or adoption, so the baby was welcomed into the family as well. Their father arranged for a change of schools and no-one noticed that Leanne missed a year altogether. To her credit she kept up and in fact got ahead in some subjects by herself at home, while she carried the baby, gave birth in a private clinic and established a routine with Nan’s help.

She had finally got back to school. Then one day her mother had got in touch and wanted to visit. Leanne and her father had gone to pick her up at the station, so that they could talk to her before getting back to introduce her to Ashley. That was when the crash happened. Leanne’s mother got so agitated when she heard about the baby. Leanne’s father was trying to calm her when he lost control of the car and went flat out into a wall. Her mother was killed outright.

Her father lingered long enough to gasp out to Leanne, “Keep the do-gooders out. Don’t tell anybody about your Nan and Ashley. They’ll take her away. Split you up. It would kill your Nan and do you and Ashley no good. It’s up to you. Keep them secret. Ashley’s already at your Nan’s  place. Never let anybody know. Promise me.” So Leanne had promised and kept her promise.

He also managed to give her the card of one of his friends. Leanne found out that he had been named, by her father, to act as guardian in just such circumstances and when Leanne told him of her father’s dying wish he agreed to help her very readily. He told her that her father and his brothers had been taken into care as children and that it had nearly destroyed his mother, Leanne’s Nan. He scarcely ever saw his brothers again.

His friend was very ready to play his part in stopping history repeating itself. He sorted the house sale and set up bank accounts so that money was never a problem.

They worked out plans with Nan. They hired a cleaner and all pulled together to look after baby Ashley. Unfortunately social services got hold of Leanne because the hospital called them when there didn’t seem to be any family for her to go to after the crash.

So for all those years she had lived two lives. One as the model schoolgirl, living in care for six and a half days every week, the other as a teenage mother every Saturday afternoon.

Now she could finally share that burden. She was a graduate with a good job and prospects. No-one could possibly suggest that she was not capable of looking after her child, and her aged grandmother.

“So”, I said, “you kept your promise. Any regrets?”

“Only that I upset some nice people by not being able to tell them the truth all those years”, she replied, “including you Jim. Can you forgive me?”

Three faces turned towards me and I was dazzled by their identical smiles and deeply moved by the unspoken pleas in their eyes. What could I do but swallow hard and struggle to form words?

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