Sadly the year ended badly for Social Services yet again. Another poor scrap of a baby dead at the hands of two or more immature, poorly educated people. Another lot of do-gooders sacked for not getting it right. Even worse, another lot slipping off to other jobs in other places. Will anybody ever have the courage to stop the merry-go-round and have a proper look at what is going on?
From my days in training I remember some wise words about “breaking the cycle of deprivation” and “those who do not learn the lessons from history being doomed to make the same mistakes, over and over again”. Only for ‘the cycle’ and ‘the lessons’ and ‘the mistakes’ we have to remember that these are actually people’s lives. In some cases they are the lives of very young children; in others they are older children exhibiting maladaptive behaviours because of the hurt done to them, or people with disabilities, or frail old people.
I become more interested in the provision, or lack of it, for older people as I find myself becoming one of them. I have a lot of regrets about not having achieved more. I have a lot of regrets that all those thousands of kids in care who, like me, were rescued from deprived, restricting and often abusive families have never got together, stood up and told their stories, for the benefit of those coming after us.
It’s true that it might have been a mixed bag and not all kids went to good places and not all care staff were angels. Some places were punitive and some staff verged on the outright wicked. Some of the problems stemmed from the corruption that comes from giving ordinary people power and not supervising what they do with it. A lot of the problems came about through the attitudes of the bosses, who normally did not even visit to see how we lived.
So we suffered a lot of make-do and mend. We also suffered a lot at school over our clothes, not doing our homework properly and always having different people to walk us home. ‘Parents’ nights’ were the worst. Me, a six foot tall black boy and ‘my parents’ two weedy honkies with fair hair, blue eyes and very pale faces. But we got through it and even had a good laugh on the way ‘home’.
May be I was very lucky . One of my other training memories was reading that children said that most of all they thought staff should like children and then next be prepared to join in and do things with them. My ‘in care’ experiences were all before staff tried to be ‘professional’ and had to fill in a mound of forms all the time. Our staff could take us out, if the weather was nice. The most risk assessments they had to worry about was would it rain, or could they afford to put enough petrol in their cars to get us there and back.
The first Christmas I recall with happy memories was in my first children’s home. We certainly always got the impression that the staff liked us. They were always there after school with big smiles, the kettle on, some biscuits at the ready and a cheerful “Did you have a good day?”
When I was with my parents Christmas came and went. Nothing special. Sometimes a charity parcel, but normally just another cold day, with what scraps my older sister could get together for us to eat. We knew no other family because, as I found out when I grew up, any relations had been so disgusted by the mixed marriage of my parents that they all cut off contact.
So no Grandmas to give us a cuddle and no Grandpas to teach us how to do useful things. The first hug I remember was in that children’s home and the first time a man spent good time with me was in the same place. Now of course staff would worry about having allegations made against them.
So I suppose I should not have been surprised to have had my best Christmas ever there as well. Of course I’ve had lots since, which have cost more money, or when I have been surrounded by lots more friends and family. But I still look back on that as the best.
A few weeks ago I saw one of those stage shows that Tony Benn is doing these days. Basically he sits on the stage and talks about what interests him.
Now he wears a knitted cardigan and looks like everybody’s favourite old uncle. But right at the end we caught a flash of the old warrior when he said “You have to decide what it is you want and go out and fight for it.”
I had an eerie feeling he was looking directly at me.
So for those of you who like me have had the benefit of good experiences ‘in care’, or being a ‘charity child’, or a Barnardo’s boy, let’s think about fighting for something good for children in 2009. New Labour promised to lift all children out of poverty in 20 years. A lot of children grow up in twenty years and quite a few like Baby P don’t make it. It is already obvious that after ten years New Labour is not reaching its own target.
But while another Minister is preparing to turn the child care world upside down, let’s stand up and be counted. Let’s take away the ‘damned if you do and damned if you don’t’ pressure from front line workers. Let’s have managers who have done the work themselves. Let’s have adequate resources, effectively deployed. Let’s be clear that a children’s home with good staff is better for most children than deprivation, neglect and abuse.
Above all let’s tell the Honourable Member that it’s not only about money and targets and outcomes. It’s about providing a safe, nurturing environment that lets children grow emotionally and creatively as well as physically. And most importantly of all, if it’s not good enough for our own children or grandchildren, then it’s not good enough for any others. So let’s fight for it.