Book Review by Dr Dee Michell
Oi, You Fucker is the story of Snowball’s experience in the English state ‘care’ system from the time he was a baby in 1965 until he left at the age of 16. The title comes from moments which can only be expressed as ‘Oi You Fucker’ ones because of the brutality, cruelty, inhumanity inflicted on children and young people by their so-called ‘betters’ in a system which was ostensibly there to protect and care for them.
There’s no doubt that Snowball needed to be removed from his mother. The trouble was he went from neglect and abuse at home into neglectful and abusive ‘care’ homes.
Not that all placements (I counted seven) were horrible. The book opens, for example, with a young Snowball blissfully content with his foster care situation. He has a mum and a dad, siblings, extended family and a neighbourhood of people who look out for and delight in him. But then one day, he along with the rest of his foster siblings are summarily removed from this loving home on the Fylde Coast. Snowball was separated from his siblings and dumped into a facility in Preston, Lancashire.
Here in Melbourne House—run by Mrs Rivers who relished cruel punishments, and Mr Rivers who sexually assaulted girls—the children from age five upwards lived in a regimented, violent and life-sucking environment intended to enforce compliance and which was replicated at school where teachers colluded with the Rivers.
If it wasn’t the staff doing the bullying, it was other children. Snowball therefore needed to acquire survival skills, such as ‘getting back’ at other inmates and letting the general populace know that he was unpredictable, ‘mad’, and they’d only be safe if they let him alone.
Next stop for Snowball was a family group home in Stockport, a “long boring drive” for which he had at least been prepared by being given two days’ notice, more than he received when torn from his foster home. This placement, apart from compulsory Sunday church, was a welcome relief from the Rivers’ regime, and Snowball became settled and was doing okay at school. Until, that is, there was another sudden removal and it was back to a horrifying large children’s home, The Manors in Manchester. Here the children had to go to school within the confines of the home too, so were incarcerated 24/7.
As if to let Snowball have a taste of the full spectrum of what the state offered, he was then taken to another family group home where the children were underfed. Older by now, Snowball plucked up courage and reported the neglect only to find that he was produced as the ‘problem’ and tossed into another large children’s home.
Where the Catholic church relocated paedophile priests in order to protect the institution, the state moves children to protect itself.
During his travels through the state ‘care’ system, Snowball resigned himself to being an easy target because he was usually the only black child in a sea of white. He also learned how to strategise, and about the complicity of workers in the system. There were staff in each of the children’s homes who weren’t violent, like Miss Bradwell at Melbourne House. She was an oasis of calm and kindness in a desert of punitive control and regularly gave Snowball sound advice on how to survive. But did she ever attempt to stop the violence? Did she report it? If not, she was complicit in it, as were social workers who dropped him off to these places. They surely knew or suspected what was going on.
Oi, You F*cker is a painful read.
What moved me to tears (on the train, embarrassing) were the accounts of loving care Snowball experienced—they were rare and unexpected. When the hospital staff, for example, patiently and over a long period restored baby Snowball to life, and the policeman listened to the starving 15-year-old and believed him, and a social worker finally cared enough to mentor and befriend the boy.
All workers in the child protection industry across the world should have to read Oi, You F*cker as part of their training and professional development.
“But that was the 1960s and 1970s”, I hear you say, “and things have changed.”
But have they?
Even if they have and children are no longer brutalised and blamed for it, workers need to know what ‘care’ used to be like so they ensure criminal behaviour is never tolerated again.
And they can use reading the book as an impetus to examine their own consciences and courage levels, to think about whether they are up for making worthwhile changes or will be/are complicit in a system which still stigmatises children and young people.
Snowball also conveys timeless advice for workers – that children and young people are rightly enraged when they are suddenly removed from ‘home’ (even if its warranted) without warning and sufficient explanation; when they are punished unjustly; when they are not listened to and respected; and when adults attempt to reassure them without first acknowledging and validating feelings of terror, distrust, grief.
I finished Oi, You F*cker with the utmost admiration for Snowball. He deserves a medal for having survived being in a war zone for most of his childhood.
Dr Dee Michell is an academic at The University of Adelaide. She was made a Ward of the South Australian State in 1960 and remained in foster care for 15 years. She worked as an administrator for a multi-national corporation before going to university in her 40s, when she combined study with primary care for her three children. From 2013-2016, Dee worked on a 3 year ARC funded project on the history of foster care in Australia (with Nell Musgrove, Australian Catholic University).
Thanks to Snowball for a review copy of the book.
Follow Snowball on Twitter: @OYFtheBook
Follow Dee on Twitter: @DrDeeMichell