When Janet Rich, founder of The Care Leavers Foundation, approached me about running a writing event for care leavers during National Care Leavers Week 2017, I jumped at the opportunity. My business partner and I were long-time supporters of The Care Leavers Foundation and the year previously, at Janet’s request, I had organised the National Care Leavers Week Conference.
I had, by this time, already met Rosie Canning, co-organiser of Your Life Your Story 2017 and 2018. Rosie was raising funds to finance her research into the representation of orphans and care experience in literature. I made a small donation to her cause and suggested she apply to The Care Leavers Foundation for a grant as I had wrongly assumed her to be a young person, not a woman near to my own age who had lived a life beyond the care system. Our separate journeys had brought us to this meeting place in 2015 and as soon as we began talking, I knew we were on the same page.
In 2016, Rosie spoke about her research into the impact of living in care on the construction of identity and the representation of this in fiction, at a conference jointly organised by The Consortium for Therapeutic Communities and Glyndwr University. A reading from her autobiographical novel ‘Hiraeth’, finding a fictional home, left barely a dry eye in the room and later that year Rosie presented a keynote speech at the National Care Leavers Week conference ‘Handle with Care’ hosted by London law firm Farrer & Co.
The conference name was used with permission from investigative journalist Harriet Sergeant, who had conducted an inquiry into the care system ten years earlier, it was taken from her report title, ‘Handle with Care’. I was at the commissioning conference in 2006 when Harriet presented her findings to a room full of professionals, many in fractious denial of what I knew to be true as this was my thirtieth year as a caregiver and I had witnessed first-hand the failures so well documented in her report.
Ten years later I could think of no better title than, Handle with Care for the National Care Leavers Week Conference and when it came to ‘naming’ a writing event for care leavers the following year it could only be ’Your Life, Your Story’.
Children I cared for over the years lived on in my memory and I often wondered what had become of them. I knew from my own experience that too many had been failed and that efforts to expose negligence had all too often fallen on deaf ears and too many wrongdoers had escaped justice. At the same time, however, I also knew of the unrecognised efforts of caregivers to protect and defend the rights of children in their care. Not least those who followed girls taken by men in cars from children’s homes, whose calls for assistance were refused by the police and even of one such occasion when the girls were sending text messages begging them to stop following because there was a gun on the back seat of the car, police called this a lifestyle choice. It wasn’t until nine men from Rochdale and Oldham were jailed for sexually exploiting girls as young as thirteen in May 2012 and reports surfaced later that year indicating that Jimmy Saville had sexually abused victims throughout his career that attitudes began to change.
I had found the year before the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse in England and Wales was announced in 2014 unforeseeably challenging. It was my 10thanniversary of working in the private sector, in many ways the best and the worst years of my career. I was professionally compromised, contractually trapped in a position where I no longer remained by choice and in need of some respite. It was for this reason that my husband and I were in the Lake District enjoying a weekend away with my brother and sister in law in a lovely period hotel. We had arrived early to take full advantage of our bargain ‘Groupon Deal’ and had spent the afternoon exploring the ruins of a nearby abbey and admiring the celebrations of a wedding party. In the evening we tucked into a splendid three course meal in the impressive dining room of this grand house that boasted King George V and other members of the royal family among its guests in a past life.
The next morning at breakfast my husband, who has always had a better long-term memory than me whispered, “I think I know that man over there, I think it’s David…”, as I turned to look it was evident that our attention had been noticed, an explanation was necessary… Thirty years before this by ‘pure chance’ meeting, my husband had been working in a teenage boy’s hostel and David had been moved there from a children’s home after reporting the woman in charge for cruelty and abuse – he was barely thirteen. David had prepared a dossier of evidence in support of his allegations, but it was not enough to secure justice! And, if this was not enough, he experienced even more wrongdoing at the hands of the alcoholic hostel manager who took a bottle of whiskey to work in his overnight bag and sent the boys to the off-licence to replenish it when it ran out. David could not have known at the time that my husband had reported this and other serious offences to senior managers or that he too had been penalised for speaking out. By welcoming us back into his life he had awarded the greatest accolade a caregiver could hope for… the opportunity to share the story.
By the time I was organising Your Life Your Story in 2017, I couldn’t think of anyone better than Rosie to ask for guidance or anyone more obvious than David to turn to for support. Rosie planned the events and enlisted the support of Lisa Cherry who ran a trauma informed writing workshop and Paolo Hewitt who gave advice on becoming published and which added a little bit of ‘celebrity’ to the event whilst David’s presence, like a ‘kite mark’ signalled trust and safety. He was the only person at the event who had known me as a caregiver in the 1970’s and 80’s and able to validate my authenticity.
During the four decades that I have been a care giver I have witnessed the impact of neglect and abuse on children and its long-term effects. A few of the children I looked after have remained in my life and over the years we had been able to revisit shared memories, bridge gaps and explore responsibility. It was with this legacy that I accepted the responsibility of organising the first Your Life Your Story and when I look back I realise the idea had activated the truth seeker in me, but it would not have happened in the way that it did without this series of events.
Your Life Your Story had provided an opportunity for stories to be validated and shared, for knowledge to be passed down and supportive relationships to flourish. By the end of the first event it was obvious Your Life Your Story must live on.
The third Your Life Your Story takes place Friday 25th-Monday 28th October 2019 – more details YLYS-PROGRAM-2019. If you are care experienced and would like to attend this event contact Amanda Knowles – all costs are covered by the generous support from David L. Jackson‘s book, Saira-Jayne‘s #orphanstones; Future Horizons, Amberleigh Care and crowdfunding.