Lowborn by Kerry Hudson

Lowborn: Growing Up, Getting Away and Returning to Britain’s Poorest Towns

In many ways Kerry Hudson is lucky to be alive. She starts Lowdown with a happy ending when she tells the reader:

I escaped poverty. I escaped bad food because that’s all you can afford. I escaped threadbare clothes and too-tight shoes. I escaped drinking or drugging myself in oblivion because…I escaped Jeremy Kyle in a shiny suit telling me my sort was scum…I escaped hopelessness. 

So we know there is going to be a happy ending of sorts but not before we have been dragged through the emotional mangle of her past, that of an impoverished, working class life. It is a life she has had to leave behind, and this includes most of her family and in particular her mother.

Over a decade ago I made the painful but wholly necessary decision to estrange myself from my mum. Perhaps inevitably this has meant I have become estranged from the rest of my close family, too…In the end, I removed myself because I could not live with the rages and denial of the past.

The book is the outcome of questions that Kerry had about her transient childhood. She wanted to find out if the towns she lived in had got better. Or why she sometimes woke up screaming with the night terrors. Kerry decides that the only way to find out is to go back.

I decided to go back to Aberdeen where I was born into a clan of matriarchal fishwives and follow the staggering, itinerant route of my childhood down the country: Aberdeen, Canterbury, North Lanarkshire, Sunderland, Great Yarmouth…I would be casting my net for stories and facts, then I’d cut them open and see what the guts told me.

This is a fierce, brave and outspoken memoir. Kerry is a traveller who takes the reader back and forth both in her mind and in reality. Each chapter either takes place in her childhood memory, her present – which is often a relief from the trauma Kerry lived through and a reminder that the girl done good – or physical travelling on coaches or trains back to the many places she had lived as a child.

Early on Kerry tells the reader in recipe style she attended nine primary schools and five secondaries, living in B&Bs and council flats. She was sexually assaulted twice, raped once, had two abortions as well as a couple of stays in foster care. This is where Kerry slips through the net and we realise that it is only by luck that she didn’t end up on the front page of the press like so many poor children failed or just missed by social services.

I don’t know why, of all the things I’ve felt ashamed of as an adult, having been in foster care is the one that felt most taboo to speak aloud…there’s a particular sort of family where children are taken away from their mother and I didn’t want to think that my family, for all its complexities, was one of those families.

Family loyalty like family secrecy explains Kerry, is very hard to voice, but that writing it down in a book which will become public is even harder. Like having to learn to write with a different hand, so she decides to get some help in the form of a therapist.

It seemed this strange process was splitting me in half. I was an archivist of my dead life. I was a private investigator digging my way through my own deeply buried secrets, both desperate for answers and fighting to keep them hidden.

Kerry Hudson is proudly working class but she was never proudly poor. The poverty she grew up in was all-encompassing, grinding and often dehumanising.

Twenty years later, Kerry’s life is unrecognisable. She’s a prizewinning novelist who has travelled the world. She has a secure home, a loving partner and access to art, music, film and books. But she often finds herself looking over her shoulder, caught somehow between two worlds.

Lowborn is Kerry’s exploration of where she came from. She revisits the towns she grew up in to try to discover what being poor really means in Britain today and whether anything has changed. But more than this, if Kerry didn’t go back, did not face the past, her life would always be haunted by the blank bits of her memory, that unknowing many children with traumatic pasts have.

I realised that I could only really answer these questions if I went back. If I looked my monster in the face in the hope that it would be a shadow, after all.

This is not an easy read but it is a necessary one. Those of us who scraped through our childhoods and somehow escaped our pasts will identify with much of the writing. The haunting from ghosts past that take work to exorcise, the constant not fitting-in and the many moments of love and kindness that splatter through the pages. As somebody in my book group said ‘We don’t often hear from people who have been through this sort of childhood, it is an important voice and one we can all learn from.’

Hatfield Book Group was one of several reading groups that won 10 paperback copies of Lowborn from Vintage Books in return for an online review:

‘Incredibly brave’

Reading the book was as good as a tv programme. I love the fact she’d travelled despite the problems she had as a child, haven’t gone away just learns to live with it and get on with her life.’

‘Compelling, couldn’t put it down’

‘I googled her afterwards, I never do this and discovered she’s expecting a baby.’

‘Brutal but gripping’

‘So many terrible experiences horrific to live through. Difficult to express that – how do you survive that horror? Incredibly brave to go back. Also a kind of healing, when she went back and revisited – a way to let go.’

Kerry Hudson was born in Aberdeen. Her first novel, Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-cream Float Before He Stole My Ma, won the Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust First Book Award and was shortlisted for an array of prizes including the Guardian First Book Award and the Sky Arts Awards. Thirst, her second novel, won the prestigious prix Femina etranger. Lowborn is her first work of non-fiction, and her journey has led to a highly successful column for the Pool. She currently lives in Liverpool.

Thank you to The Reading Agency and Vintage books for the complimentary copies.

Follow Kerry on Twitter: @ThatKerryHudson



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A Portrait of Care

As part of National Care Leavers/Experienced Week 26 October – 1 November 2020, myself, Dr Aoife O’Higgins and University of Southampton Outreach have put together an online exhibition A Portrait of Care. 

A Portrait of Care is an online exhibition via Instagram using self-portraiture as a way to combat the negative stereotypes people have about children in care. The project invites those with care experience and those that work in/with the care community to take part.

Each Instagram post will feature three frames:

  • A selfie or representation of self e.g. avatar
  • Something about the participant now (present)
  • Reveal of ‘care’ role/experience

People are free to define themselves – they can define their identity by taking their photograph and by writing whatever it is they want to write about themselves. They do not have to reveal their care status. This project aims to bring together professionals and those with care experience as part of NCLW2020.

This project will invite the following to submit entries for the exhibition:

  • Care Experienced people
  • Social workers
  • Kinship or Foster Carers
  • Residential care workers
  • Teachers
  • Charities
  • Designated safeguarding leads
  • Virtual School staff
  • Social Care Researchers
  • Further/Higher Education Departments
  • Anyone in the care community

Main objectives:

Due to the negative connotations associated with being ‘looked-after’, almost every care experienced person comes into contact with discrimination at one point in their lives because of their background. By using portraits, we would hope to de-stigmatise the experience of care i.e. you cannot tell from a photograph a person’s care experience – as a way to improve perceptions and general public awareness.

**Prize Portrait by a Care Experienced Artist**

We will hold a draw for the first 30 people who participate. The 10 ‘winners’ will have their portrait drawn by a Care Experienced artist during National Care Leavers/Experience Week and will be exhibited via Instagram on the final day of the project, Sunday 1stNovember.

Amazon Voucher

Every Care Experienced person who takes part will receive a £5 Amazon voucher.

To take part:

  1. Send a selfie or avatar to rc11g14@soton.ac.uk
  2. Complete this form: A Portrait of Care


  • Rosie Canning – Email: rc11g14@soton.ac.uk 
  • Claire Giles, Widening Participation Coordinator (Contributor) – Email: C.L.Giles@soton.ac.uk
  • Dr. Aoife O’Higgins (Advisor) – Email: aoife.ohiggins@whatworks-csc.org.uk


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The Doll Funeral by Kate Hamer

Kate Hamer grew up in Pembrokeshire and has recently been awarded a Literature Wales bursary. Her bestselling novel The Girl in the Red Coat was a no 3. Sunday Times bestseller and shortlisted for the Costa First Book Award, the Bookseller Industry Awards Debut Fiction Book of the Year, the John Creasey New Blood Dagger and Wales Book of the Year. The Doll Funeral is her second novel.

The dark and glittering new novel from The Sunday Times Bestselling author Kate Hamer is as gripping as it is gorgeously written – the perfect second book from the author of The Girl in the Red Coat.

My name is Ruby. I live with Barbara and Mick. They’re not my real parents, but they tell me what to do, and what to say. I’m supposed to say that the bruises on my arms and the black eye came from falling down the stairs. But there are things I won’t say. I won’t tell them I’m going to hunt for my real parents. I don’t say a word about Shadow, who sits on the stairs, or the Wasp Lady I saw on the way to bed.

When Ruby discovers she is adopted she is filled with joy, elated that the parents who have treated her so badly aren’t her blood relations. The hunt begins for her real mother and father but dark and disturbing secrets are unearthed along the way.

‘There is a magical dream-like quality to Kate Hamer’s second novel, which reminded me of Kate Atkinson’s early novels…The Doll Funeral is the story of a separated mother and daughter, and the last line is heart-stoppingly beautiful.’
– Alice O’Keeffe, The Bookseller, Editor’s Choice *****

Soon Ruby finds herself with a ragged group of teenagers fending for themselves. Thinking she has found refuge, they gradually reveal secrets of their own and Ruby realizes that being with them is more dangerous than she could ever have imagined.

I’d like to thank Kate for taking part in this conversation and wish her huge success with her writing.

Tell us of your journey as a writer 

It started really young. I think from about aged seven I was writing stories and diligently illustrating them then stapling the papers together into home made books. I carried on writing through one form or another: diaries, short stories, ideas, fragments pretty much the whole time as I was growing up. But when it came to studying I had a bit of a blip – the ambition to be a writer just seemed too bizarre and otherworldly to countenance so instead of studying English Lit, which was my passion, for reasons I still can’t quite explain I did History of Art at uni. In the subsequent years working in radio and television I continued to write when I could and I realise now that working in the media is definitely a form of story telling so I was moving ever closer! Then about six years ago a few life changing things happened and I thought, it’s really now or never. I’d always, always wanted to tackle writing a novel – it just seemed as if it would be like going on the most exciting and incredible journey – so I began The Girl in the Red Coat.

How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?

Lord, that’s an interesting question. I’ve not been asked that before. It made me remember the line in Stephen King’s excellent book On Writing, where he exhorts the writer to ‘tell the truth,’ whatever version of the truth that may be – science fiction, romance, horror or mix of all those. That’s something I strive for – an emotional truth. Aside from the satisfaction and privilege of doing something creative with my days (which has its highs and lows) I think my favourite thing is the sense that I’m connecting with readers. I do loads of events and it’s partly because of that. I’ve had some hilarious/heartbreaking/ moving/joyful conversations with readers because we all have the common ground of sharing a passion for words and stories, and that’s a strong bond.

Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?

Yes, that’s such an interesting one. I certainly enjoy creating characters that are all shades of grey rather than black and white, what’s the old adage, ‘every villain is a hero in their own story.’ Without giving too much away there’s a character called Lewis in The Doll Funeral that I ended up empathising with a great deal, despite his many flaws. Life is complex and I hope to reflect that in the characters that people my books.

What has been your experience of writing about diverse characters?

Well, I write books that are centered around women because that’s just what comes naturally to me. Talking to young people I find they are still longing for fiction where women are seen as having their own stories; that women, like everyone else, have flawed and difficult life journeys and are neither victims nor warrior princesses.

If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why?

That’s a difficult one, my instinct is to choose somewhere warm and fascinating with delicious food but that would be counter productive. My desk faces a blank wall rather than a window and really the plainer and more boring the surroundings the better I can concentrate on the writing. It may be a cliché but it allows me to concentrate on what’s going on inside rather than outside. So, reluctantly, I may have to pick some kind of tundra, or an estate where everything looks the same, somewhere that is not too warm or sunny, does not have a beach or tempting restaurants. Actually, just somewhere with a blank wall!

What is the one book you wish you had written?

There are just so many. A few I’d pick out – Maggie O’Farrell’s The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. It seems to have everything – it’s important, has gripping subject matter, is beautifully written and all wrapped up in a perfect structure. Another one I would love to have written is Joanne Harris’ Chocolat – there’s just glory in those pages.

What advice do you have for would be novelists/writers?

Write the story that you’re passionate about, the one that burns your heart up rather than the one you think people might want. Trust your instincts. Read, read, read. Read contemporary work as well as the classics. It’s good to get to know what’s around. Root for your fellow writers, they are an amazingly supportive and lovely bunch.

What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

I’m writing another novel. It’s dark again (surprise, surprise!) about that time in life, when you’re about seventeen, when things can fly off kilter and go very badly wrong. It has three main characters in it and I’m already a little bit in love with them all.

Who is your favourite literary character from childhood and why?

The introduction for one of the most terrifying characters in fiction as far as I’m concerned is Tap, tap. Tap, tap, tap. As a child I would read the beginning of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island over and over again compulsively. Actually I was waiting for the same thing every time I read, the moment in Chapter Three (entitled ‘The Black Spot’) when Blind Pew appeared, tapping his way through the fog to the Admiral Benbow inn. The narrator, young Jim Hawkins has been told out to look for the bearer of ‘the black spot.’ Rereading this piece in Chapter Three of the book I was amazed at how short it is. In my memory the action plays out for pages and pages like some slow motion nightmare. When Blind Pew thrusts the black spot into the hands of a sea captain, staying at the Benbow, he promptly dies. The character of Blind Pew seared himself on my consciousness and I think his invention is a kind of genius on Stevenson’s part.

Thank you to Faber & Faber for the review copy.

Follow Kate on Twitter: @Kate_Hamer


*First appeared on Greenacre Writers 5th March 2017

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Care in the time of COVID

As I head towards the end of my time at Oxford as a Research Assistant, I will be reflecting on how I’ve spent the last year. This includes the recent Care in the time of Covid, University of Oxford research project that was set up as a way to understand how COVID-19 has affected care experienced adults in the UK.

The team includes:

Myself / Dr. Aoife O’Higgins/ Dr. Jonathan Taylor/ Dr. Lucy Bowes/ Dr. Sian Pooley

Supported by:

Torch Oxford / Magdalen College / Department of Experimental Psychology

We invited people who have experience of care to complete a short survey about their experiences of COVID-19 and to submit a diary entry to tell us about their day to day lives. They did this by responding to weekly prompts such as: What are the main things which determine your day to day feelings?

You can see some of the diary submissions here.

The prompt I found most interesting, partly due to my PhD research, was: What does Home mean to you?

When I chose Hiraeth as the title for the PhD novel, I did so because it encompassed the feelings I had experienced for many years around home and belonging. I then adopted the word for the care experienced community because for many of us, Hiraeth is part of our DNA and for some of us, our mothers longing started before we were born.

Sometimes the word *home* makes me feel uncomfortable because home and children’s home in my life were synonymous. A children’s home can never be a family home, there are too many rules and regulations for that. A residue of that system is often an unwanted heritage – mental health issues caused by the very organisation that was supposed to protect and create a safe environment. Foster care can provide a family environment but it is usually temporary and that in itself is problematic. This is not to recognise that there are some foster carers who give their fosterlings such love and care that this can last a lifetime and give hope in those darker moments.

Being in care is all about longing and yearning and somehow learning to live with a constant homesickness. For me this is Hiraeth. So many care experienced people I know speak of their ambiguity around home and belonging. It is something that every child wants, a home of their own, a place to belong, a place to feel safe.

It is this ambiguity that I want to investigate a bit more, it’s almost as if there is this really important aspect of the research that I have yet to uncover, to dig deep and find the golden nuggets. The examiners at my PhD Upgrade suggested I think more creatively about the thesis chapters and instead of responding chronologically I give them titles such as ‘Home’ and think about the theoretical issues of what we mean by having a sense of belonging, being placed in people’s homes and the irony of how and why some people from care, end up homeless.

What this suggestion actually did was to create a freedom whereby I could stop feeling I had to include all the issues faced by care experienced people in the novel and concentrate on being creative knowing I could discuss important themes in the critical piece.

I have enjoyed being part of the Oxford research team and reading the Care in the time of Covid diary submissions. I’m hoping that the responses to the ‘home’ question will help me understand the issues around this and possibly give me even more direction.

In the meantime, I thought I would have a go at responding to the research project prompt myself and this fell out:

What does home mean to you?

What does home mean to me?

I’ve been back and forth through the memories of yesterday

There’s no place like home

Visited old houses – a stone wall here, a front door there

Hoping somebody would invite me in (for a cup of tea and a custard cream)

What does home mean to me?

Peaking, through orange-lit curtains


There’s no place like home

Watching families rush home in the rain

Glimpsing shadows through windows

What does home mean to me?

A mother – pressing her key in the lock, pushing baby through the door.

Turning, catching a glimpse of a welcoming-in

There’s no place like home

Though I have somewhere to live, I’m not settled

My mind is always packing up belongings in blue boxes

What does home mean to me?

There’s no place like home.

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The Orphan Collector by Ellen Marie Wiseman

Book Review by Dee Michell

The Orphan Collector by Ellen Marie Wiseman is a horror story! Set in Philadelphia during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, 13-year-old German migrant Pia Lange is left with her 4-month old twin brothers after her mother suddenly dies. The chronically shy child manages as best she can until she runs out of food. She then leaves the tiny boys on their own while she scouts neighbouring apartments, without much luck. Venturing outside and into a wealthier area, Pia collapses on the pavement, waking up 6 days later in a church-hospital. A few days later still—when she is finally recovered—Pia is dropped off at an orphanage where she’s put to work looking after babies, all the time feeling anxious and guilty about leaving her brothers and wondering if they’re still alive.

Ollie and Max are fine, we know that, because the second main character around whom the story revolves, Bernice Groves, has stolen them. She’s also fed rat poison to a visiting nurse, and moved house so she won’t be caught for either offence. Bernice, who is suffering her own immense grief at the loss of her husband in the war and her baby to the flu, then makes a living by seeking donations for orphanages, money that she keeps, and by selling babies to distraught parents who’ve recently lost their own. She also feeds her xenophobia by rounding up the children of recent migrants and packing them off to the mid-west via the orphan trains.

I couldn’t have read this book at the beginning of the COV19 pandemic when I was beginning to get paranoid about touching door handles at work and when catching a train meant unnerving encounters with equally paranoid strangers. Nor did I have the slightest inclination to read any ‘plague’ stories being spruiked by book sellers, such as the Penguin Random House list of Books About Epidemics. I felt overwhelmed enough by my news feed and the daily count of infection cases and deaths on Wikipedia.

Reading The Orphan Collector when restrictions are being lifted in Australia was hard enough, what with its eery resonance with the current pandemic and the graphic descriptions of corpses being left to bloat and rot because survivors can’t bear to part with their loved ones. In the end I was glad to have read it because the story has a hopeful ending and because it reminded me of Christina Baker Kline’s 2013 book, Orphan Train.

Orphan Train was my first encounter with a little-known aspect of American history. Between 1854 and 1929, an estimated 200,000 orphans (in the broad sense of the word, i.e. meaning abandoned children as well as children whose parents have died) in eastern cities like New York were sent via train to rural areas in the Mid-west.

The train would pull into a station and the local townspeople would assemble to inspect them—often literally scrutinizing teeth, eyes, and limbs to determine whether a child was sturdy enough for field work, or intelligent and mild-tempered enough to cook and clean. Babies and healthy older boys were typically chosen first; older girls were chosen last. After a brief period, the children became indentured to their host families. If a child wasn’t chosen, he or she would get back on the train to try again at the next town.

At a time when the rate of homeless children surged and there was little support for impoverished families to stay together, three charitable institutions organised the orphan trains. The charities were supported by wealthy patrons and paid staff who supervised the children on the trains and advertised the program at stops along the way.

Christina Baker Kline found out about the orphan trains in 2003 when visiting her in-laws in North Dakota where she read a story which featured her husband’s grandfather, Frank Robertson. Frank and his siblings had been ‘train riders’ as the children were sometimes known. That, coupled with the fact she has 2 grandparents who were orphans, hooked her into doing extensive research on the orphan trains.

The result is a delightful story of an intergenerational friendship that develops between 17-year-old Molly who is in foster care, and 91-year-old Vivian who was a train rider at the age of 9. Instead of going to ‘juvie’ for stealing a battered and much-used copy of Jane Eyre—orphan story par excellence—from the local library, Molly is assigned 50 hours of community service at Vivian’s to help the elderly widow clean out the attic. As items are removed, remembered and (mostly) restored to the boxes from whence they were taken, Vivian tells Molly about migrating from Ireland to the United States, losing her family in a fire, and Vivian—or Niamh (pronounced “Neeve”) as she was then—being taken to live in the Mid-west.

You must be strong to survive what Pia, Molly and Vivian have been through and all credit to Ellen Marie Wiseman and Christina Baker Kline for writing such brilliant characters. That I was spooked by Wiseman is a testimony to her skilful atmospheric storytelling, and that I loved the Orphan Train as much on the second reading as on the first is the best endorsement I can give.


The Orphan Collector by Ellen Marie Wiseman is published in U.S. by Kensington Book and due for publication 4th August.

Thanks to Vida Engstrand for a review copy of The Orphan Collector.

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 to 2016, Dee worked with Nell Musgrove (Australia Catholic University) on a 3-year Australian Research Council funded project on the history of foster care in Australia. Their book, The Slow Evolution of Foster Care in Australia. Just Like a Family?, was published in 2018.

Follow Dee on Twitter: @DrDeeMichell



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A Conversation With Kirsty Capes

Kirsty Capes is an author based in London. Her fiction and poetry has been published in Rising, Roulade, Token, Thrice Fiction and Mslexia. She was a Penguin Random House WriteNow mentee and a HW Fisher scholar at Curtis Brown Creative. She is currently finishing her PhD in care-experienced fiction at Brunel University London. Her debut novel Careless will be published by Orion Fiction in 2021.


Charlotte Mursell, Editorial Director at Orion Fiction, has made her first acquisition for the company with debut novel Careless by Kirsty Capes. The two-book deal for World Rights was made with Anwen Hooson at Bird Literary Agency.

An upmarket, timely, feminist story and a hyper-realistic account of the UK care system, Careless is a raw and big-hearted celebration of female friendship and enduring hope against all the odds. The book cuts through class, race, privilege and prejudice to shine a light on the realities of the care system, as well as a woman’s rights over her own body. ‘A coming-of-age story like no other’, the novel follows Bess, who is in foster care and pregnant at fifteen, and her friend Eshal, who is trying to break free of an impending arranged marriage, during a hot, oppressive summer in 1999.

‘Every so often you read a book that knocks you sideways and changes the way you look at the world forever – and this is it. Careless wrapped me in its sticky, gritty clutches from the very first page and never let me go. Visceral, sharp and achingly funny, it’s like nothing I’ve ever read before. Kirsty is a phenomenal talent, I’m beyond thrilled that she has chosen Orion Fiction as her publisher and that we can share her story with readers around the world.’ – Charlotte Mursell

Careless by Kirsty Capes will be published in hardback in May 2021.

It is an absolute pleasure to welcome Kirsty to the blog. I’d like to thank Kirsty for writing about her forthcoming novel Careless – brilliant title – which I am sure will be a fantastic contribution to care experienced literature.

  • Tell us of your journey as a writer.

I have always wanted to write but didn’t start taking it seriously until I started university. While studying my BA and my MA in Creative Writing I had some poems and short stories published in literary magazines. I started working on my novel during my PhD and this has been the writing project that has dominated my life for the past few years, although I still occasionally publish short stories. My debut novel is titled Careless and will be published in Spring 2021.

  • What made you choose to write about care experience?

As a care-experienced person I became frustrated at the lack of good representation of people in care in fiction. When we think of a foster child in fiction the first person to come to mind for most of us is Tracy Beaker, who is portrayed as difficult, a problem child and pre-determined to fail. There have been lots more nuanced representations in recent years, such as Holly in Solace of the Road, Anais in The Panopticon and Leon in My Name is Leon. But overwhelmingly care kids in fiction are represented as pre-determined to fail. They are also often written by people who don’t have care experience themselves. I wanted my novel to not only give an ‘insider’s perspective’ what it’s like growing up in care; I also wanted to offer a more positive, more hopeful, more aspirational narrative for care-experienced readers – and to show non-CEPs that we’re not all doomed to fail.

  • Do you have any personal experience with the care system, fostering, children’s homes etc?

Yes I was in residential foster care and then supported lodgings from the age of 2 to 21.

  • Orphans, those in foster care or children’s homes, often feel they are stereotyped by their past. How aware of this were you whilst writing your novel?

I agree that the narrative of care-experienced children is a hugely negative one and has a seriously detrimental impact on wider cultural discourse about the care experience. It was something I was hyper-sensitive to while writing and something I try to actively disrupt with my care-experienced narrative in Careless.

  • What is the meaning of the title?

My care-experienced protagonist Bess falls pregnant at 15, while still in the care system. The word ‘careless’ is a word so very often levelled at young girls who fall pregnant. The word is a nod to that, but also plays on Bess’s care experience, and invokes questions of the nature of care and how ‘caring’ the care system really is.

  • What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

I’m currently finishing my PhD and still editing Careless ahead of its publication, but I will soon be starting work on my second novel.

  • What #diverse characters do you think are missing from literature?

I think there needs to be more representation of marginalised groups across the board: publishing tends to centre the white, cis, straight, middle class experience and this needs to change. I do think – in the current moment – we are in danger of falling into the ‘diversity tick-box’ trap. One so-called ‘diverse’ book on a list does not equal representation. The way we talk about ‘diversity’ in books and publishing still has a long way to go.

  • If you could recommend one book for your readers, what would it be?

For a powerful portrayal of care-experienced girls that is honest and hopeful, I would suggest The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan.

  • Who is your favourite literary character from childhood and why?

I loved Lyra from the His Dark Materials series (also a care-experienced character HAH!) I find it interesting that Pullman chooses not to centre the biological nuclear family unit (as children’s literature often does), and instead unpicks it to expose its many flaws, and allows his young heroine to choose her own family. This is something I’m sure many CEPs can relate to (I certainly do!)

  • What one piece of advice would you give young people leaving the care system today?

Try and build strong support networks wherever you can; don’t be afraid to ask for help; don’t ever think you don’t deserve something, or that you shouldn’t aspire to the things that will make you happy. Remember your experience is unique and valid and there is power in that. Remember you are the only person who can tell your story.

Follow Kirsty on Twitter: @kirstycapes

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A Conversation With Paolo Hewitt

Paolo Hewitt spent eight years in care. He is author of over 20 books including Colour me Father: An Open Letter To My Sona worthy companion to his classic memoirs But We All Shine On and The Looked After Kid. A prolific writer including The Fashion of Football and biographies on Oasis, Paul Weller and The Jam as well as the re-released and updated Bowie: Album by Album is the ultimate celebration of Bowie’s entire career culminating in the critically acclaimed Blackstar.

Colour me Father: An Open Letter To My Son is Hewitt’s tribute to his son Rafi. On August 21st 2015 at 10.30 pm in an Archway hospital, Paolo’s son Rafi Supino Arif was born. As Rafi started to grow, one thought kept repeating itself in Paolo’s mind. Would he write about him or the experience of raising a son? The answer was always no. He goes on to describe how the book grew:

There was no handle for me to grab onto so I put it to one side. Until his first birthday. It was there that Rafi first heard applause and the look on his face hit something inside of me. Within a week I had begun writing Colour me Father. Actually, to be truthful I had started writing a book called On the Dawn of Your First Smile, which I loved as a title but which in those Google days of ours would not work. I fell upon Colour Me Father, passed it by some friends and got the thumbs up.

After I had written about his birthday I then found myself writing about dreams and pigeons and Sister Patricia (May God rest her soul) and fatherhood and Wood Green and Robert De Niro, and it became apparent to me that I should let the words flow, just write what came to mind.

I also saw that I was fulfilling a lifetime mission – that of paying homage, in my very very limited way, to a piece of literature that ranks as one of the finest in my mind – Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis. This is a letter that Oscar wrote to his boyfriend whilst serving his last year in Reading Gaol. (In the first year of his imprisonment the authorities refuse d to allow him to write and I think that one of the cruellest punishments ever heaped upon an artist.)

During the writing of Colour I only read De Profundis. I would start it finish it, start again. My thinking was that if just one per cent of its quality rubbed off on my work, then I would stand a chance of producing something very worthwhile.

My writing process was quite simple. In the morning when walking Rafi to a nursery session, I would plot out the book in my mind. I would then put those idea into a small Dictaphone that I carry with me . Back home, I would write out those ideas and then on Saturdays I would head for the British Library where I would spend all day writing.

Sundays I would rest, Mondays the process would start again.

One Saturday I was in the British Library and had just finished a passage when the thought forcefully occurred, that’s it, you are done, you are finished. Create an ending and then exit. You have said all you need to say. And as I advise Rafi in the book, in life always follow the heart not the head.

That is what I did. I obeyed the thought my heart sent me.

The book is short compared to others but it stops where it needs to stop. To carry on would have diluted its strength.

I think it my best work to date. I hope you do as well.

Credit: Pellicano Menswear

It’s an absolute honour to welcome Paolo to the blog. Colour Me Father, is a beautifully written book which will take your emotions on a stunning journey as well as illustrate the amazing power of love.

Tell us of your journey as a writer.

Got the call at age 14. Read NME and the lightbulb went on. This is what I want to do. Everything went into the pursuit. Told my English teacher at age 15 of my plan. Was laughed at. At age 19 knew that I would have to leave Woking and get to London. Enrolled at North London Poly. First stop, signing up to College Paper to be a music critic. Second important step – the walk to Camden Tube station every Tuesday lunchtime to buy the NME.  One week sold out so bought Melody Maker – can’t get heroin get methadone was the thinking. Opened up paper to see advert for young workers. Sent off pieces written for college paper Tuesday afternoon. In editor’s office Friday evening. Staff writer within a year. Obsession drove me.

What made you choose to write about care experience?

I always knew that at some point I would but I also knew I would have to wait until I was ready to do so. Which meant not starting the book until I was forty years old. I wrote it for two specific reasons. A) I wanted kids in care to have a book that tried to sum up the experience and had the potential to inspire them- especially if they themselves had leanings towards the written word. And 2) I wanted to make as much money as possible and live my life exactly how I wanted to.

Do you have any personal experience with the care system, fostering, children’s homes etc?

Yes I was in care 1958 – 1961 – and then 1968 to 1976.

Orphans, those in foster care or children’s homes, often feel they are stereotyped by their past. How aware of this were you whilst writing your story?

Not at all. I just wrote my story. The biggest compliments I got for my books on care were Care Experienced adults saying that is exactly how I felt. Often moved me to tears often when I so complimented

What is the meaning of the title?

One day I took a break from writing and read in the paper that the then Prime Minister, the brilliant Gordon Brown, was considering giving looked after kids a thousand pounds when they left care. I had never seen us described as looked after kids. And I thought it very pertinent to my experience in that I was looked after – I was given a roof and three meals a day but emotionally and psychologically I was anything but.

What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

Scripts now.

What #diverse characters do you think are missing from literature?

British working class.

If you could recommend one book for your readers, what would it be?

Colour Me Father by Paolo Hewitt.

Who is your favourite literary character from childhood and why?

I was always drawn to Oliver Twist but later developed a real fondness for the Artful Dodger. Don’t know what that says!

Follow Paolo on Twitter: @PaoloHewitt1


*Colour Me Father, read by Paolo is also available as an audio book.


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A Conversation With Ben Westwood

Ben Westwood is a musician, writer, poet, author and campaigner for children’s/human rights. Ben spent his teenage years bouncing between the streets of London and foster placements and children’s homes. Throughout his journey Ben always had a passion for making music and singing he can sometimes be found busking on the streets as well as the odd live performance in a bar or cafe venue.

As well as music and poetry, he always had a keen interest in human rights and community/society welfare which most likely has spawned from his early years living on the streets and seeing both the great love that some people can have for others – and the need for more of it out there.

In 2016 he wrote his childhood story ‘Poems From a Runaway’ and self-published it a year later. Ben now lectures about the issues of homelessness with social workers, safeguarding organisations and missing children’s charities.

Poems from a Runaway. is Ben Westwood’s collection of 60 true-story poems about being a teenager in care and a frequent runaway from the West Midlands.

Follow him on a journey from ten years old, wandering from town to town before eventually at the age of twelve, finding himself in the east end of London with drug addicts and prostitutes. A year later he was to be sleeping rough in London’s West end, meeting celebrities and all sorts of folk. It’s a story with many tragedies, but also comedic moments. Choices that would have only been made with a youngsters thinking and angels along the way. Predators, friends, heart-warming times and dangerous moments. Hustles, wind-ups and the way young people entertain themselves along the way. Some moments in life that some may never had knew existed. A collection of sixty poems of various lengths, leading the reader through the reality of this true-story childhood journey. Not only a great read and an eye-opener for general book and poetry lovers, but also a great resource for foster parents, social workers, mental health support services, homeless services, child advocates and care leavers.

Reading this book was a life changing experience…really opened my eyes about the rough life of the people living on the streets.Amazon Review

It’s a great pleasure to welcome Ben to the blog to learn about the writing of his non-fiction true life account written in poetry.

Tell us your journey as a writer. 

I began writing a book in 2016, which was about my childhood growing up, being in care and living on the streets of London from twelve years old as a missing child runaway.

I’d been thinking of writing a book for a few years, but when I once wrote a poem, which was a memoir from my times living rough in central London, I decided that I’d write a whole book in the same poetry style.

After much work on my book project, I successfully self-published it and promoted it on facebook and twitter, speaking to and meeting heaps of great people doing great things in the process.

What made you choose to write about care experience?

I wanted to shed light on what it was like living in children’s homes and foster care, and try to get the reader the gain more understanding of some of the sometimes overlooked thoughts, feelings and experiences of  young people in care.

Do you have any personal experience with the care system, fostering, childrens homes etc?

Yes. I was fostered for the first time at around ten years old, and went on to live in around a further four foster placements and four children’s homes across Staffordshire.

Orphans, those in foster care or children’s homes, often feel they are stereotyped by their past. How aware of this were you whilst writing your memoir?  

Even though I’ve always felt the sense that people that grew up in care get stereotyped, but it was when promoting the book and networking with other care leavers that I began to explore and understand how much stigma there is towards children in care and care leavers.

What is the meaning of the title?

Poems from a Runaway – Does exactly what it says on the tin.

What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading. 

Not so long ago I released two other books. One is a poetry book called ‘Welcome To Leatheton’ which is the first of a poetry series set in the fictional English town of Leatheton, and celebrated working class culture and diversity. The other is called ‘How Not To Fit Up a Squatter – When Stitch Up’s Go Wrong’ and is a short story book based on my real life events of being framed under a misleading charge, but proving that the allegations were ‘bodged’ by producing a voice recording of the event in court, in the end the police got sacked. I wrote the book to give people confidence that justice can prevail if you believe in yourself.

Follow Ben on Twitter: @FractalMoon1

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The Stolen Child by Bernadette McBride

Thoughts on W. B. Yeats’s poem ‘The Stolen Child’ in the context of care experience, and a review of The Stolen Child: WB Yeats and Carl Jung – Relationship, Belonging and Compassion in Caring for Children in Care by Maurice Fenton.

The Changeling, 1905 – Arthur Rackham

I had a coffee cup coaster once, emblazoned with the words “Come away, O human child! To the waters and the wild” – followed by the remaining lines from the first verse of W. B. Yeats’s poem ‘The Stolen Child’. It’s a poem I’ve always felt a deep connection to. The romantic changeling imagery; a child eloping hand in hand with a faery and escaping into a wilderness lit up by “moonlight glosses”. The biggest draw to the poem for me, however, was the line: “For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand” which is repeated several times throughout. In Irish folklore changelings are traditionally understood as faeries who had been left in place of a human child or a baby who had been stolen by the faeries, often for one of three reasons; to act as a servant, for the faeries to receive the love of a human child, or for malice/revenge.[1]

Growing up in the 80s and 90s I was on the child protection register for over a decade and in and out of care on an often-weekly basis. My mother was suffering from chronic alcohol addiction and some days I would simply be left waiting at the school gates. The school secretary, would, after a certain amount of unacceptable time had passed and no one had come to collect me, ring social services to see if there was any emergency foster care available that night. If not, I would be sent to the local children’s home. I was often sent away for longer periods when things reached a crisis point, and in all honesty that was preferable to the not knowing, the instability, the crushing sense of rejection, and pitied looks from other mums at the school gates. I don’t think social services would have handled that situation the same way now, I hope not.

At such a young age, I did not understand the complexities of addiction, and struggled to cope living with such day to day uncertainty, my primary school finished at 3:10pm, a time on the clock which left an indelible mark on my physiology for many years into adulthood, as my body physically recalled the fear I had felt over whether I would be collected or not. Whenever the clock struck ten past three, I would often feel cold and anxious – trauma has its own circadian memory it would seem.

In the playground one day, I was wearing a ponytail, and some other children started pointing and laughing at my ears (they both have a slight point at the tip), and they said that I must be a pixie. I imagined that perhaps I myself was a changeling, separated from my real faery family – it would explain a lot – perhaps my mother had drunk because her human child had been snatched away from her and I had been left in its place. I dreamt about the mythical land I might belong to. At this point I was reading a lot of Enid Blyton as a form of escapism, and The Magic Faraway Treewas one of my favourites. In my head I developed a dream world – my own version of Blyton’s stories, where I was a faery child returned back to my rightful land, and I had a home of my own in an alternative faraway tree, which though faraway was always stable.

For me living within my imagination became a form of survival. Often answering a teacher whilst talking to an imaginary character in my head simultaneously. Today as a writer, even if I’m in an important meeting, I’m usually half in a dream world too, because it is how my brain developed throughout my formative years.

I believe my connection to the poem ‘The Stolen Child’ and my care experience stems from the line “For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand” as I related it to myself in two ways. Firstly, that I had been taken away by social services as I could not “understand” the sorrow, suffering and complexities of my mother’s addiction issues. Secondly, in a more dreamlike vision, I was the child in the poem, saved by the faeries, and taken away from a traumatic life, as quite understandably “the world’s more full of weeping” than I could understand.

Many years later I was doing some research for my self-help book Roots: The Eco-journal (pub. The Green Guild, 2018), when I came across a book by Maurice Fenton entitled The Stolen Child: WB Yeats and Carl Jung – Relationship, Belonging and Compassion in Caring for Children in Care. I was stunned to see a book with the title of Yeats’s poem and children in care on the front page together. I immediately ordered a copy, and he kindly sent me an extra book to give to anyone else who might need it. Maurice, also a care experienced author, had felt a connection between the poem and care experience and made it the basis of his book.

In the dedication page Maurice includes a verse from ‘The Stolen Child’ by W. B. Yeats:

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

On why he chose it, Maurice informs the reader that he is no “great aficionado of poetry” but that he believes the poem resonates with the sense of loss he has experienced for the young people he has known who died whilst still involved in the care system, or after leaving care.[2]Maurice points out, that the poem has often been understood as a metaphor for a “return to innocence” and childhood. A fantasy world and the real world depicted and sharply contrasted alongside each other throughout the poem, not dissimilar to the double-edged world inside my head as a young child.

In the first chapter – Belonging, Maurice analyses ‘The Stolen Child’ in several ways. Touching upon the role of the “cultural meaning-making” stories of faeries and “other world” entities, he examines how such lore is embedded in the psyche of Irish folk. My own family on my maternal side originate from Ireland, and care experience within the family goes back over one hundred years, dating back to a 1900 Irish workhouse and a presumed single mother. My mum’s mum was the youngest of a dozen plus children, some died in infanthood, some were removed into the care of The Christian Brothers or The Sisters of Mercy in Ireland due to financial hardship. When my nan became pregnant at sixteen with my mum, unmarried and alone, her parents guided her towards placing her child in the path of care experience also. She was pressured into going to a Mother and Baby home and to give my mum up for adoption, she changed her mind and escaped the home at the last minute. But after that life was very difficult for them, my nan was looked down on by her Irish Catholic parents and society for her decision.

The writer Sydney J. Harris said, “History repeats itself, but in such cunning disguise that we never detect the resemblance until the damage is done.” Her tough start in life affected my mum and she started drinking at a young age as a coping mechanism, then she had us and the care experience cycle began again. In his first chapter on belonging, Maurice speaks of identity formation, and says “It is partly the personal narrative that connects us to each other and creates a sense of belonging.” It is this sense of a personal narrative – a story, a history I can clearly trace – which, in an absurd way still gives me a sense of belonging. As although my story is one of inherited trauma, I am connected to a thread of women who consistently carried on trying to survive their difficulties despite the many obstacles placed in their way.

For Maurice, he is drawn to Yeats’s poem for not just the folklore aspect, and its link to identity formation, but the sense of “pain, loss and sadness” it evokes. Maurice lost his father at the age of 12 and in his book describes how it took many years to come to terms with the loss. Maurice says, “He was stolen from me and also from the promise of his own life he had worked hard to create.” For me, the sense of loss in ‘The Stolen Child’ symbolises not only the loss of childhood, but the loss of stable relationships in infancy, and the loss of my mother who died in my 20s to a progressive illness, after finally getting sober years earlier. It was as though I had lost her twice in my life. When she died, I grieved too for the relationship which had been lost before, in childhood, which could now never be retrieved.

In Chapter 2 – Feelings, Emotions and Objectivity, Maurice discusses the link between a lack of “care” in the care sector, with children often being led to feel as though they themselves are just an object. In situations where there is often a lack of love, empathy and compassion offered by care givers or as some say, “corporate parents”. Factors such as political influence and language are key to how a child can be led to feel about themselves and the world around them and their part in it and sense of belonging, or not. Maurice refers to a potential connection between “the demotion of the relevance of feelings and emotions and the apparent ambivalence exhibited by many professionals with regard to child and adolescent mental health issues.”

In a growing climate of privatized care for vulnerable children and young people and outsourcing via agencies, I personally feel that the emotional safety of our young people in care is in great jeopardy. When money and funding has more of an attachment to an at-risk child than good, compassionate care, this becomes an urgent concern. As in Maurice’s own words it is relationshipswhich “are the currency and productof social care.”

Maurice writes as a person who has both lived experience of being in care and as a professional in social care in his native Ireland. His book offers unique insights into the importance of truecare for young people, and with an emphasis on the transformative power of relationships and interconnectedness. The use of the poem ‘The Stolen Child’ works well as a metaphor for a sensitive exploration of lives and opportunities “stolen” from the most vulnerable young people in society today and past. His aligning of the emotional and mental processes of care experienced folk alongside an exploration of the works of Jung, Nietzsche, and Kafka to name a few, makes for a nuanced and philosophical reading.

The book ends with a feeling of hope and resilience – and it is these two attributes that have carried me forward in my own life (both other-worldly and real) … I still believe there is a small chance I could have been a changeling…  but until the day I’m called back to the faery kingdom, I guess I’ll never know…

Maurice Fenton’s book The Stolen Child: WB Yeats and Carl Jung – Relationship, Belonging and Compassion in Caring for Children in Care is available on Amazon.Related quotes throughout essay body taken directly from the book.

Bernadette McBride is a PhD Candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Liverpool and the author of Roots: The Eco-journal(pub. The Green Guild, 2018). In 2019 she was awarded ‘The Biggest Impact on the City of Liverpool’ by the Liverpool Guild for her work in the community teaching creative writing linked to nature and wellbeing.

Follow Bernadette on Twitter: @b_mmcbride


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Parragirls: Reimagining Parramatta Girls Home Through Art and Memory.

Book Review by Dee Michell

Parragirls: Reimagining Parramatta Girls Home Through Art and Memory. Edited by Lily Hibberd with Bonney Djuric and in collaboration with Darug women Leanne and Jacinta Tobin.

Back in September 2013, my partner and I headed off early on a crisp, cold spring morning in the direction of Sydney. We were on our way to the Parramatta Female Factory Trace, Place & Identity Workshop being held at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) in the city and the Parramatta Female Factory Precinct (PFFP) in Parramatta, a suburb approximately 24 kilometres west of Sydney.

We had decided to drive the 1300 kilometres so we could visit the Hay Gaol Museum located almost halfway between Adelaide and Sydney. From 1961 for 13 years the museum site was the Hay Girls Institution, a prison for recalcitrant girls. These were girls considered ‘troublemakers’ at the notorious Parramatta Girls Home, girls who at Hay were compelled to be silent for most of the day, condemned to hard labour, and forced to sleep facing open doorways at night.

The Parramatta Female Factory Trace, Place & Identity Workshop was a memorable event. It was beautifully organised with an inclusive array of speakers who presented on the PFFP and its history, what draws people to be moved by objects at memorial sites, how the PFFP can be recognised as a ‘site of conscience’ but also become a joyful place to visit, and the impact of trauma and the place of sound in remembering.

This week I had the pleasure of catching up with what’s been happening at the PFFP over the past 6 years as I read Parragirls: Reimagining Parramatta Girls Home Through Art and Memory.

This is a gorgeous book, full of photographs—of Parramatta Girls Home, art projects and exhibitions, and images of the brilliant Parragirls, a voluntary group of former inmates who, since 2006, have been organising reunions, Open Days, exhibitions, and representing Parramatta Girls at state and federal government events.

Parragirls has 9 chapters which move from some of the history of the PFFP, the founding of Parragirls and the development of the Parragirls Memory Project from the first meeting on 9 February 2013 to the September workshop I attended, through to the Parragirls reclaiming the site for those who were once incarcerated there.

The book is a moving, inspiring record of what visionary activists can achieve. In 2005, Bonnie Djuric stepped inside the main building of Parramatta Girls Home for the first time in 35 years, taking video footage of what she encountered as she walked the halls. Eight years later, the Parragirls Memory Project had a lease on a former classroom which became their home base for doing transformative art.

It is the first week of February 2013, and a small group of artists and collaborators meet with Bonney and Lily [Hibberd]…As we open up the derelict rooms we are shocked at the neglected state of the rooms…Between vacuuming and toilet scrubbing, we share different stories about institutional experience over cups of tea.

Parragirls is also a record of the patient, challenging work that is transformative art.

Physical contact with the site raised unforgettable memories that had been locked away for decades. The abuse that occurred in Parramatta Girls home had also destroyed their trust in all forms of welfare and state care.

But having that classroom as theirs, where they had the freedom to meet and work without surveillance, gave the Parragirls space to begin exploring painful memories and to branch out. For example, to explore the Aboriginal heritage of the site as an ancient gathering place for Darug women.

Parragirls also documents how the Memory Project connects past and present. For instance, the group worked with a landscape designer to cultivate a children’s garden and then held a Children’s Day on 9 March 2014 to commemorate when children were first ‘placed’ in the Parramatta Roman Catholic Orphan School 170 years previously. The photographs of young children enjoying the day are delightful, a vivid testament to the healing work going on at the PFFP.

Parragirls memory projects challenge conventional forms of recordkeeping too. In 2016 the Parragirls began a printmaking project called Living Traces where they brought to the fore the “scratchings” girls made on the walls at Parramatta.

Before this project, the extensive graffiti found at Parramatta Girls Home was only evident to Parragirls…Recalling her time at the girls home, Gypsie Hayes described how messages were shared between residents, with numbers or acronyms scratched with pins ‘into paintwork for other girls’, secretly carved into solitary confinement cell walls, wooden doors and skirting boards.

From this project emerged stunning collagraph prints—some of which are included in Parragirls—as well as a performance video by Gypsie Hayes and audio stories by other Parragirls.

Collectively, these works and the women’s voices reveal that it is possible to contest the official version of an archive and give it an authentic meaning and purpose. This cannot repair or erase the evidence of wrongdoing, but provides the archive with an index to experiences lived in the present…

From little things big things grow” is a 1991 protest song written by Australian singer-songwriters Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody and describing the beginnings of the Aboriginal land rights movement in Australia.

Parragirls is a stunning book documenting how a small group of creative women took their protest about the cruel treatment they had experienced and turned it into the big thing of the PFFP being recognised as an International Site of Conscience and as one of Australia’s “most important heritage sites”.

Parragirls: Reimagining Parramatta Girls Home through art and memory is recommended reading for anyone interested in the history of child welfare in Australia, in empowering marginalised and traumatised populations through art projects, and in reclaiming the past—self and site—through collective action.

Parragirls: Reimagining Parramatta Girls Home Through Art and Memory is published in Australia by NewSouth Publishing, Sydney, NSW.


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 to 2016, Dee worked with Nell Musgrove (Australia Catholic University) on a 3-year Australian Research Council funded project on the history of foster care in Australia. Their book, The Slow Evolution of Foster Care in Australia. Just Like a Family?, was published in 2018.

Follow Dee on Twitter: @DrDeeMichell


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