I grew up in care, going to live with my first foster parents around the age of eight or nine. I have no shame or awkwardness in talking about it. And I’m really glad that Ashley John-Baptiste doesn’t, either.
‘The foster care system is bursting at the seams’, says one social worker in former X Factor contestant John-Baptiste’s documentary, Care Home Kids: Looking For Love. And it is. I’m not saying that it’s broken, but it hardly works either.
I had five foster homes during my childhood, and to give me some more stability and consistency, I was sent to boarding school although I was still fostered during the holidays. My mum suffers from depression and anxiety, and has had numerous nervous breakdowns. It started when my grandpa and dad were still alive. My mum gave birth to my older brother, Brendan. He was diagnosed with Waardenburg Syndrome, which normally only results in deafness, flattened bridge of the nose and other symptoms, but sometimes learning difficulties in a similar spectrum to Down Syndrome, as in the case with my brother.
My dad grew up in children’s homes himself, and often found complex emotional situations hard to deal with. Social services were involved with my parents at an early age after my older brother’s diagnosis. I’m not sure how or in what order events unfolded, but with the stress of caring for my younger brother, my mum looking after her father who was getting very old, their marriage frayed. Again, I’m not 100% sure what order this happened, but my mum had a nervous breakdown shortly after my grandpa, her father, died. With my dad being unsupportive and my mum on the tipping point, my mum surrendered Brendan into the care of social services. It shook my mother but deeply unsettled my father, the care system being all too familiar to him.
In 1989, I was born at St. Peter’s Hospital in Chertsey. A ‘happy accident’ for my mother, it was a new chance to start again. It would be easy to say my father couldn’t care less. He probably could, but he wouldn’t let himself. He didn’t come to the hospital for my birth, working a shift as a security guard at the time. However, even afterwards he didn’t want to get close to me, for fear of losing me. I don’t hate him for this, because now I’m on the other side of the care system, I know exactly what that feels like.
April 1991 and my mum gave birth to twins, a little boy called Liam and a girl called Rosie. Liam is diagnosed with Waardenburg Syndrome, just like Brendan. Losing Brendan to the care system was enough for my father, so another special needs child frightened my father; not because my mum or dad ever had a problem with that, just because I think my dad knew deep down their marriage was too far gone what with their own differences to continue with three children, one with special needs, and then a fourth they hardly saw as he was juggled around the care system.
My dad left my mum and moved in with this woman who I can only remember as ‘Christine’. I only have about two memories of my dad. One of them was at his new home with Christine. I was plonked in front of the television, the modern parent’s favourite baby sitter, watching Thomas The Tank Engine. Later we ate pizza, and where I used to (and still do) bite my nails and cuticles, tomato sauce got into a cut. I complained to my father, and he replied with the only words I ever remember him saying to me: ‘Shut up and eat your dinner’.
I don’t remember seeing him since during the early years of my childhood. When I was six, my sister’s Godmother tried to tell me that he had died while she drove me around in her car. But I already knew. Some part of me knew. I don’t know how. I hadn’t thought of him for years, but I knew. I cried and cried for someone that I barely remembered, for someone that I didn’t really lose because I never had him in the first place.
It was shortly after this that my mum’s mental health took the first nosedive that I remember, and it would only degrade over the years. I think a part of her gave up; she knew he was never coming back, but now she had to raise three children on her own, my brother with special needs and me far too clever and stubborn for my own good, and she just gave in. Sometimes I hate her, for giving in too easily, for taking the easy way out and saying: ‘You look after them’. But that’s not right and it’s not true. I know she tried and I do love her. It’s just hard. But I have no regrets. I had a good time growing up and I had skills by 10 that most young adults don’t have until they move out of home for the first time.
My Godfather, a brilliant and selfless man and who I am living with now on a temporary basis after my mother refused to let me move back with her after losing my old job, took over in the role of my father in a way. He and his sister, my Godmother, and their mother, the lady I was raised to call Nanny, tried to help my mother care for me. However, social services decided more official measures needed to be put in place.
I barely remember my first foster parents. It was just a ‘respite’ placement at first, every other weekend to give my mother a break from caring for us. I just remember that they were somewhere in Frimley, they had children of their own, and that my mother forgot to pack me a toothbrush so we had to get one on my first day there. I resisted, just wanting to be with my mum. I couldn’t understand what was wrong. My mum didn’t seem sick. She just cried a lot and worried about everything.
When I was 12, I was sent to The Royal Alexandra and Albert School, a boarding school, by my social worker at the time, a brilliant man called Richard. He foresaw that me and my siblings would never move homes together, so this would give me some stability and sense of place. My sister joined two years later. My little brother attended St. Josephs, a residential special needs school in Surrey. It all seemed to be going great for the first few years. However, even with all the respite my mum just got worse, and foster parents soon had to be found for the holidays for all three of us.
Sometimes I moved with my younger sister or younger brother, sometimes not. I do know that when I was apart from them I felt like they were on the other side of the Berlin Wall, despite the fact that we were only ever moved around across Surrey, Hampshire and South London. It was weird spending my summers in a different town every year though.
My social worker used to call my school ‘a Harry Potter school’, and I used to feel like The Boy Who Lived too. Gatton Park, the home of The Royal Alexandra and Albert School, has lakes just like Hogwarts, greenhouses (minus the Venomous Tentacula) and numerous gardens where I could spend time by myself, and a dire alternative to Hogsmeade (Redhill, eugh) where I could spend my pocket money. I missed school during the long, eight-and-a-half-week summers (we had half a day of school on Saturdays in return for this). I missed my friends, I missed learning, and I missed the same place, despite school politics and bullying. To this day, I want my ashes to be scattered in the rock garden overlooking the horse paddock and lake.
I don’t think I had it bad though; both because it was the only life I ever knew, and also because I know other young people from care that moved around a few more times than that, and didn’t go to boarding school as an alternative (although I have been to The Houses of Parliament to argue that boarding school is a better alternative to foster care, as it offers a far more stable set up despite the increased cost). I did really well at school, passing all of my GCSEs with some As and Bs, and later getting B, B, C for my A-levels at college. Like John-Baptiste, I even went to university, something normal for ‘normal kids’ but something that John-Baptiste identifies as something very rare among the care system. In fact, statistically, one in four prison inmates in the UK have a care background. Watching Care Home Kids, I was shocked to learn that one young man, Scott, has had 35 addresses to date, which has severely impacted his ability to develop emotionally and educationally:
I’ve had 35 addresses. They’re broken down into foster placements, children’s homes, supported lodgings placements, B&Bs…
There’s an awful stigma around kids in care, still. As if they’re doomed to fail, resigned to live a life, no, an existence surviving on the benefits system. I was determined to survive. I’ve always been like that, Me vs. The World. I took refuge in writing because it was the one thing that remained consistent and allowed me to channel all of my frustration and confusion. But sometimes people fall on other crutches after feeling such rejection and confusion. But if this happens, is the care system not responsible? Don’t social services have a lot to answer for? How can young people make anything of themselves when they have the rug pulled out from beneath them every time they let down their roots?
John-Baptiste takes a long, hard look at the care system in Care Home Kids, examing why children and young adults move around so much, and why sometimes they don’t succeed. It seems that foster parents want to try, want kids to become part of their family, but it’s partly the bureaucratic processes of the system and not enough carers coming forward that are letting down young people. I know my last ever foster parents, Chris (Christine) and Doug, who I still love very much, treated me as their own. I texted Chris to let her know the programme would be on, and she told me that it ‘was lovely looking after you’. I was walking down Tottenham Court Road when I got the text and I started to cry a bit. It’s worth noting at this point that I actually can’t cry properly because of everything that’s happened to me, but that’s beside the point. It was just really nice to feel loved, and be reminded that I was loved, and still am.
Sometimes I think I’m jaded, avoiding love and relationships whenever I can. My sister is the opposite; desperate to feel love and acceptance, rushing headfirst into relationships. We are both natural chameleons though after moving around so much, quickly making friends and fitting into integral roles in friendship groups. An ex once said to me I can’t blame my truncated emotional spectrum and mess ups in relationships on my experiences growing up, but I think I have yet to deal with it fully. Perhaps this is why this post is so long, because I just needed to get it all out there in one huge spat of catharsis?
John-Baptiste says in a harrowing piece to camera, and the bit of the documentary I felt the most (probably because of the M83 ‘Wait’ backing track):
The truth is many foster kids are not okay. Many foster kids my age and older are still battling with the demons from when they were five years old.
I’m sorry that Ashley John-Baptiste, and all the other young people in Care Home Kids: Looking For Love had such a bad time. But I am happy that someone is finally telling our story, in our words. We do want to make something of ourselves, and sometimes do. I like to think I have, or at least I’m getting there. And as the title of the documentary says, all we want is to be loved. I only hope plans to foster on a permanent basis as an alternative to adoption and advertising campaigns for foster carers across the UK relieve some of the stress on the system, affording some young people the childhoods they deserve.
You can watch Care Home Kids: Looking For Love on BBC iPlayer until the 2nd of August
Footnote: I’d like to thank my Godfather, not that he will ever read this, for everything. I never say thank you to you enough. Also to Catch 22, a part of social services for young adults, who always endeavored to treat me like an adult and listened to what I wanted before acting.