Circumstances, Identity and Choice

As I spend time with my Mum in the last few months of her life (as Parkinson’s continues its inevitable path of destruction), we reminisce about times past. This self reflection on my part leads to wider reflections on my own identity.

Throughout my life I have never felt I belonged to any community. I was born into a family, separated at 8 by being sent away to school and then returning to the area of my birth to work and study, but feeling different because of my accent and family wealth. I then moved away to study, taking in different parts of the country and ultimately marrying and moving some twenty four years ago to my current area.

My reflections, however, have gone further than a mere itinerary of moves through life. I have begun to think about how my family arrived here because, like a significant number of people in the United Kingdom, my family originates from outside these shores, on my father’s side from Ireland and my mother’s side from Wales. The complexity of my history and ultimately my identity has been formed by layers of moves, family changes, and experiences of life. Choices have been made which have affected my sense of self.

The Influence of Context on Choice

As Kohli, R. and Dutton, J. (1997) succinctly put it, “Who you are determines in a profound way what you do, how you do it and why you do it. These things are in turn influenced by your history as well as the context in which you live and work.”1

What is significant in the history of my family is that people made choices, choices that may have been influenced by such issues as poverty but they had choices. In thinking about the issue of slavery, families and people have no choices, they have no choices where to go, who to go with and ultimately what they are to be called, their life and identity has been stolen from them. To see slavery as merely an event in history ignores the full horror of what happened and the effects it had and continues to have on millions of people.

In these troubled times we live in we must also remember the historical significance and importance of the geo-political landscape. The West may be fearful of some countries in the Middle East and Asia, but if we turn the looking glass the other way we would see countries that have been colonised by the west, borders and ultimately populations deeply traumatised by changes that have occurred to suit western needs and convenience.

Identities for Looked after Children

In working with looked after children the whole issue of identity is crucial. People need to know who they are, where they came from in other words they need to have a sense of self. Children in the care system need to know why they are in care, who are their family, they need to have a sense of history, a history that may be complex, painful and messy. Unless these issues are addressed by professionals and carers and children given permission to talk about these issues, they will spend their life searching, as the poet Lemn Sissay so eloquently says, “I spent my entire adult life searching for my family”2.

The importance of the role of the corporate parent for children in the care system has been seen as crucial, as the review of looked after children in Scotland concluded. …the single most important thing that will improve the futures of Scotland’s looked after children is for local authorities to focus on and improve their corporate parenting skills” (Social Work Inspection Agency 2006:113).3.

In talking about the role of the corporate parent we are not just talking about the social worker; we are talking about everybody involved with the looked after system, including elected politicians. How this is managed for each individual child is crucial because, as was highlighted in the Green Paper, a “…lack of a consistent adult in their lives is a major and harmful feature of being in care” (DfES 2006: 7)4

When Identity is Stolen

It would be arrogant of me ever to imagine what it is like to have been accommodated, and therefore I will finish with Lemn Sissay’s poem Gold from the Stone5, which sums up in powerful words what it is like when a person’s identity, culture and childhood are stolen from them.

Gold from the Stone
Gold from the stone
Oil from the Earth
I yearned for my home
From the time of my birth

Strength of a mother’s whisper
Shall carry me until
The hand of my lost sister
Joins onto my will

Root to the earth
Blood from the heart
Could never from birth
Be broken apart

Food from the platter
Water from the rain
The subject and the matter
I’m going home again

Can’t sell a leaf to a tree
Nor the wind to the atmosphere
I know where I am meant to be
And I can’t be satisfied here

Can’t give light to the Moon
Nor mist to the drifting cloud
I shall be leaving here soon
Costumed, cultured and crowned

Can’t give light to the Sun
Nor a drink to the sea
The Earth I must stand upon
I shall kiss with my history

Sugar from the cane
Coal from the wood
Water from the rain
Life from the blood

Gold from the stone
Oil from the earth
I yearned for my home
From the time of my birth

Food from the platter
Water from the rain
The subject and the matter
I’m going home again
Gold from the stone
Oil from the earth
I yearned for my home
From the time of my birth

1 Kohli, R. and Dutton, J.(1997) Using Anti- Discriminatory theories in Social Work open learning foundation

2 (accessed 10/4/2007)

3 Social Work Inspection Agency (2006) Extraordinary lives: Creating a positive future for looked after children and young people in. Social Work Inspection Agency, Edinburgh
(accessed 6/01/2007)

4 Department for Education and Skills (a) (2006) Care Matters: Transforming the Lives of Children and Young People in Care

5 ‘Growing up in an alien environment’ (accessed 10/4/2007)

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