In Care : The Black Bin Bags : 2

To learn about the background to this episode, you need to read the first instalment, so click here.

When we got to the Assessment Centre there was another woman on the way out with another kid with two or three bin bags. I wondered what an Assessment Centre was. I find it surprising how many times adults tell children things and never check that they understand what it means. Anyway I soon found out that I was expected to sleep here and that staff would talk with me and assess what to do with me. I also found out that words can have different meanings. In both these cases ‘with’ didn’t mean together. It was more a matter of telling me how they would dispose of me.

The first horror was that I was sharing a room with a fifteen-year-old intent on proving to all concerned that ‘he was the Daddy’. Since I was nearly sixteen, well set up and very well spoken, I was a ready target. Unfortunately for my room mate one of Mr Green’s hobbies was boxing and I had spent hours training at the gym, as the poor man tried to help work off some of my energy and aggression, to keep me out of Mrs Green’s bad books. While what I did to the ‘Daddy’ did my reputation with the other kids a lot of good, it didn’t set me off on the right foot with the staff.

They now knew that I had assaulted two people within a matter of hours, without any idea of why in either case and apparently not enough curiosity to find out. So now it was in my file. I quickly found out that now I was more of a file than a person.

Staff either approached me with extreme caution and spent as little time as possible with me, or some of the male staff who wanted to prove that they were big and tough needled me and tried to get me to respond so that they could ‘deck me’. This involved being wrestled to the ground and ‘restrained’. Now I know it was all an excuse for a bit of gratuitous violence and for some, a bit of a sexual thrill. To me then it was just another indignity, not to mention some real physical injuries which got glossed over.

None of them ever asked how we had got to this position. Nobody thought I could be carrying some serious emotional injuries. Why would they, when they didn’t seem curious about highly visible bruises? I was nearly sixteen and had just found out that most of my life had been built on my own fantasies and the lies of grown ups. In the file I was ‘ violent’, ‘easily provoked’, ‘uppity’, ‘uncooperative’ and had a ‘poor prognosis’.

I know this, because I stole the keys and went through the filing cabinet one night, without them ever knowing. I made sure the keys were found down the back of the settee next morning and with their usual dull minds none of the staff wondered how they had got there! I found out some interesting stuff about a few other kids as well in those files. I wondered about adding some notes myself, but decided even they might notice that.

Soon there was my assessment meeting. All these folk who had scarcely exchanged the time of day with me were expressing their expert opinions about me. I took it for some time, until I could hold it in no longer. I had already learned not to lash out physically, certainly not in front of this kind of audience. But I had also been to a ‘good school’ and managed to get through without being chucked out. So I let them have it verbally.

My late night exploration of the office and the filing cabinet had become almost routine. I had learned a lot about children having social workers to visit them and how they should be talked with and helped to put their views in regular review meetings. Of course none of this had happened for any of my family and those review meetings were the times when I had been sent out of earshot. I had discovered that the man from Social Services was the manager of the other social workers and he had never checked that they were not seeing us kids and had always accepted that I didn’t want to go into any of those meetings.

So I let him know that I now knew he had been letting us down and had not behaved properly. The social workers had just acted as support for the Greens and nobody had been there for us. Of course things were not desperate for us. We hadn’t been abused or anything like that. I had found out just how bad it had been for some of the other kids, either in their own homes, or with people the social services had thought were nice kind caring people, but had really been wicked monsters behind their closed front doors.

Now I have come to accept that in their own way the people around me did think it was better for me not to know about my mother’s life and death. But it would have turned out better if I had been told in a caring way and with lots of support, rather than have it spat at me in anger and then have my world stuffed in to bin liners and sent to an Assessment Centre, when I didn’t know what it meant.

As it was, there was a stunned silence in the meeting room. Everybody found interesting things to look at on the ceiling, or between their fingers, or in their files. Apparently everyone was in awe of the man and nobody ever dared question what he said – until now.

The meeting finally got going again, but the only plan it made was for me to stay put and get some counselling, before meeting again in three months time. In fact it was rather less than three months. A lot less. I had found out about how I should be prepared for leaving care and there was a long wait for a counsellor. So I made a right pain of myself until in the end the staff thought I ought to get a taste of living on my own. There was a quick meeting and the plan was agreed. The Council agreed to pay the rent on a flat and the other bills and provide some food until I could get a job and keep myself.

Every kid in care’s dream, I found out. A flat on your own. No rules. No nosy care workers. But not much of anything else either. In my case not even a radio or walkman. They were two of the things which the Greens had given me and I had thrown out of the bedroom window after I had smacked Mrs Green. Certainly no TV. By the end of the week I realised no washing machine either and no more clean clothes.

Some of the other kids from the Assessment Centre tried dropping in, especially if they were bunking off school or on the run. Then their friends and anybody else who heard about it started to come around and crash. Things started to get out of hand and I didn’t know what to do. I had tried washing my clothes in the bath, but had nothing to get them clean and no way to get them dry. The water in the bath started to smell and since I couldn’t take a bath myself, so did I.

In the end I was glad when a couple of staff called round one day. They helped to get me sorted out and we agreed that I was not ready for all this freedom yet. In actual fact it was the loneliness that got to me. I had never been in a house on my own for more than the odd hour or two and even then I had lots of things to do. I discovered that, for a young person who was being looked after by Social Services, independent living meant hours of silence and hunger, or being at real risk by not being able to deal with bad company and keep them out of the flat.

So it was back to the Assessment Centre for me for a while, this time with bin bags full of soggy, smelly washing. I began to think that Social Services people went round with a supply of these bags, just in case they had to sweep up and carry off a child at no notice.

Soon a place became available in the Adolescent Unit, so my black bags and I were off again. This place was OK, because it had recently been set up to help kids get ready to live independently. The only problem with this is that really nobody else lives independently, and certainly not at sixteen years of age, so why do people expect kids who are the least well equipped to be able to do it? But at least the rest of the kids were OK and the staff were good to us. We got taught some useful things, got cash money to go shopping and stuff like that.

Finally I started to see a counsellor. It started off messing me up even more and I got so close to being chucked out of the Unit. Only now it seemed like somebody had read my file and with the counsellor they agreed to cut me some slack. But in the end I got as far as I could and walked out. The only difference this time was that I had saved up and got myself a back pack and I chose the time and manner of my going. I went early in the morning, before any of them were awake, walked to the big roundabout out of town and hitched a ride.

I looked presentable and could talk well, so it didn’t take long to get work and a room. By the standards of a lot of people I was doing well, but I wanted something more. My native intelligence and the environment at the Greens’ had given me a thirst for knowledge. My experiences of those few months had given me a driving ambition to make things better for people. I’ve made a start by enrolling in evening classes to get the exams I missed taking when the roof fell in on my world when I was nearly sixteen.

For the most part I can focus on looking forward, but every now and then I see the black bags and the thoughts crowd back.

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