Every now and again you find you are thinking the unthinkable, and in this case, writing the unthinkable. If someone had told me that I would head a column with the title above I probably would have laughed them out of court. After all, I have chosen not to possess a mobile (cell) phone, prefer a fountain pen when writing, do not have or aspire to having a Tom-Tom in my car, and have no intention of joining the crowds who connect by Facebook and associated variations on this electronic-communication theme. So, assuming it is not a mistake, or foisted upon me by the Editor in an attempt to retain some ‘street cred’ for the Webmag, how come the title?
It is really rather simple, and quite touching. Once upon a time we befriended a young girl at Mill Grove who was unsettled at school and in her foster placement. Over a period a years she became part of the extended family of Mill Grove, coming to see us regularly, staying for a time, and joining us on our summer holidays. Then she was moved in the ‘care system’ and suddenly all contact ceased. Try as we might we could not speak with her or write to her. We were given an address over a hundred miles away and I drove there and spent an afternoon trying to find the place where she was staying, to no avail. When we rang the telephone number of the same establishment, the staff prevented us from speaking to her.
The problem she faced was that she had got so used to being with us that she had none of the contact details (address and telephone number) that would have made a breakthrough. And no one in the system felt it desirable to help her make contact.
The Care System
We pause at this point in the story to reflect on how it is possible for such an important relationship to be interrupted so completely by a ‘care system’. I have not been able to speak with those who came between us, but it is probably fair to assume that in the name of child protection or safeguarding this young person, they decided not to take the risk of contacting us or letting my wife speak with her on the phone. After all, we were not her biological relatives. And this is typical of what we have experienced in the process of getting to know and supporting a number of children and young people: in the final analysis the system prefers safety to the risk of continuing relationships.
But, you respond, how come the young person’s views were not taken into account, and why didn’t anyone who was caring for her take the trouble to find out more about us? Mill Grove has been around for over a hundred years, and Ruth and I have been here for over thirty years. My guess is that the whole ethos verges on the borders of paranoia because of the fear of strangers.
Found through Facebook
Back to the narrative: it turns out that both the young person and ourselves continued to hold each other in our minds and hearts despite this severing of contact. In fact you could argue that the interruption served to clarify how significant the relationship was to us all. So when one of the young people living at Mill Grove found the ‘lost’ young person on Facebook and told us that they were in contact, things moved swiftly. She phoned us and within a few days she came to see us and was thrilled to discover how everyone here not only remembered her, but was delighted to see her again. She walked around our home and garden chatting freely about memories, associations and people.
And as with all genuine relationships, the process was two-way, or reciprocal. Ruth and I were overjoyed to see her again. Memories of that bleak Sunday afternoon that I spent searching fruitlessly for her, and phone-calls that were not put through, came flooding back: it hurt so much not to be able, at the very least, to let her know that we were thinking of her so much and missing her. As it happened, there were lots of the extended family around on the day she chose to come over, but nothing quite compared with the joy of welcoming a ‘lost sheep’ home.
I think you can work out the moral of the story for yourself: without the contact between two young people via Facebook we might still be unable to communicate with one of those dear to our hearts.
No doubt there are flip sides to Facebook, as there are to every technological facility or breakthrough, and it would be unwise to adjudicate on the balance between advantages and disadvantages, but I do want to put it on record that I for one am deeply grateful for the electronic medium that allowed our relationship to resume after such a painful period of separation.
Perhaps the internet, despite the obvious risks it poses, will be the means of counteracting an ethos of fear that, while no doubt protecting some children and young people from harm, inadvertently comes between those who are significant (and irreplaceable) to each other.