It is often said that you can choose your friends but not your family. I beg to disagree. I had opportunities not to be chosen by my blood family and to be chosen by and accept a friend who in effect became my mother and family.I was born in the late 1950s with a severe congenital spinal disability – the life expectancy for which was one year. Fifty or so years later I look back with quiet contentment on what I have achieved with an appreciation of the many opportunities I have been given. I have for some time wrestled with the dilemmas thrown up by my unorthodox upbringing and was finally persuaded to set down my thoughts on paper.
Being born at a time with such a severe congenital disability was not easy and it was inevitable that I should be taken into care. My blood parents were not able to be the mother and father they craved to be through poverty, chronic illness and the crushing burden of already having lost a child.
My arrival was hardly the stuff of joy. I have always held a great sympathy for them. I was admitted to Barnardo’s at 18 months after extensive surgery. I emotionally thrived and was fortunate to be informally adopted by a worker at the Barnardo home, Judith, who became my surrogate mother until her untimely death in 1999.
Judith was part of that great army of women at those times who worked in residential childcare as a lifelong vocation, sacrificing personal relationships and home life. She was never able to adopt me because my blood mother always refused to agree to it. Judith became my mother, providing key elements of nurture, safety, security and constancy. Despite living with over 50 other children, she always stood out for me and would always take me back to her family home in the West Country for memorable carefree holidays. On reflection I had a wonderful childhood – something I am acutely aware was not a common experience for many children brought up in residential care.
My formal schooling did not start until I was 9 years old – by chance when a visiting Governor of a residential special school noticed me and arranged a place at the school. Judith remained a major figure in my life and would visit often in term-time and take me to her family home in school holidays. My parents insisted on maintaining contact and considerable influence, however. This jarred with their inability to take parental responsibility for me. My mother was, understandably I suppose, jealous of Judith and I think this was the root cause of my mother’s refusal to let her adopt me. My blood parents were physically and emotionally increasingly distant from me. But they always loomed.
Then disaster struck. On leaving school, Barnardo’s rolled out a policy of ‘repatriating’ estranged children in their care to blood parents irrespective of the relationship (if any) that existed and the length of time the child had been in care. Without notice I was moved from the Barnardo home that was my home and where my real mother lived.
I was taken to a children’s home hundreds of miles away, nearer the home of my blood parents. A process of gradual reintegration started, with me spending more and more time in an alien environment with people who did not want me or I them. Apart from the sense of the crushing loss of Judith (she was effectively barred from making contact with me during this time) I had no roots, friends or security. It was a dreadful time and was only resolved by my reaching young adulthood and my blood parents divorcing which rendered the ‘happy family home’ fiction into dust. It was a bizarre childcare policy – bordering on the inhuman and illogical.
At this time I was lucky to have a forward-looking Local Authority social worker who stepped in and arranged for me to move into local independent living where I could make choices about my life. The first one I made was to re-establish a home at Judith’s family home. My development continued exclusively through the segregated Special Education sector until the late 1970s when I attended a mainstream Sixth Form College to study science A levels.
I got the necessary grades which enabled me to take up my first choice of university. My university years were the perfect ground for somebody whose life had so far been largely segregated to explore and enjoy an integrated lifestyle. This was its greatest gift to me. On graduation, I entered the world of work and after roles in banking, Local Government and Central Government I joined a large national disability charity, where I developed and headed up its influential policy, parliamentary and campaigning department for many years.
About 10 years ago I made contact with the Barnardo’s After Care service They had a new policy of letting people brought up within Barnardo’s to see their care files. This service was the brainchild of its visionary boss, Roger Singleton, who felt that people knowing about where they had come from was an important, indeed vital, step in understanding who they were. I met Roger many times later on professionally in my adult years up to his retirement six years ago. I think we both found our encounters deeply satisfying, knowing the journeys we had each taken in our lives.
In 2008 I was diagnosed with a progressive and untreatable neuropathic disease of the gastric system. This worsened over 2009 and on the advice of my Consultant I stepped back from full-time work. I am not idle, however. I now hold a number of national public appointments which keep me well occupied.
I feel very blessed with the opportunities I have been given. I strongly believe that being ‘admitted’ to Barnardo’s was a hugely positive step. I was able to thrive, learn, develop and manage my physical disabilities. I have been equally blessed with a good career and supportive friends. But I end with a tear – for the far too many care leavers who were not granted these chances and opportunities. Their life chances are scandalously diminished. This places my own story in stark perspective and readers of my tale should not take false comfort for a system which fails more than it succeeds.