Two stories about looked after children have dominated the headlines over the last month. Every day there are stories of panic, disorganisation and hysteria as child refugees from Calais arrive in the UK. There have been further damaging revelations about the Child Sex Abuse Inquiry too. Theresa May has been accused of a cover-up, key lawyers have resigned (and some have continued to be paid), yesterday Dame Lowell Goddard, the inquiry’s third chairperson, explained that she resigned in August due to relentless media pressure.
These stories have highlighted the ugly attitude of much of our media and political elite towards looked after children in this country. On one hand we have a farcical, expensive inquiry that is doing nothing for the children and victims it was designed to protect. And on the other, a vicious tabloid media and political system, hell bent on vilifying some of the most vulnerable children in the world.
It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a child from Syria or Birmingham, a child who was abused by Jimmy Saville or their own mother, they are all the same; a child without the protection of their parents, who are now dependent on the state. And whilst some MPs do campaign for better treatment and the child abuse inquiry has raised awareness about looked after children and the dangers they face, nothing really changes. We continue to either fear or dismiss those children who need our help the most.
This, I believe, is largely to do with the way we think about them. Looked after children are presented as statistics or problems, but rarely as human beings. They are used to score political points, to prove that MPs are ‘tough’, or to create terror about the dangers of marginalised youth in order to sell newspapers. This is all despite the fact that for a child to become ‘looked after’ in the first place, many will have undergone physical, sexual or emotional torment.
For me, the issue has always been a personal one. I grew up in Bryn Melyn, the children’s home my parents set up in North Wales. This meant that my three siblings and I lived alongside some of the most seriously abused teenagers in the UK. These children had faces, personalities, stories; living with them may have made for an unusual childhood, but also a happy, interesting one.
People are often reluctant to believe that. Back in the 1990s my dad devised a way of working with these children that involved sending them abroad for intensive one-to-one therapeutic trips. The Hooligans on Holiday headlines have stuck. And whilst people have all kinds of preconceptions about a childhood spent with these teenagers, once I explain what these trips really involved, the results they produced, and what the teenagers were really like, there is an immediate softening. People suddenly see beyond the headlines.
Although the media and government like to make out that teenagers are the enemy, this simply isn’t the case. Many of our boys were big, intimidating, and had broken the law. The potential risk of living alongside them was immense, but not once did they hurt our family. They particularly enjoyed playing with my younger sisters, and on one occasion one of them saved my middle sister’s life, when the door of the car we were travelling in flew open on a sharp bend. I was sat next to her but froze, thankfully the boy leapt across the car and dragged her back in. The tear on the hood of her coat showed just how close a call it had been. This was a boy who had been branded difficult and delinquent.
This isn’t to say that teenagers don’t need reigning in. Thanks to tabloid hysteria about young people in general, the average person on the street is pretty frightened of what might happen if they intervene when a teenager is acting badly. This only compounds the problem; if teenagers think they can get away with something, they will do it. Didn’t you? Time after time, my dad, a relatively short man, stood up to boys who were physically much bigger than he was. Often they tried to hurt him, but he continued anyway. He knew that unless you confront behaviour it only escalates.
A few years ago I travelled on the top deck of a London bus, when a gang of six or seven teenage boys began throwing bits of rubbish at the other passengers and myself. I turned around, told them to stop it, and they instantly did. In fact some of them came forwards to talk to me, worried at first I was an undercover policewoman. We ended up having quite a nice chat. The point is, they were not bad kids, they were just being teenagers, stupid and inconsiderate. But when we collectively agree to allow this kind of nuisance behaviour to go unchecked through our own fear, it sends a clear message; go on ahead, do whatever you want, nobody is going to stop you. It is hardly surprising that nuisance behaviour can quickly turn into violent crime.
It’s not the only time I’ve intervened on public transport. A few years ago I was on a very crowded train. For over an hour I listened to a woman and her boyfriend verbally abuse her three young children, who were clambering over their seats. When the stepfather called one of them a ‘f***ing c**t’ I could stand it no longer. I stood up and shouted at him. He shouted back. I doubt it did much good. However, it did embarrass him, they moved to the next carriage. And at least he understood that not everyone was ok with the way he was talking to his stepchildren. Although some of the other passengers on tutted at me for interfering, rolled their eyes and glared, for an entire train-carriage of adults not to say anything or stick up for those children, was tacit concurrence.
On a more impressive scale, we need only look at the abuse Gary Lineker received last month when he defended the Calais refugee children. For refusing to look the other way as the tabloids and politicians such as Tory MP David Davies and Ukip MEP Patrick O’Flynn, literally picked on children, Lineker was lambasted. And this week the footballers are again showing compassion as QPR offers to send its own buses to collect the remaining refuge children in Calais.
These are the children we should be kindest to; their experiences will have been mostly horrific. But a terrible childhood is not reason enough to stop the tabloids. The Bryn Melyn kids were systematically referred to as thugs, hooligans and yobs, despite the fact that many had never offended.
They had all been abused though.
For example, a dad of one of the Bryn Melyn girls rented her out for sex to his friends. The grandmother of one of our boys held his hands over the fire for punishment. These children are both now deceased, but this is the kind of thing that is happening every single day, the kind of thing that is happening now, as you read this sentence. The kind of thing that is happening to the Calais child refugees, as grown up men in positions of power call them liars from the safety of their desks.
And yet somehow, these children survive. They go on to have jobs, families, university educations, things that even the most ‘normal’ of us sometimes struggle to do. In fact, the word ‘normal’ highlights the root of the problem; the ‘them and us’ mentality we have about these children. We are safely over here, they are over there.
David Davies might not be so quick to demand we check the teeth of refugee children if he imagined that it was his own children who were orphaned and forced to throw themselves on the mercy of a hostile foreign country. But it is unlikely he ever will make that leap, and we’d be foolish to rely on a politician to do so. Privately, experts within the child care sector believe the child sex abuse inquiry will amount to very little, not because the Chair Person is incompetent or, in Amber Rudd’s words, ‘homesick’, but because the scandal implicates too many powerful people.
It is up to us then, as individuals, to do what we can. My dad was only one man but the work he did has gone on to change the lives of hundreds of children. We don’t all need to do anything as dramatic as bring a handful of other people’s children to live with our families, but we can start to understand that as adults we have a collective responsibility to ensure all children are protected, not just our own. And in this, our footballers have been far more adult than our politicians.