Saturday afternoon. Hot and muggy. June and it’s the fête season. This must be the third one in four weeks. The kids are pleading for money. Ice cream. Crockery smashing. Win a goldfish. Sally does just that. Skips and laughs with excitement. We get a few funny looks. Goes with the territory. In an hour’s time she’ll be lying full length on the hearthrug in my friend’s living room. Sulking. All because I told her she was old enough to walk the two hundred yards from the school playground without me. She’s fifteen. Big for her age.
Sally’s spent most of her life in the care system. Her father thought smashing her brother’s head against a wall was a good way to discipline him. There was never enough evidence for a successful prosecution. Her brother will spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. So I suppose Sally’s lucky really. She’s spent most of her life in a home for disabled children. The matron took a shine to her. Resisted efforts to move her on. She was finally fostered out when she was almost twelve. A family that promised to adopt her. A dream come true. How was she to know normal fathers don’t do that to their daughters?
She spilled the beans in a sex education class. They hurried her off the premises. To the police station. Cross-examined her. Kept her there till two in the morning. No wonder she didn’t want to talk to the police again. She was fourteen. Immature. Naive. Childlike. She’s been with us three months. We’re a stop-gap. Her next placement, another ‘forever family’, will last less than two weeks.
Almost thirty years on I still wonder what happened to Sally. It’s not her real name of course. Back in the day I was a foster carer. Employed by the local authority. I made the mistake of being able to cope with massively damaged teenagers like Sally. For the privilege of doing this I was paid an allowance. To cover expenses. I signed an agreement to care for her as if she was one of my own children. I guess her previous foster-father signed that one too.
I didn’t go into foster care for the money. Looking back it might have worked better for me if the value of what I did had been acknowledged. Even in a small way. But the unspoken assumption was that there’d be something distasteful about lining my pocket this way. Making money out of Sally’s misfortune. My, how the world has moved on.
In a world driven by profit, even damaged children are an investment opportunity. A growth market apparently. An abused or multiply disabled child can be worth up to £5,500 a week to investors in a private residential care home. That’s nine times the fees for Eton, says Polly Toynbee in today’s Guardian. A pretty impressive figure. But we’re living in an age of austerity, right? So where’s all the money coming from? More importantly, where on earth is it going? Because it sure as heck isn’t being spent on the children. No matter how good the care they’re receiving. If it is, why do statistics still show that a quarter of all prisoners in the UK have spent some time in the care system?
The stark truth is the money comes from you and me. We’re the ones who foot the bill for this insane abuse of public funds. The media love nothing better than to pillory a hard-pressed social worker every time a case of child abuse hits the headlines. But the privatisation of care services makes the job nigh on impossible. How can you balance the budget and meet the needs of the child when costs are so prohibitive? Is it really over 70 times more expensive to raise a child now than it was in 1989? Of course not. Costs may be three or four times what they were. Ten or fifteen, allowing a reasonable salary for the carer. Not seventy.
A few weeks ago Gordon Gillick, a UKIP councillor in Cambridgeshire found himself in hot water for asking a group of young people in care how it felt to be ‘takers from the system’. I’d like to pose the same question to those who are lining their pockets with money from the care system. Profiting from the suffering of children. What’s it like to bleed a public authority of cash needed for vital services? How do you sleep at night when you bought your new BMW with money that could have paid for therapy for an abused child? How does it feel to be a taker from the system?
I lost touch with Sally many years ago. The world’s not kind to damaged and vulnerable children. Even less so to the adults they become. So I hope she’s found peace. The love she craved. Above all I hope no-one ever treated her as a commodity. A way to make money. Because no human being deserves to be used that way. Especially not a wounded child.
I’m blogging to raise funds for a charity close to my heart. I’ve given up NOT being a writer for 125 days in support of One25’s work with vulnerable women in Bristol. If you’ve enjoyed reading this, you can find out more about what I’m doing by visiting One25’s website at http://www.one25.org.uk/. You can also support them by visiting my fund raising page at http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/fundraiser-web/fundraiser/showFundraiserProfilePage.action?userUrl=JeanMutch where you can make a donation and suggest an idea for a short story or a post on the blog. Thank you.