Thursday, 29 January 2009

Painful Memories

And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.

As You Like It, William Shakespeare, playwright and poet (1564-1616)


Elaine over at Liebraumilch and Lipstick has asked for contributions towards a book which was prompted by the recent Baby P tragedy. The book will be available online and all proceeds are going towards the NSPCC. More info nearer the time.

This is, obviously, a very painful post to write. Not because – thank goodness – I have ever suffered any abuse, but it brings back to mind a time when I worked with young offenders in Devon.

I went there on a temporary contract, and ended up staying for three years. I'd never worked for Social Services before and doing so made me realise how underfunded and understaffed they are. Social workers have an appalling reputation but if you see what they have to deal with, you'd be a little more sympathetic.

Anyway, my office dealt with juveniles going through the courts. Some had been convicted and were sent to a YOI – Young Offenders Institution, the nearest being in Portland in Dorset. Others were given supervision orders which meant they had to attend the office regularly to report what they'd been up to.

The success rate of keeping these youngsters out of trouble was, I would say, about 2%. It wasn't exactly the most cheerful of jobs. But – rather like social workers – once you understood these kids' histories, it wasn't difficult to see why they were so mixed up, defensive – and most of all, unloved.

One 13 year old, who was a serial shoplifter, had been started off in the trade by his mother, who took him shoplifting from the age of 6.

Another had been to 15 foster homes before the age of 12.

A 12 year old had been found on the doorstep of his latest foster home, crying through the letterbox, begging to be taken back. He wasn't. He became a very aggressive teenager.

I could go on but I won't. The mind can only take so much, I find, and I'm not an advocate of 'misery lit'. Working with it, being surrounded by so unhappiness, ensured that I don't want to read about it.

These kids lied, cheated, stole, and sometimes, frankly, terrified me. They all came from broken homes, and most of them had no home to go back to. Once I was outside having a cigarette when four teenagers approached, carrying a knife. The worst thing you can do is show fear, so I fixed a smile to my face, tried to control my shaking, greeted them and carried on smoking. Waited for them to start hitting me, or worse. That knife to enter my ribs.

To my amazement they all greeted me cheerfully, asked for a fag (no way, buy your own) and shuffled inside the waiting room waiting for their appointments. I breathed a huge sigh of relief and scuttled back inside, sending up silent prayers for my deliverance.

Most of our clients gained worse habits in a YOI and, on one occasion, committed suicide. Others did anything to get back inside. As one particularly angry lad told me, “It's bloody cold out there (in January). I've got nowhere to live, no money and nothing to eat. At least inside I'm warm and get fed.”

Phil became memorable for being our One Success Story – in my time there, I hasten to add. He wrote poetry (smuggled out to show to his social worker – he never would have dared show it to anyone else) which really made me gulp.

Out of YOI, he managed to keep out of trouble but one day came in pushing a pram. We thought, 'oh no. He's fathered a baby and he's only 14.' (Our youngest father was 12.)

But it was his niece. He'd been asked to babysit for the day and was so chuffed with the idea that he brought her round to show us.

That still brings tears to my eyes; it goes to show that however small our successes may be, or insignificant to others, they matter more than we can ever know.

I will never forget the look on that lad's face as he looked down on his niece, then up at me.

'Isn't she great?' he said, in wonder.

'Yes, Phil,' I said. 'And so are you.'

14 comments:

JJ said...

It makes sobering reading Flowerpot. My family have worked with some of those lads that didn't make it right in the end ... in prisons. Thankfully, there are a few success stories there too, despite some of the same problems as you've described.

Flowerpot said...

JJ - yes sorry it is abit sobering for a grey wet Thursday morning. Prison work must be the pits - I really couldn't do it. Though I'm glad to hear about some success stories...

Zinnia Cyclamen said...

I worked with teenagers in care for five years. I've never been able to write about it.

Elaine said...

Thanks so much for this, FP. I really appreciate you taking the time to write about it, and so sorry it was painful. x

I did voluntary work in a secure unit for children once. It was horrendous.

ChrisH said...

I've done similar work and what kept me going was that small percentage of young people who changed their lives for the better. The hardest thing - apart from the human wreckage - trying to bend unmeasurable success to government funding targets. You probably know what I mean.

Philipa said...

There's no way I would contribute towards the NSPCC.

I have my own personal reasons, FP but for another reason read Peter Hitchens latest post. It gives the distinct impression of the NSPCC being in league with the Nanny State and that wouldn't be the first time I'd heard that a charity is little more than a lobby group. The state seems to think it is a good parent, the best parent. Your post suggests otherwise. I happen to agree with you.

What does the NSPCC actually do? Do you know? Or is it just a comforting idea?

Flowerpot said...

Zinnia - I'm not surprised.

Elaine - you're welcome. I did voluntary work at a secure unit for troubled adolescents in Exeter once. A certain irony attached to that as I was one myself at the time...

Flowerpot said...

Chris - yes it's the success stories that keep you going, but I know what you mean about government targets. LEss said about that the best.

Phil - I will read Peter H's post and pass your comment on to Elaine. Thanks for that.

Akelamalu said...

Some kids don't stand a chance do they? :(

Flowerpot said...

Ak - no you're quite right they don't. Which is really sad.

Lane said...

I take my hat off to those who can do work like that. Those small successes (or big as in Phil's case) must make it worthwhile.

Flowerpot said...

Lane - I agree. Social workers deserve a much better press.

Ellee Seymour said...

It's all very tragic. Kids don't ask to be born and it's pot luck for them if they end up in a loving caring home or somewhere that brings them nothing but unhappiness. You did wonderful work there Flowerpot.

Flowerpot said...

Well I did very little Ellie, but I agree with what you say.