Kicked into touch

11th September 1998 at 01:00
Victoria Neumark on children in care

The average number of foster placements for a child in care is 20, but it can be as many as 50. That might mean 50 schools, 50 teachers tearing their hair out. But how does it feel for the children?

When Natalie arrived at the secure unit it was midday and she had already wrecked five foster homes. She was 13.

For the next six months she refused to unpack her bag. She couldn't face school. "What's the point...you're only going to chuck me out." But they didn't.

Last year she left, to go to a hostel and a job. She had taken five GCSEs and got a boyfriend. She still has the job and has moved into a flat. "The first and best thing we did for Natalie," says Nora, who runs the unit, "was not to let her go. Sometimes you have to hang on to children who cannot hang on to themselves."

Jenny was 11 with 30 changes of home when she entered foster care with Jane and Ed.

Her father used to hit her mother - before he left home when Jenny was two. Then her mother was found to be leaving her alone and unfed while she went out drinking.

Jenny was taken into care and her dad got custody. Unfortunately, he had not got less violent and his new partner, with whom he had four more children, did not take to Jenny. During the next few years, as father was periodically arrested for abusing his nieces, Jenny grew more withdrawn. In and out of care, shuttling between mother and father, she dwindled to four stone.

With three meals a day and no one to hit her, Jenny began to thrive. With Jane and Ed's affection and interest, she became happy to be herself. "You could tell," says Jane, "when she began looking at herself in the mirror."

It was only then that her new school could make a difference. In her first year, she won a prize for achievement. Still, she could not catch up academically; her immense achievement was to leave school with nine GCSEs at grade E.

So Jenny trained in care at an FE college, and got a job at an old people's home. Though she has moved out, she regularly visits Jane and Ed.

For Jenny and Natalie, foster care came through - just. "I think," says Jane, "that there must have been just enough love for Jenny, from her mum or gran, to be able to make use of us when she got here. But she could not escape entirely. "

Jenny, they think, may have foetal alcohol syndrome. Or she may have missed too much learning time hiding, frightened.

Or it may be - it surely is - that being shunted around, like an unwanted parcel kicked into a corner, is very bad for human beings. And not something that you can put to the back of your mind to focus on getting good grades. On the contrary, an ingrown feeling that you have already failed to make the grade as a lovable human being.

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