Obviously the word “family” is complicated and painful for all children in care because, irrespective of the circumstances, all of them are united by one simple truth – they are not living with theirs.
Images of “perfect” families abound in popular culture – films, books, even TV adverts, constantly bombard these kids (and, let’s face it, all of us) with idealised versions of what a family “should” be like. Sure, siblings may argue but they make up in the end, or come together when they need each other – blood is thicker than water and blah, cliche, blah.
Sure, fictional parents can be “flawed” and make mistakes but fuck – look how emotionally intelligent they are – they will come good in the space of a couple of hours. Or, in the case of an advert, 15 seconds.
Of course, hardly anyone (read no one) has a family like this. But most people have something that rubs a long in a relatively (pun intended) bearable way – ordinary dysfunction rather than extraordinary. Most people have a family that, while it may be problematic, they would rather have than not have. The kids I work with do not have such good fortune and certainly can’t trust anything professionals or adults might try to do to alleviate this. So they do what they can to create their own family.
I had a conversation with a 17-yr-old girl, Jennifer, the other day which caused me to think about this a great deal. I don’t look after her – she is a friend, sometimes girlfriend, and generally part of, a group of young people – mainly boys – who are either residents or ex-residents of the home I currently work in.
In short, she had to move out of her dad’s because he punched her in the face – and not for the first time. She was placed by social services in a supported “semi-independence” place. She started a relationship with a lad. A troubled lad, who you may have empathy for, but that wouldn’t stop you being devastated if your daughter brought him home. After about a week (seriously) she gave up her perfectly okay accommodation – from which she would have been given a council tenancy – to move in with Terry. To be precise, into his housing association flat, which has no furniture, apart from a mattress, rarely has power and between four and five other people unofficially living there.
The other day she came to the home, with spirit crushing predictability she had split up with Terry. For reasons not clear to me, Terry and his (and her) friends were accusing her of being “a snake” and making threats of violence. She was homeless. Social services had given her travel money to get to her mother’s, who lives 300 miles away and who she has not seen for seven years. Understandably she was distressed.
I tried to help her as much as I could, finding out train and coach times, letting her use the phone and by letting her talk. She said she planned to get a job and as soon as she could afford it – move back. I gently questioned why she wanted to move back – she said “because everyone is here”. I pointed out that her friends were not really behaving like friends, she had fallen out with all of them but Steve and he was moving soon. I genuinely couldn’t understand why Jennifer wanted to return and thought a fresh start – even in undesirable circumstances – would be a positive choice. But Jen said simply: “They’re my fam’.”
The impermanence of these relationships never occured to her. From Jen’s point-of-view they may argue and fight but, in the end, they stick together – like a family. She has to believe this because she has nothing else.
I like Jennifer a lot, she is good natured and bright. I hope she realises she is wrong. I hope she finds the family she deserves.