Lost In Care

15 years working in residential children's homes. 8 years training foster carers and care staff. Integrative child & adolescent counsellor. 14 years in care as a child. Diary, anecdotes and rants about the good, bad and mediocre. Anonymised but all true.

An Insecure Base

I said goodbye to Scarlett yesterday – tomorrow she moves to her fifth placement in the 18 months she has been “looked-after”.   She has been with us since Christmas Eve.  I will discuss why in a moment, but first:

What a cold, clinical and straight-out horrible word, it has just occurred to me, “placement” is.  There is a reason we use words like this as professionals – it’s a defence.  It protects us from having to confront the full reality of what is happening.  “Placement” doesn’t have quite the same emotional resonance as “home” does it?

Scarlett’s mum died when she was nine – although she had been slowly dying for a couple of years prior to that.  Mum was concerned about Scarlett’s dad, who she had already separated from, and his capacity to care for Scarlett when she died.  So she made a referral to social services before she did.

And she was right to be concerned, because Scarlett lived with her alcoholic (amongst other issues) dad for four years, in which he appears to have been unable to meet any of her needs.

In her more reflective moments Scarlett is able to give a flavour of these years – how she had to look after herself and her baby half-sister (the product of dad’s new relationship and born just a few months after the death of Scarlett’s mum).  And the constant on-edge terror of living with a chaotic drunk:  “He came home and smashed-up the tumble dryer – just smashed it up.  Who the fuck does that Jack?”

It is hard to understand why she was left in that environment for four years.  Scarlett certainly doesn’t:  “Why did they leave me there? I was so skinny Jack, she [the social worker] could see how fucking skinny I was.”

It is easy to form a narrative where everything was OK until Scarlett’s mum became ill, and make an assumption that she was appropriately cared for until that point.  But this, in truth, is unlikely.  Not least because Scarlett’s mum and dad were together for the first eight years of her life and he did not become an aggressive alcoholic overnight.

And women (or men) who live with people like Scarlett’s dad for 10 years usually have their own issues.  These dynamics are complicated – so you won’t get a nice and simple “woman = good, man=bad” interpretation from me.  Even Scarlett, who, understandably, idolises her mum, describes her as “depressed” (read – emotionally absent, at least some of the time).

So it is easy to understand why Scarlett is full of rage.

It is easy to understand why  she cannot emotionally regulate – she never had an adult to do this for her.

It is easy to understand why she will shout and scream the most appalling abuse when she does not get her own way – in the hope of wearing you down – she would have needed to do this to survive.

It is easy to understand why she doesn’t trust adults and perceives threats when there are none.  How a flash of irritation on my face when she is abusing me can lead to Scarlett trashing the house.

It is easy to understand why she does not go to school – she never has done so she feels exposed and stupid (which she is not).

It is easy to understand why she will abscond and hang-out with “mates” who we consider “high risk” and smoke copious quantities of weed, despite the paranoia and bordering-on psychotic episodes it triggers  – anything to take the pain away.

It is much less easy to know what to do about it.

Whenever I write about the realities of my work someone will comment or tweet about “under-trained staff”.  So for the record, and as I have written elsewhere – yes the training of residential care staff and foster carers is, in my view, nowhere near good enough.  But this is not a silver bullet.  Even if Scarlett was to move to a home staffed by the most robust, Tavistock trained, child psychotherapists and child trauma experts she would continue to behave much as she does now for the forseeable future.  You do not turn around 13 years of trauma and poor care in a few months.

…the provision…of  a secure base from which a child or adolescent can make sorties into the outside world and to which he can return knowing for sure that he will be welcomed when he gets there, nourished physically and emotionally, comforted if distressed, reassured if frightened.  In essence this role is one of being available, ready to respond when called upon and perhaps assist, but to intervene actively only when clearly necessary.                                                                                                     John Bowlby, A Secure Base, 1988

What she needs, desperately, is the thing she has never had – a secure base.  The bitter irony is that the early lack of a secure base and the associated trauma is leading to behaviour which is making it virtually impossible to give her one now.

Because she really is putting herself at risk – and we are not really keeping her safe.  If she is groomed, sexually exploited, raped – then people would legitimately ask questions about why this was allowed to happen.  This is one of the reasons she is being moved.  But she will abscond from her new home and it will take her five minutes to meet exactly the same kind of people we are moving her away from.  There will be no less risk.

Of course, Scarlett’s move is not just about what is best for her.  We look after other children – some of whom she bullies.  It is their home that she trashes, it is they who have to live with her volcanic explosions day-in-day-out.  I get to go home.  It is Michael who stays in his room watching TV, scared to come out.  It is Michael who desperately wants attention from me but can’t have it because I am having to be alongside Scarlett:  “Michael, I promise I will play Mario with you before I go home.”

But there is no benefit for Scarlett in moving her – despite Scarlett desperately trying to see it as a “fresh start”.   She will blame herself – only the other day she told me how she wished she had stayed with her first foster carer, how she had really liked her but “I messed it up”.  She will trust adult relationships even less and the pull of outside associations will be even stronger because she will be even more certain she needs to look after herself.  Scarlett will be even more angry.  She still won’t go to school.  She will probably move home again.

If you are waiting for me to suggest a solution here – I am not sure I have one.  At least not a simple one.

Anyway, back to that goodbye:

Scarlett is visited by a member of staff from the new home.  She is quiet but seems accepting she is moving.  She asks reasonable questions about the new home and essentially tries to make the best of it – she talks repeatedly of a “fresh start”.

Shortly after this she tells me she needs some new underwear and I drive her to ASDA in my car to buy some.  In the car she says: “It’s too late to change it now isn’t it?”  She is referring to having to move – and by extension her behaviour.  I don’t really know what to say, so I swallow hard, “I’m sorry sweetheart.”

A few minutes later we are in ASDA car park – she has dropped one of her two phones in my car and demands I look for it.  I cannot find it.  I am weird, I am a paedophile, I shouldn’t look after children, I have stolen her phone, she is going to have me sacked.  She decides to film me on her other phone – in case I “switch”.   I become frustrated – “Scarlett, if you genuinely believe I have stolen your phone then call the police”.

“Why should I call the police?  Call the police on yourself!”

I have run out of things to say so I say nothing and we sit silently for a few minutes.  Eventually she finds the phone.  We go to buy the underwear but she is not talking to me.  We go home and she does not talk to me for the next two hours.  She goes out.

Scarlett returns three hours later and she is as stoned as I have ever seen her.  A giggling mess.  She has the munchies, I make her endless rounds of jam and toast and sit on the stairs talking to her.

“Jack, are your mum and dad dead?”

“My dad is alive – he lives in Devon.  I don’t know about my mum – I have not seen her since I was five.”

“Five? That’s really young.  How tall were you?”  I show her the approximate height of a five year-old with my hand.

“She just gave you up?”

“Yes sweetheart”

“Why haven’t you looked for her?”

“It’s hard to find someone who doesn’t want to be found.”

“Jack, if you make me a tea I promise I will go to bed.”

I take the tea up to her and stand in the doorway. “Scarlett, I won’t see you again before you leave, so this is goodbye really.  Please try to take care, I really hope things work out for you.”

“You might see me again.”

“Bye Scarlett.”  I turn and leave.

“Jack”, she calls after me.

“Yes Scarlett?”

“You’re weird.”

And that is that.




  1. How sad! Please be assured, though, as someone who has worked with looked after children for over twenty years, those small kindnesses and the extraordinary patience you have shown to this child, will make a big difference to how her life turns out. Not that this means she’ll have a conventionally happy life as such, but when it comes to the little decisions she makes when caring for any children of her own, the memory of your tea and toast, of your patient care in the face of her seemingly boundless tantrums, may leave her just that little bit abler to respond with some internalised capacity to love of her own.

  2. Hi Jack
    I share the same job as yourself and have very similar feelings!
    I have a keychild who on a good day borders being polite, on a bad day she is incredibly hard work, violent, aggressive and downright rude!
    I wouldn’t change it for a thing though!
    Keep up the good work you know it’s worth it!

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