A home with love to spare

1 May 2009 / Yorkshire Post
Doncaster children's services is mired in controversy. But Rachel Roberts, who went through the system years ago, reveals a different side. Phil Penfold talked to her.
For more than 30 years, Rachel Roberts has moved around Britain, from Yorkshire to Scotland, from Glasgow to London, to Sussex. Every time she moved home, she cleared out old possessions that didn't seem to matter any more.

She got rid of clothes, furniture, books, records, CDs. But there was one thing that she kept. It's a photograph of a group of children, smiling for the camera in the doorway of a care home in Doncaster.

Rachel is now 38, a successful freelance journalist living in Hove. When she gets the photograph out of a drawer and looks at it, she sees her sister Jenny, a year younger, and the other children whose names had started slipping from her memory. Bradley, Dean, Brian…Florence?

What had happened to them over the years? Were they still in Doncaster? What had their lives been like? "I used to wonder where they'd ended up," says Rachel. "Had they been as lucky as Jenny and I? What were their stories? And then the picture would go back in the drawer, and that was that."

That is until the summer of 2007. "That was when that appalling story of the alleged abuse at the Haut de la Garenne children's home in Jersey came out," she says. "It made my flesh creep to think what those kids had endured. Because, looking back, I could not remember anything but love and kindness and encouragement."

The person in charge of the Doncaster home was the matron, Tina. "Tina is – there is no other word for it – a saint. She has looked after scores of kids just like Jenny and me over the years, and so many of them keep in contact with visits and cards. Our story and experience of being in care was clearly a world apart from that of the Jersey children."

Rachel determined to go on her own voyage of discovery, to tie up loose ends, and to solve a few mysteries and puzzles. The result is a Channel 4 film which at a preview screening stirred the emotions – it is by turns harrowing, poignant, uplifting, sad, optimistic, and heroic.

"I really didn't set out to pluck at anyone's heart-strings," says Rachel. "I only wanted to have a few questions answered. To establish a few facts."

But viewers will see Rachel (and others) in tears on several occasions, and there are a few jaw-dropping moments for her as well. "Some of the things I discovered, well, I was broadsided."

Not everyone in the old photograph agreed to be interviewed on camera for the programme. Rache's sister Jenny was one. "She's a singer today, and she lives just down the road in Brighton, and was interested in what I was doing, and she, too, had fond memories of Tina's home. But she just didn't want to re-visit the past. Another pair of sisters who were at the home at the same time as us rather felt the same way."

Rachel began methodically, talking to experts who warned she might uncover some unpleasant home truths and that not everyone might be delighted by her questions. They told her 25 per cent of adults who sleep rough have been in care and a similar percentage of prisoners and ex-offenders have been through the care system. Only seven per cent brought up this way make it into higher education.

Over four months last year Rachel and a small film crew visited Doncaster and built up a picture of the care home in Ascot Avenue, Cantley. It looks directly at the Becher's Brook public house, over the road. It's in the bar of the pub that one of the major shocks of the film is delivered. The landlord, Stefan Cook, turns out to be her step-brother. He had spent many years in the same care home.

When Rachel reads her own case file, she discovers how her mother and father had got together. He was already married with children and she was their teenage baby-sitter. She was 15 when he seduced her. Later, she ran away with an Indonesian sailor.

Rachel's father had five sons by his first wife and one by his second – so Rachel and Jenny found they had a full blood brother. This brother and another half-brother share the Christian name – Bryce. And there were nephews and nieces.

"It's the stuff of ingeniously plotted novels or a TV drama," says Rachel. She has not tried to track down her mother. "She did what she did, she had her own reasons, and that was that. But she effectively abandoned us, and you can have your own reactions to that. Dad, poor man, clearly couldn't cope with two young daughters as well as the lads.

"I always felt, call it instinct, that there was something wrong and troubled in the background to my early life. A dark secret somewhere. Now, I know I was right. Mum? I feel sorry for her in some way, because she missed out on having two loving daughters, and Tina, bless her huge heart, got it all.

"Tina is the lucky one, with all those thoughts of happy times with so many children. Mum is now irrelevant to me. Does that sound harsh? When she gave us up, perhaps she thought that we were irrelevant to her, as well. Resentment? Not a shred! But to be abandoned by a mother is the worst thing that could happen to a child."

The film reveals the mental bruising that being in care frequently leaves. "I consider Jenny and I to be the lucky ones. We weren't split up, we were both fostered by a lovely Scottish couple in Glencoe. We had a happy childhood. I went to Glasgow University where I had the time of my life, and from then I studied in London and started out on my career. I am a contented person, and so is my sister.

"Florence is another lucky one – she's a hugely successful businesswoman today. Another of the girls, Caroline, now has a lovely daughter and a happy marriage of nearly 20 years. But she was in 10 care homes before she left, and when I met her, she simply said that she hated her own mother for giving her up. Others have been less than blessed."

She discovers that a pair of brothers in the home were split up by social services before their teens, and lost touch with each other until they met again at 16. Another young
man took his own life at the age of 18. Two of the boys remember a third who was a bully.

One of Rachel's childhood companions had a disastrously short marriage, had fathered two sons and fought his wife for custody. He won his battle, and brought them up as a single parent. One is now serving in the Army and has done a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Prison terms are mentioned several times in the film. Her own late father, Rachel discovers, had been locked up.

Her respect and love is mainly reserved for ex-matron Tina and her husband Dennis. Apparently, when they first met, Dennis said he "didn't really want to have children". Tina replied: "Then you'll be interested to hear what I do for a living.".

"She became matron when she was in her late teens, replacing a woman who was a strict disciplinarian of the old school," says Rachel. "All my memories of her are glowingly positive. Trips to the seaside in Dennis's ancient Morris Minor. Baking cakes with her at the kitchen table. She fed and watered us all and lavished affection on us. There was nothing that she wouldn't do. She was everything that a mother should have been, to so many.

"She gave us a 'family' and, God love her, she also tried to protect us from a lot of rather unpleasant truths."

Interviewed in the film, Tina is a bubbly (now elderly) woman with a bright smile. Her only criticisms come when she talks about brothers and sisters being split up and sent to different care homes, and when she fleetingly mentions the lack of adequate funding for children's needs.

At the reunion, she is hugged by everyone, and Dennis quickly puts up a screen to proudly show slides of the happy times. In the autumn this year, Rachel will welcome Tina and Dennis to Brighton, where they'll be stopping on a caravan holiday.

Rachel has never married, nor does she have children – although she'd like to. "I think I'd make a great mother, I have a very strong maternal instinct. But the right relationship in which I would feel confident to have them has not, thus far, turned up. Being rejected by my own mother has not affected me in that way, believe me."

Inspired by her discoveries, she going through the process to be the mentor to a local child in Hove, "and it is proving to be hugely fulfilling".

At the end of the project, and after asking everyone who took part in her interviews if they'd be interested, Rachel organised a reunion in the Polish Restaurant in central Doncaster. Everyone seemed happy with that idea
at the time – some, on the night, didn't turn up.

How does she feel now her quest is finished? "Relieved, I suppose, and far more whole than I did. And I really want to know what other people think when they see the film. I think it will have a huge reaction from others who have been through the same process.

"Do you know what the saddest moment of all was? I was talking to one of the lads who had been in care since he was 10 days old. And I asked him what he thought of his mother. And he just shrugged, and said 'What you never had, you never miss'."

Rachel's film, The Homecoming, part of Channel 4's Britain's Forgotten Children season, will be shown on May 14.
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More on the Forgotten Children series can be found here:  http://forgottenchildren.channel4.com/

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