I was put into care when I was nine days old. I know all too well that the system is 'not fit for purpose' – especially for girls
By Precious Williams
June 18, 2012 / The Guardian
They are labelled "looked-after children" but it might be more accurate to call them "written-off children". There are about 65,000 children in care in Britain today. A care system branded by an all-party report as riddled with weaknesses, with residential care "not fit for purpose" for children who go missing.
I know what it's like, I used to be one of them. I was put into foster care when I was nine days old. My second foster placement – at 10 weeks old – was with a loving elderly foster carer I came to call Nan. She kept me for more or less my entire childhood and she nurtured me as best she could. Even so, by the time I was 16 I'd made a serious suicide attempt (and was disappointed at the time not to have succeeded) and I'd had a stint of alcoholism.
Just the other day I was transported right back to those times I thought I'd left behind. I was in a black cab and the driver got chatting. He wanted to know what I did for a living. "Journalist, eh?" he said, and then he asked what I thought about the news stories about the ring of sexual predators in Rochdale. "Those little scrubbers in Rochdale," he said. "They were asking for it, if you ask me." In fact, I wasn't asking him. But I certainly should have argued with him and set him straight – told him the girls were the victims, and that the men who raped them were disgraceful predators preying on young people they knew were vulnerable. The cabbie's certainty that those girls deserved to be raped and exploited silenced me. I used to be one of those girls. The types of girls society – let's face it – looks down on and holds in contempt. The sort of girl a predator thinks he can get away with raping.
It's depressingly common for "looked-after" children growing up in chaotic situations – especially girls – to be sexually abused. I was no exception. My foster mother, Nan, loved me, but obviously she could only keep an eye on me when I was actually physically present. Two weeks before my fourth birthday, I was raped. The rape is alluded to briefly in my social services records. My social worker mentions a complaint received from a family member who was "concerned about incidents that occurred with Precious and a man that visited her mother". The conclusion of the report? The social worker suggested that Nan "might take Precious to her GP for some treatment for the soreness and if the occasion arose, she could then tell the GP what she suspected".
The sexual abuse didn't end there, but my ability to view myself as a worthy human being did. Throughout my childhood there were forms Nan and I had to fill in to try to get cash for school trips, new sports kits and so on from social services. But there were no forms available to request psychiatric support, mentoring or guidance in how to recover from sexual trauma.
Your own mother gave you away. That is the story that plays and plays again in your head. It may not even be true. But one thing that's lacking when you're a looked-after child is a full explanation that shifts the blame away from the child. When nobody explains why your mother chose not to raise you herself or that being raped is a crime, how are you going to feel about yourself? A girl or young woman walking around thinking "even my own mother doesn't want me" is a sexual predator's dream come true.
At 16 I was raped again. By a stranger who looked old enough to be my father. I didn't report it to the police. I didn't tell Nan. I didn't tell my social worker, or my teachers at sixth-form college. The authorities responsible for my care knew – or at the very least suspected – I'd been raped when I was only three and they'd barely batted an eyelid. Why on earth would they care if some guy raped me now I was 16?
A week or so after it happened I saw the rapist strolling along with his partner and their toddler daughter. I felt a moment of absolute clarity. The little girl in the pushchair was probably a person who counted. I was one of society's rejects. It mattered what happened to her, it didn't matter what happened to me. It was that simple.
Eventually I turned 18 which meant I was no longer in care. I could no longer define myself as a foster child. There was no script any more, I had to write my own. I realised that Nan and the rest of my foster family actually weren't my foster family: they were my family, period. It wasn't a smooth path. My life out of care included becoming a teenage mother, going to Oxford University and becoming a journalist. But the hardest bit of all was learning to actually care about myself.
"Children in care need better care and better mentoring to help build their self confidence and self-esteem so they can break the cycle of abuse and not put themselves in situations where they fall prey to sexual predators," says Debbie Ariyo, the founder of the charity Africans Unite Against Child Abuse. "We need to provide young girls in care with better guidance to enable them focus as young people and make something positive out of their lives."