If, like me, you’ve sometimes gathered up your papers at the end of a care application and wondered, “What next for this child?” — or even if you haven’t — can I recommend to you the two BBC documentaries by Neil Morrissey, which are available on iplayer here, but only for the next couple of days. Neil was taken into care at the age of 10 and lived in a care home until he was 17. He gives an enormously touching, honest and courageous account of his time in the care system, and the impact it had on him in childhood and into adult life. It will give you an idea of the trauma involved if I tell you that Neil and his brother Steve, to whom he was extremely close, were not expecting to be taken into care at all. They were suddenly separated from their parents, and each other, at the Magistrates’ Court, and sent to separate children’s homes. Neil did not really see his brother again for another 10 years. His brother was in fact sent to a children’s home which later became the focus of a police investigation for physical and sexual abuse on a large scale. It sounds like a Dotheboys Hall for the 20th century. This was in the late 1970s, and certainly things are a lot more child-centred now, but it is heartbreaking to see the effect this sudden and dreadful dislocation had on Neil, and children like him. Certainly nobody appears to have given any thought to how the process felt from the point of view of these two children, and the damage has been permanent.
Even as an adult, Neil had no real idea of why he had been taken into care in the first place. One of the most interesting sections of the documentary is the meeting between Neil and the family’s social worker, who gives him some more of the background. Neil lets him off a bit lightly in my view, but one of the important things he says in the programme is that he has learned not to dwell on the past. I can imagine that if you started to allow yourself to get angry about some of this stuff, you’d never stop.
He talks to some of the people who were in the children’s home with him, and to young people in today’s care system. These are not easy interviewees, who are at times telling stories of significant distress and damage, and I thought he was a great interviewer. He clearly has a lot of natural openness and empathy which encouraged them to talk. It obviously helped that they knew he had gone through the care system himself. He also highlighted the particularly significant problem of what happens when a young adult leaves the care system and has to learn to fend for him- or herself, often without any significant life skills or support. This is a really serious issue and deserves to be more widely known about.
His is of course a purely personal and subjective view of what it was like to be a child and teenager in the care system thirty years ago, but it’s that personal touch and subjectivity which gives these programmes their strength. I really do urge you to have a look at them, I think they’re very important.
And I was utterly delighted, on a personal note of my own, to find that my two favourite Norn Irishmen, Adrian Dunbar and Charlie Lawson, are old friends — of Neil Morrissey and each other! (So they are.) (Not Brazil.) But you’ll have to watch the second programme to find out about that.