Around half of the young people involved in the criminal justice system have been in care at some point in their lives. They are vastly overrepresented in custody. At HMP Wetherby, three quarters of young people in the Keppel Unit have been in local authority care. This is often preceded by a vast tapestry of isolations and exclusions from school. At Feltham Young Offenders Institute an estimated 90% of young people held there left mainstream school at 13 years old or younger. Countless reports have recommended that mentoring programmes and early interventions can go a significant way in reducing this, yet with a decade of austerity and further creeping cuts to the social care budget, young people in the care system are left to flounder, drowning in trauma. This is a true account of one mentor’s experience.
This wasn’t the first time you’d been here.
The central line snaked through the scarred city and spat you out in suburbia. A forgotten place, ravaged with Poundlands and Paddy Powers. Chicken shops perched on every corner their £1.99 meal deals grinning through greasy windows.
You tap out. The graffiti on the side of a boarded-up block says, ‘I like you’. Your long black coat doesn’t protect you from the wind, or the rain. You stub out the cigarette on the curve of the station wall and drain the dregs of the coffee you bought in Zone 1. You follow the little blue dot on the map. You arrive.
A sign tells you to Smile and you swear the CCTV camera creaks towards you. You activate the wireless video doorbell. Unconscionably, it plays Vivaldi – Four Seasons, and the crescendo descends into a flanging, mechanical distress signal.
There is no ‘Welcome Home’ mat.
The porch isn’t full of raincoats or muddy boots. No ornaments are peeking under curtains. No houseplants tumbling over windowsills. No letters, or newspapers, or takeaway menus waiting to be claimed or destroyed. The inescapable sadness reminds you of the time Mum forgot to pick you up from school.
Initially, no one answers. You press again, and there’s a twitch at the window followed by a swift assessment that you are not:
- a member of the public,
- Jehovah’s witness,
- a neighbour (and/or)
- a teenager
The flash of ID badge indicates you are A Professional. Someone who can make decisions. Someone who knows their way around a care plan, a Looked After Child Review, a Child Protection Plan. Someone who can discuss Section 17, Section 20 and Section 47. Someone who is there to challenge and advocate, support and mentor. You glance down and it’s in that moment you notice an unknown stain on your jeans. Shit.
The washed out, handwritten sign, blue-tacked to the wall, warns you that the door opens outwards and when the door opens outwards, you are still caught by surprise.
You are greeted by the manager, Susan*, who is matronly and imposing. She has a floaty silk thing hanging around her neck and a bright plastic broach keeping it all together. She smells like chemically created flowers, and your weak sinuses can’t take the sting. As you say ‘hello’ you sneeze.
She looks at you perplexed and poses, “I h’assume yuh ‘ere for Mr ‘Arvey*?”
The lilting, island accent reminds you of your grandmother, which makes your palms sweat slightly and you scold yourself for wearing trainers. She is seated at her desk alongside a small pile of pistachio shells.
Two key workers are also in the cramped office, yet neither acknowledge your presence. Kayleigh* is young and dripping in lip gloss. Dominik* is telling her about his morning power smoothie and how the flexibility of working at The Home fits with his gym schedule.
Susan squeaks round in her chair and brandishes a beaten visitor’s book.
“Name, h’organisation and time yuh arrive. Please my darlin”
The tome is worn and weathered and dates back to 2010. Your finger traces the names of everyone who has ever walked through these doors. How many of these kids are adults now, you wonder. Probably all of them, you surmise. How many are dead?
You add your name to the list. Here to see: Harvey*.
Harvey* was pretty sure he must have been happy at some point. At some point it must have been normal. Life, that is. But he couldn’t remember when. He must have had dreams. Dreams of wild adventure and mountains and oceans and magic. He must’ve, that’s what people do, right? Dream. He knew nightmares. He knew waking up in a cold sweat and someone sitting on your chest. He knew how it felt to be paralysed in panic, to scream with eyes wide shut, to gasp whilst sleeping. Yeah, he knew nightmares.
The Home had been home for six months, and he hated it. He hated the staff, the curfew, the food, the framed photographs of whatever losers he was living with, the ‘Live Laugh Love’ wall decoration that Kayleigh had bought for the house from TK Maxx. He hated all of it. He’d originally been put into the care of his Corporate Parents aged six, or seven, and had been bussed about ever since. Foster care, back to Mum – she still couldn’t handle the drink though so that didn’t last. More foster care, then off to Dad’s – until he got sent to the bin, then foster care, foster care, foster care, foster care, and finally, The Home. He was 13, apparently, as everyone liked to remind him. He didn’t feel it though. Harvey didn’t feel much.
But right now, Harvey is starting to feel something. He’s starting to feel pretty fucking pissed that some next dickhead is knocking on his door.
“Harvey? It’s err…Liz…again…just wondering if you want to chat about…life…and that…if you want? Mate?”
He turns up the television until Spongebob drowns out the sound.
You knock for the third time. An “uuuuuurrrrrrrgh FINE” explodes from behind the magnolia door.
The sitting room awaits you – valiantly trying to be something other than hopeless. The faux leather sofas, the CCTV and the donated DVDs curate a clinical definition of Home. The Christmas Tree leans, limp. It’s late February.
He appears at the door, taller than you had imagined. His voice hasn’t broken yet and his t-shirt sports a faded cookie monster.
“So, who the fuck are you then?”
You go headlong into your spiel about safety and missing episodes and advocacy and not being a social worker and definitely not the feds mate, alright? He stares at you, unmoved, with a hardness that indicates he knows how to live in a world that doesn’t want him to.
He produces an inch of a spliff. Puts it in his mouth, heads to the kitchen, and leans down towards the cooker, summoning a flame.
In a genuine desire for him not to singe his naturally long eyelashes or corkscrew curls – you jump up, pull him away and say;
“D’ya want a lighter mate?”
In the exact way your training tells you not to.
He thanks in grunts and smokes his diminutive spliff in the garden, occasionally wafting the heady smell of cannabis into the kitchen. He’s looking in your direction, and you wonder what he’s thinking. You stand in silence for a little while. He punctures it.
“Can I keep it?”
“I mean…I don’t think I can give it to you…I mean, I need it.”
He looks at you billowed by smoke. Cookie Monster looks at you too.
He offers it back. You notice all the tiny scars on his knuckles. He smokes his spliff until it burns his fingers and we sit back down.
“Are you alright?”
By this point he is fully contorted. His gaze never leaves Instagram.
“Yeah. Am good.”
“So, Harvey, all this missing stuff. What’s going on, then, eh?”
His eyes flick up and meet yours.
“I do what I want innit. I was out, with my mates and that”. He returns to the small screen.
“Any particular like, area? Or anything?”
“Right…okay…do you like Elephant?”
“It’s my ends innit.”
“You grew up there?”
“I didn’t grow up nowhere.”
“Well, I guess we all grew up somewhere”
“You from Brum?” He says, eyeing you cautiously.
This comment throws you, because, you are, and because, well, how would he know? Your childhood is punctuated by years of long car journeys, going up and down the M6, with family rejection in abundance at both ends. It left you with many things, including an accent that belonged nowhere.
“Yeah you got it”, you say. “Not many people can, you have sharp ears”. He nods, in stoic agreement. “Do you have family in Birmingham?” You prod.
“Nah, not really. My mum grew up there innit”.
“Ah, I see. It’s alright you know! Brindley Place is…”
You realise a 13-year-old won’t be interested in the development of Brindley Place and how nice the Carluccio’s is.
“Was your dad from there too?” You gently interrogate, tip toeing the fine line of relationship building and freaking him the fuck out.
“The waste of space, piece of shit, that don’t deserve no name was from Zimbabwe”.
“Your dad?” He looks at you, and his eyes are apologising but you don’t know what for.
“Yeah” he mutters.
Apropos of nothing he goes, “You know what yeah?”
“See them people in the street yeah, the big business people with briefcases and watches and that?”
You take a glance down to your own watch. Vivienne Westwood, Mum had bought it as a present one Christmas. “Yeah?”
“I’m never gunna be one a dem.”
“Harvey, that’s not true! You’re what 14?” You always ask kids if they are one year older than the age you know that they are and you don’t know why you do this.
“Nah, am 13, but see me yeah, all I’m good for is death. It’s kill or be killed y’know. Shank or be shanked”.
The words reverberate in the room and despite all the conversations you’ve ever had with young people, all the thousands of hours of chats and talks and disclosures and tears – you don’t know what to say. Just two months ago a boy you knew was shot in the head. A month after that a girl you knew was shot in the chest. What Harvey is saying isn’t new to you and you can’t muster up the energy to lie. The silence has ticked on for longer that you intended.
Harvey goes back to his phone.
“Harvey that’s not true,” You begin to remonstrate. “You know, you’ve sat here and spoken to me, and been honest, and truthful, and I think, at your age and that, you can go on to do anything…I know it’s been hard for you, and maybe it still is…”
You scan the room and notice the plastic covers have never been taken off the dining chairs
“…but that doesn’t mean you should just give up, you could be that business person with the briefcase and the watch…”
He looks at you, completely unmoved by your speech.
“Look a’ dis”
He beckons you over and opens his saved Instagram posts. The first one is of Spongebob Squarepants sound-tracked by Snoop Dog. Spongebob is wearing an oversized chain, and Squidward appears to be dressed in a thong. Harvey giggles, infectiously. It’s silly and infantile. His long eyelashes make him look younger than 13. He exits the video deftly and opens up the next. It is of a man being skinned alive. He doesn’t stop laughing. You can feel the image being seared onto your retinas but you can’t look away.
“See that, isn’t that…mad!” He says, in between fits of laughter.
“Wasteman must’a done some bad shit to get done like that!”
“Harvey, I don’t…I don’t understand why you’re watching this?”
He slowly cascades his body back to upright and looks at you, or through you, you aren’t quite sure. Seconds amble by and in a tone that isn’t quite adversarial he goes,
“Why the fuck do you care?”
Why do you care?
You with the work phone. You with the scarf that coordinates with your shoes. You with the 2:1 degree you don’t use. You with the long words and full diary. You with the Netflix, the Spotify, the Amazon Prime. You with the yoga class, the writing club, the soy candles. You with the foolish and footloose friends who work in theatre and hospitals. You with the witty twitter memes and opinions on Palestine. You with the un-ironic fleece and fascination with houseplants. You with the gig tickets and loose change and vegan ramen. You with the book recommendations and Spike Lee films. You with The Guardian, The Economist, the Hatred of The Sun. You with the brown skin and kinky hair.
You with the broken home.
You with the dead parent.
You who could have been him.
You who sees more than another chewed up kid spat out like gristle. You with the elevated belief that maybe – just maybe, despite all the shit that showers down, this collection of bones and trauma and hate that’s sat in front of you can amount to something more than a Hashtag RIP.
You who believes that kids shouldn’t watch videos of people being skinned alive.
You can’t tell him why you care, but you know you do.
“Well, It’s my job to care. I believe in you, and I want to help.”
You sound like a fucking brochure.
His expression solidifies. There is no recognition of what was just said, and you wonder if you said it all.
You sign out your name.
You never see Harvey again. He’s moved to Leicester two days later for pulling a kitchen cupboard off the wall. He’s now in a ‘Secure Unit’ – a prison for the kids that have nowhere to go, away from any friends he knew and any family he wanted. Another Home, another life.
A month later you are told in a white boardroom with no windows that “although we love your work, we’re aren’t going to renew the contract, we’re really focusing on school excellence this year, so we no longer have the funding”.
You sign out your name, you pack up your desk. You think about Harvey.
*all names have been changed to protect identity
Liz Ward is an educator, collaborator and activist, who first found her feet in Climate Justice after graduating in Zoology. She spent the start of her career travelling the length and breadth of the country, delivering workshops and speeches in schools, followed by managing a youth project in London, working with survivors of exploitation. She has been known to spit a few bars on the spoken word poetry scene and is still living off the glory of being signed to Everton Football Club U13s team. She is now Programmes Director at The Advocacy Academy, a South London youth movement, training young activists.
Follow her experiences of the Youth Work sector and football: @lizmaryward