“Because I Grew Up In An Orphanage”

On Identity & Being Raised In Care of the State

I wouldn’t need a large abacus to count the number of times my experience as someone raised in care of the state has been well represented in a film. But one fleeting moment in Robert Altman’s 2001 murder mystery Gosford Park, an elegant pre-cursor to Dowton Abbey, nailed it.

During a large and free-flowing dinner table conversation about family, Mr Stockbridge (played by Clive Owen) stunned fellow diners when he answered a question with a simple “because I grew up in an orphanage“. The ensuing silence told more of our story than any scripted dialogue ever could.

Anyone from state care who had to describe their background because of a routine question about childhood in a polite conversation knows that silence. Until very recently and in middle age I still grimaced when such discussions arose at the diplomatic functions I attend with my job. If I am honest about it, at different stages of my life I have felt intrinsic shame, stigma and especially guilt for the discomfort it may cause to others and this has often fed into a deep, internal narrative that I am not really good enough to be here . But I also felt compelled never to hide who I am or where I come from. Being from state care is as important for my identity as being a Belgan or being a Hindu may be to someone else. It is where I spent my formative years, it is what shaped me and I want to be a good role model for kids in care today. It is at my core . I just would rather not talk about it.

6% of UK 18 year olds from state care go to university compared to around 27% of the general population. When I was 18 ( a very long time ago) it felt more like 0%. We were from a minority that was more likely than any other to end up in prison, a gang, trafficked, addicted or die early and very very unlikely to go to university. Unlike other marginalised minorities, we had no underpinning culture, flags or narrative to carry a sense of pride in our identity. I am so proud of the 6% of 18 year olds from care who end up in university today. It is mainly a testimony to their own resilience and brilliance, but also the fact that the system has been somewhat reformed in the past couple of decades. The odds are still stacked against them, they make it through anyway.

Like many of my generation, I left a children’s home aged 16 with a €200 leaving care allowance, a modest bag of life possessions and a complete absence of any form of love or belonging at all.

I have never complained about where I come from. This was the way my life was, it was normal to me. Coming from the bottom 1% of a society where identity was shaped by class and family, and then trying to advance though university & career etc often left me feeling unsteady on my feet and like an outsider or an imposter. I still feel like an outsider today to be honest, but I wouldn’t want to go back and change anything.

There are also things I am proud of. Because I had no parental support at all, I woke up at 4 am on weekends, when the other students were coming back from parties, and ran market stalls in Camden Town, I drove a mini-cab around London late at night and did shifts in an old peoples home and a college kitchen to pay my way through university. I really believed that a university education would help me escape the legacy of my childhood and I would do anything to reach that goal. I remember going to my first day of university, buying my own pens and books with money I had earned and not quite believing that I was lucky enough to be there. I was surrounded by people who seemed to take it all for granted. How much luckier I was then them, that this could feel like such a blessing in my life. I still feel blessed and privileged today.

But then there is love. In state care, one often grows up with this internalised sense of being unloveable, not even by one’s parents. Biologically all children are programmed to seek loving protection and nurture from parents, when it is absent they interpret it as danger. Adults from care backgrounds often have low self esteem, insecure attachment, post-traumatic stress and over-active fight or flight systems. This has a profound impact on your identity and sense of self.

You can strive to be a success on the outside as a young care leaver, but inside there are all these jagged edges and broken parts that, if you are aware of them, you would like to put together again. But because you are trying to escape extreme poverty and have an absence of support networks, you are just thinking about survival. Profound emotional insecurity can be a barrier to the relationships that the research now tells us are the single most most important determinants of both healing from trauma and building the resilience to overcome barriers and get on in life. Often the strategy the subconscious gives us is to separate the left and the right side of the brain-to run on the gas of the cognitive: job and education and forget the oil of love, emotion and belonging. But just like a car, you will break down in the end.

Nobody politically can articulate this. The main political discourses in our society don’t do emotional. They only do economic and power.

The left often argues that a care leaver is a victim of discrimination and poverty. But as Nimco Ali wrote recently about race & gender & being a refugee “The left wants to frame my life experience via the prism of helplessness and victimhood. I am meant to be consumed by all that has happened to me — to long for all that I have lost and wait to be rescued, but I have always refused to do that“. For me, it has taken me most of my adult life to feel really comfortable talking about being from care. But I can be shut down in a moment if someone tries to frame my narrative as a victim, and that often comes from the left.

Economic models from the right make life difficult for already marginalised care leavers. I know this from the rock face because I left care during Thatcherism. And then they argue that if an individual care leaver (actually a tiny fraction) can progress through hard work, then anyone can. But evidently they cannot and do not because the impact of trauma and neglect is very individual and complex and based upon the interaction of experience, resilience & biology. In 2019, policy makers should really know this, we shouldn’t have to explain it. And anyway, as Colin Powell once said, “how can you ask someone to pull themselves up by the bootstraps when they don’t have boots“. Care leavers badly need support networks.

Discrimination, poverty and hard work are high stakes challenges for any care leaver, but the main issue remains love, or the lack of it. There is a broader need for a politics that can talk about love, wellbeing, trauma, violence and hope. The social and emotional drivers of all of our behaviour and decisions. And this makes democratic sense because care leavers are not alone.

Until recently there was a common public perception that childhood trauma, neglect & violence were marginal issues addressed through the care, social work and juvenile justice systems dealing with maybe 1 or 2 % of a given child population. But the World Health Organisation and other bodies have undertaken surveys in multiple countries on general populations which reveal that on average, around 60% of adults in family settings were affected be one serious adverse childhood experience (ACEs) and around 15% by 4 or more. The 15% with 4 or more ACEs, like care leavers are much more likely to have really bad life outcomes in health, crime, education and all aspects of wellbeing. In psychology research, 42% of adults across countries are said to have insecure attachment due to absence or inconsistency of parental love in the first two years of life. Insecure attachment severely affects their ability to have quality relationships. The common perception about the marginality of trauma must have ran counter to people’s lived experience and their ability to articulate it. That is now changing.

I was raised in care of the state. I am neither proud of it or ashamed of it. But I would like to live in a world where future care leavers don’t suffer long silences & superficial victim or bootstraps narratives. Where investments are made to ensure those from public care & others affected by adversity everywhere-can reconnect, build and heal free from shame and public stigma. This would be socially just, fiscally prudent and frankly just plain easier and better for the whole of society.

12 thoughts on ““Because I Grew Up In An Orphanage”

  1. I congratulate you Ben for this deep and insightful article! Your perseverance, tenacity and drive is admirable and infectious. Your story should be shared as wide as possible, as I believe it will be an inspiration and a beacon for those who may be going through the same challenges!

    Well done and so proud of you!

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  2. Brilliant and heartfelt. You have my gratitude and respect, dear Ben. I look forward to seeing you in New York. Warmest regards, Robert

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  3. Thanks for sending me the link. Such a thoughtful piece. I work with vulnerable children in primary school, some who are or have been in care. You are spot on about the main political discourses not doing emotional…just think how different it would be if relationships and connection were at the heart of our politics in the UK. We wouldn’t be in the mess we are currently in with Brexit, child poverty and overt racism. Thanks again for sending me the link.

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  4. Just to say, as a foster mum, how proud I am of my foster son who has just got into Uni. He is an exceptional young man, very, very lovable, kind, generous and hard working. I hope that the Carer Leavers’ Covenant goes from strength to strength just to champion those brought up in state care.

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  5. An excellent but sad piece – so difficult for those children who do not have somebody to love and care for them. Inspiring that you were able to overcome such an experience and shine!

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    1. I would hope that it would not be seen as a sad piece. Its an explanation of a life-that to us is the ordinary path we have travelled-but which is usually distorted by stereotypes. In the end it should be about hope and acceptance

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  6. I was brought up in an orphanage left when I was 15, this is the first time I have read anything that relates to how I feel and felt, I have serious trust issues will not let this invisible wall I have built down tho not through the lack of trying. I did marry and had a child 6 years later however my trust was broken by his adultery and I brought my daughter up alone, my lack of showing emotion has had an effect on her, even tho I would die for her. I avoided for years talking about my childhood because I hate the poor you I would get, I eventually connected with my mum who loved dearly till she passed away. As I said at the beginning it really is the first time seeing the words on how I feel still.

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    1. Dear Linda, Thanks so much for this feedback. Your response is one of the main reasons I wrote the blog in the first place. To tell the story of people like us. There is a brilliant UK poet Lemn Sissay who has just now launched a book called “My Name is Why” about his experience of growing up in care. I think you would identify with that also. Another previous book Hackney Child by Hope Daniels may also be of interest. I wish you the very best. We can heal, relationships and self-reflection and understanding are the key. Massive hugs to you . Ben

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  7. As someone who has worked in children’s homes for nearly 30years I want to say thank you for this article. I constantly rail against people who say for our protection we shouldn’t hug children we are carers not parents my response is always ‘if my children had been in care I would want someone to show them love and compassion’ so why would I not give the children I care for that which is human. Sadly although things are changing it is not enough with decision often still being budget driven rather than care driven. I admire your tenacity and honesty once again thank you

    Liked by 1 person

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