by Peter Watt
Neil is ten years old. This morning he woke to find that he had wet the bed. His Mum smacked him and told him that he was stupid. It happened most days. His bed was changed only occasionally. He did not wash or shower. He put on the same clothes as yesterday. The same clothes that he had been wearing since the school holidays had started. His trainers had got wet in the snow and had never properly dried.
He knew that today was going to be a bad day. He had heard his Mum and Dad get in from the pub late, arguing loudly. His Mum had gone off to meet his Dad, leaving him to get tea for his brother Arnie, aged seven, and sister Sam, aged three. He had eventually taken himself to bed. He certainly did not want to be up when they got in. Sometimes they would come back with strangers and stay up talking loudly. He was pretty sure that they were taking drugs. When that happened he took his brother and sister into his room, shut the door and hoped for the best.
Mum had gone back to bed; Dad had not yet got up. He wanted to get his brother and sister out of the house before their Dad woke up. Arnie had also wet the bed. Neil turned the mattress over, as there was no sheet. There was nothing for breakfast. He managed to find enough coppers to buy a packet of Doritos and some biscuits.
On the way back from the shop he smoked the fag that he had pinched from his Mum. He hoped that she wouldn’t notice or he would cop for it again. He passed a group of kids from his school who started pushing him. They called him “shorty” and “shit breath”. One of them started saying, “Your Mum’s an alky, shit breath”. Something flipped. He started punching and kicking. He might be small but he had fury on his side and felt no fear.
When he got home he shared the spoils with his brother and sister. While they ate, he tried to clean the blood from his jacket. His Mum came down and saw the rip in his jacket. He knew what was coming. The noise woke his Dad who was furious. At least they were only shouting at and hitting him and not the other two. While his Mum made his Dad coffee, he slipped off to the park, taking Arnie and Sam with him. The best thing would be to stay away for as long as possible. At least it was not as cold as it had been. Perhaps Auntie June would give them something to eat. If not he would just have to nick something.
His biggest fear was that the social would try and take him, Arnie and Sam away. They had been sniffing around for a few months now. He had met one of them at school and he had heard Mum and Dad talking about the “fucking interfering do-gooders”. If he was not at home, who would look after Mum? Or if he was separated from Arnie and Sam, who would look after them? He could take care of himself, but strangers could not take care of Arnie and Sam.
He would do anything to stop that happening. What he wanted more than anything was his family back.
Right now, right here in the UK, tens of thousands of children are suffering from neglect and abuse. The consequences both for them personally and for society are immense, with the effects being felt for a lifetime. It may be hard not to be judgemental: it is certainly easy to intervene too soon, too hard or not hard enough. What is certain is that these children are all too often invisible.
- There were 64,400 looked after children as at 31 March 2010, an increase of six per cent from 2009 and an increase of seven per cent since 2006.
- Overall, the main reason why social care services first engaged with children who started to be looked after during the year was because of abuse or neglect (52%). This percentage has increased since 2009.
- In 2006, only 12% of children in care achieved five A*to C grades at GCSE (or equivalent) compared to 59% of all children.
- The health of children in care is poorer than that of other children. 45% of children in care are assessed as having a mental disorder compared with around ten per cent of the general population.
- 9.6% of children in care aged ten or over were cautioned or convicted for an offence during the year – almost three times the rate for all children of this age.
- 30% of care leavers aged 19 were not in education, employment or training.
Peter Watt is a former general secretary of the Labour party and current foster carer.