My dad died when I was 3 (the year after the above photo was taken). He had cancer, and he’d been sick for a long time, but that didn’t make it any less heartbreaking for my mother who was 28 and alone with two kids. As a result, things did not go so well after that. She drank more and more, until she became the kind of person who passed out in pubs resulting in the staff ringing around to get someone to collect us. “Us”, because of course we were with her. Needless to say, this carry on did not go down well with the extended family. At first she was encouraged to cut back, then to stop altogether. There were interventions, and times spent in various rehab centres (one stint involved myself and my brother living in some kind of group home as she was afraid if we went to stay with family they wouldn’t give us back) but the will to drink was strong within her and stopping didn’t seem to be an option. Eventually she decided the answer was to move to America, where it would be more difficult for people to annoy her and she could drink in peace.
Predictably, once in America things got worse. Fortunately she had been convinced to stay in Chicago where we had family, and when we disappeared off the radar entirely, my aunt and uncle were there to look for us. When the Department of Child and Family Services found us, my aunt and uncle were there to step in and take custody. Eventually they adopted us, and they’re who I now call my parents.
The reason I’m writing about all of this, is because we were lucky. We were lucky that we had supportive family members who saw that something was wrong and stepped in. Who, despite the financial constraints of a couple in their twenties suddenly having two children, stepped up. If it weren’t for them, we would almost certainly have gone into care as many children do. Children who in their young lives have already been let down in a deeply profound manner by those who are meant to take care of them.
Today, a report released by the government has made clear that for many children who go into care, the failure does not end there. The report of the Independent Child Death Review group covers the 196 deaths of young people in care between the year 2000 and 2010, and found that 112 of those deaths were not of natural causes. In other words, they were as a result of things like drug overdoses, suicides, car accidents or other horrible incidents. The report outlines the system’s failing to consistently support vulnerable young people and it’s so deeply disturbing that it has led Enda Kenny to refer to it as a “harrowing tale and a litany of shame in many respects”. The report makes it clear that despite the efforts of some individuals and the complexity of many cases, the system is failing. It’s failing young people who have been failed from the start.
As a society, we need to make sure we are better than this. We need to ensure that young people who are forced to live in care have the opportunity to reach their full potential rather than being forgotten about, as this report indicates that many have been. It needs to be a priority before there is another “litany of shame”, because there but for the grace of God go I. Or you. Or anyone who grows up believing that they are nothing, and that they don’t matter. I’m grateful for the fact that I was lucky enough to have people who were related to me who were willing to step in and step up, but some children don’t and in the absence of caring relations, we need to be a caring society. We need to step up. Because this “harrowing tale” is not a “harrowing tale”, it’s these young people’s lives, and it’s not good enough.