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young people in care

Looking back at my childhood in care

Losing and regaining one’s personal and cultural identity: Virginia Burton contributes her story to Who Cares? the English magazine for young people in care

I'm Virginia and I’d like to you a bit about my life. I’m 43 now, the mother of a wonderful 17-year-old daughter, and a social worker myself. But things were very different when I was 13.

My mum and dad lived in Vienna, Austria and were Jewish. They managed to get to England when the Second World War came. At first they were put in a special camp because Austrians were seen as enemies. After the war, dad could not get a job and began to think everyone was a Nazi, out to get him. He went into a psychiatric hospital and never came out again.

My mum looked after me on the benefit money she received, but she was very sad and lonely. When I was 6, she got cancer and died when I was 13. No-one explained that she was dying and we never said goodbye. I still miss her, and feel unhappy about this. Both my mum and dad were orthodox Jews: my dad became vegetarian and stayed so in hospital so as not to break the food laws. My mum and I went to synagogue every week: I learned about Judaism and Hebrew each weekend.

About six months after my mum died I went into care. I remember my social worker well — she was very kind but she came from a different world. Once we went shopping to buy me some clothes. She pointed to a chauffeur-driven Rolls going by and said that was her husband inside. I quickly learnt not to tell her anything important. I decided to put her off by talking instead about all the other ‘poor children’ she looked after. So that’s how we never talked about where I would go to live.

All my mum’s things (and some of mine too) were got rid of. I was sent to a boarding school and in the holidays to a foster family. I was very, very unhappy there. They were seen as very respectable, with a big house and two much younger adopted children. They were not Jewish. They didn’t do anything that was I used to — different food, clothes, hobbies — and they wanted me to change. I remember they used to switch off my bedroom light when they decided I should go to sleep. My mum had never done that, even though we’d been very hard up and lived in a tiny flat where what I did affected her. I felt they were wiping out my mum and my past. She was never talked about, nor my being Jewish, and no-one took me to see my dad. (My mum had visited him three times a week, had done all his washing and some cooking till she got too ill).

I became very unhappy and angry. When I left school, the foster family said they didn’t want me any longer as I was ‘too difficult’. I went to stay with lots of different friends and then in shared flats and bed-sitting rooms.

Are things different now?
About two years ago, I decided I’d like to read my file. I wrote to the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames where I was in care. John Jones, the Principal Officer, was kind, and because I wanted to photocopy so much of the file, he said it would be easier to give me the whole file. It was agreed with the Social Services Committee that I should have it at home on ‘permanent loan’. I hope other young people will get to keep their files in this way.

After I left care, I went to university and would occasionally get bits of money from Richmond. But when I wanted a lease on a flat so as to have a permanent home at last, they refused. I thought how little care has changed: leaving or being ‘looked after’ as it is now called, should mean being able to have a safe, permanent place to live.

I also thought a lot about being Jewish and whether the new Children Act would make any difference. It says care authorities must pay attention to race, culture and language of the children they look after. When I went into care, I was confused about lots of things, including being Jewish. If asked at the time whether I wanted to be in a Jewish family, I would probably have said it didn’t matter.

But the result of that was that it took me over twenty years to find my way back to a comfortable connection with, and to identify with, Judaism. What I needed was a family with a good Jewish lifestyle, but who didn’t push it down my throat or make me join in. I wonder whether other young people’s confusion or unhappiness, together with a lack of choice of carers, will in future still be made the excuse for not meeting the needs of those looked after in care.

What do you think?