When deciding what to write about for Care Experience History Month, I remembered something that Allan Jenkins, writer and journalist, had said in a talk delivered with Drive Forward a few years ago, on his care experience. He had spoken about how few photographs he had from his childhood and how, as an adult who had grown up in care, your past and your identity is your own to make in a way that is different from those who have a family reminding them along the way.
It is with this in mind, that I decided to write about childhood memories and how we remember our own personal histories.
Our childhood memories shape who we are, how we see ourselves and the way that we relate to those around us. These memories are intricately shaped by our family. Parents reminisce with their children several times a day – reliving holidays, occasions, funny moments or behaviours. Consider your own memories – are they related to stories you have heard your mum tell countless times at family occasions? Do you have clear images from a moment in your childhood that is connected to the photographs you have up in your house? In research into how we form childhood memories, researchers themselves recount that they have misremembered events that happened to their sibling as their own because of the strong emotional connection.
How is this different if you grow up in care? How are your memories shaped and recalled? And how does this impact your sense of self?
These are some of the questions I put to Steven Russell, Founder of Elements. Steven grew up in care and now uses his experiences to support other children and young people to build emotional resilience. When talking to young people, Steven introduces them to two very different objects that connect him to his past – Blue Bear and a box of paperwork.
Blue Bear is his childhood toy and, in his own words, the “only physical object that I have today that came through everything that I went through as a child in care… the 9 foster families, 2 children’s homes, the five schools… he is my time machine to Little Steven”. Blue Bear, as Steven went on to say, gives him a sense of belonging in what was a chaotic world.
And what about the paperwork? “The majority of it I have never read” Steven told me “I can pull out a random sheet and one piece of paper will tell me how a professional saw me on a particular day, what I was doing and how I was behaving… that is a very strange feeling.” And those feelings are mixed. The paperwork is powerful in that it gives Steven a way to connect the dots of his own past experiences. At the same time, reading a professional opinion about minor details of your life, written in a matter of fact and sometimes analytical way, can be a weird and disassociating experience.
A different approach
Now a professional himself, Steven takes a different approach when he writes reports on the children he works with. He is eager to make the reports colourful and vibrant – filled with photographs:
“I want these to be productive memories that give someone a genuine connection to a time when they build positive and secure relationships to the professionals around them”.
I felt very inspired having spoken to Steven. It is easy to get caught up in professional language, form filling or processes. But what connects us to our past are the feelings from those moments. Care Experienced History Month offers a chance to reflect on how the care system has developed and what still needs to change. If we want children in care to have positive and productive childhood memories, then we should be more imaginative about the way that we help them do that.