Many of us are blessed with two loving parents, a safe and secure home, and the opportunities to be whoever we want to be.
What sheer bloody luck.
We forget that many children experience such severe abuse that they need to be placed in out-of-home care.
We forget that there are currently around 40,000 children in Australia who are living in this position.
We forget that this is about the same number of people who can fill the Gabba to capacity.
We forget how different our life could have been, if it hadn’t been for sheer bloody luck.
We forget that.
This fortnight we take a small diversion to think about children who have been placed in foster, kinship or residential care. These are children who rarely enter the forefront of our mind, but who deserve just as much discussion as any other youngster.
For this, I’ve handed over the duties to a young man from Perth who knows far more than me about this area. Josh Hughes lived most of his childhood in care, and penned this letter to two foster carers who made a lasting impact on his life. (This letter was published in a book that my brother and I edited).
The letter is longer than my usual ramblings, but I encourage you to read until the end. I think it’s worth it.
This letter reminds us that there are many children who we so easily forget during the course of our busy lives.
And it reminds us of the child protection workers and the out-of-home carers who, thankfully, never forget.
Dear Mum and Dad,
I’m sorry I haven’t written for a while.
I looked at a calendar the other day. I’ve been in jail for three months now. I think about you both everyday. There’s so much about me that you don’t know; so much that I’ve always wanted to tell you. I’ll start from the beginning, I guess.
I was born the youngest of seven children to a single mother. I didn’t ever really know her because the government took us all away from her when I was about three. She and my stepfather didn’t look after us very well and used to hurt us a lot. The government thought it was safer for us to live away from them and in a foster home.
Not long after that, my mother had an accident. She was in her house in the early morning and she lit up a cigarette. But there was a gas leak coming from the stove and the house exploded. The neighbours said that they saw her running out of the house, screaming and on fire. She died a couple of days later. I remember sitting on my foster mother’s lap when a woman came and told me what had happened. She was this big, tall figure. You would think that at three you wouldn’t take much in, but I understood everything. I knew that I’d never see her again.
I moved around quite a bit after that. I think I stayed in about seven different homes. I never stayed in the same place for too long because the government was always trying to find me a permanent home. Sometimes I also played up and people didn’t want me to stay at their house any longer. Each time I moved, I was told that the people looking after me would be my new parents, and each time it made me happy. Once it was a nice old lady, and a few times it was a man and wife. Other times, I went to live with a family that had children. They were my favourite homes. Somewhere along the way, I became separated from my brothers and sisters.
Every time I moved home, I had to say goodbye to my new parents. Early on, I remember watching my brother moving homes and saw how he didn’t cry. He kept quiet and held his hands behind his back, with his eyes looking down at his feet. After that, when I moved I copied him. Moving homes just seemed to be part of my life. I was sort of numb to it. Each time I moved, I hoped it would be the last. I used to do a thing when I was a child that, whenever I would see a shooting star, I’d wish that I could stay where I was forever. Then I would always immediately wish that I hadn’t done that because every time I did, it would all fall to shit. I used to get so upset with myself for it.
When I moved I’d have to start at a new school and make new friends. The hardest part though, was that every family had different ways of doing things. Some people liked to eat dinner at the table, and others liked to eat in front of television. Each foster home that I lived in had different rules and I would have to learn what was right and wrong all over again. One foster parent told me that we would work out the rules as we went along. I couldn’t do that because that meant that there was always room to be wrong.
I was never allowed to see any of my carers after I left because the government felt that it wasn’t good for me. After I said goodbye to my new parents, it was as though they were dead. I even started to think that way about my brothers and sisters. I bumped into some of my carers when I was a little older. But it was never planned, and I never knew what to say. I could tell they didn’t know what to say either. I’d always imagined that those moments would be special. I wish I could have them again.
I eventually moved into my sister’s house. I felt really safe with her. But I got a bit out of control. I would have massive mood swings, set fires and start fights that I knew I couldn’t win. Sometimes the next-door neighbour would have to hold me down so I wouldn’t hurt myself. My sister wanted to help me, but she wasn’t ready to deal with a young brother like me. She had problems too. The government decided to put me in an institution for young children who had problems. They said that they were going to teach me how to behave. I was told that when I was fixed I would go back and live with my sister.
I really liked living at that place. The teachers paid lots of attention to us and we only had to go to school three days of the week. I was allowed to go and visit my sister on the weekends, which was great fun. But even if I was really happy, something bad would usually happen and she would send me back early. When it came time for me to leave the institution, my sister said that I couldn’t stay with her because she didn’t feel safe around me. I felt so hurt because I was supposed to be fixed. I remember crying just as hard as I did when my mother died. I still cry about it.
This is when I met you, Mum and Dad. I remember it like it was yesterday. You both seemed really nice, and you asked me what I liked to do, and what I liked to eat. Football and spaghetti. I then started going to your house for a few dinners and then for a weekend. The government called it a ‘transition’. I’m not sure whether I liked the transition. Sometimes it’s just easier to get it over with. I tried to be really polite and a nice child. I was just hoping that, if you liked me, then everything would be okay.
I remember how excited Mum was when I first came to your house. Tiff was also really happy to have a new foster brother. Do you remember how much I liked Star Wars back then and how Mum made me Star Wars curtains? I never told you how proud I was of them. I loved reading Harry Potter books on my bed and going roller-skating every Sunday. Mum, you probably never knew this, but when we were waiting for you to finish skating, Dad would keep us entertained with his jokes and games of I Spy. Once he got out of the car and pretended to chase away the bogey man. He even made us believe that the bogey man was strangling him. Tiff and I were so scared but we were also laughing really hard.
You believed in me like no-one had ever done before. When you gave me a guitar for Christmas, you made me feel that I could be really good at it. I practised so hard and felt really special when you helped me apply for that music scholarship to high school. I thought that I had a really good chance, because you had bought me the right guitar book to practise from.
I was living at your house when I found out that my oldest brother had shot and killed someone. I didn’t really ever know him and I had no idea how to react, particularly when he got sentenced to life in jail. I was really nervous when I eventually visited him in the jail because I had only ever talked to him on the phone. I remember being in a big room when all the prisoners came out and looking at every single one and wondering which one was him. When he finally came out, I knew who he was instantly.
I usually called the people I stayed with Mum and Dad because Mums and Dads are the people who look after children. But I was with you for four years and you were different; I really felt that you were my parents. Other people made me feel scared and worried, but you never did. I liked that. You seemed to want me unconditionally and thought that I was a good person no matter what. You said that I could do things and be someone. When you told me that you loved me and cared about me, I kind of believed you.
But I was always so worried that you didn’t love me. I’m sorry for feeling this way because I know now that you did. I had this imaginary idea of what love was. I thought that it was some invisible bond between a parent and child, and that because I didn’t have any parents, I would never be loved. I now think that the safe feeling I had with you is what love is. I wish I had known this at the time. But my fear made me keep on pushing you until Dad finally told me that I had to leave. To be honest, it was kind of a relief. I didn’t have to worry anymore. Mum, in that final week that I stayed at your house, you told me that you loved me every day. You always told me that. By the middle of that week, I realised that I didn’t want to go.
On the day I was supposed to leave your house, I became really upset. I didn’t wait for you to pick me up from school and I walked two hours to the government office. I remember Mum telling me that she had got a phone call from my case worker, asking to pick me up from the office. We sat in a room together with the government boss who asked you whether there was any way I could still stay with you. I remember you hesitated, Mum, and I thought there might be a chance. But then you looked down and said that there wasn’t. I hated you both right then. I didn’t understand why you couldn’t just let me stay. I thought that you would be my Mum and Dad forever. I didn’t think that I was that bad.
When I left your house, I went to lots of different foster homes. At one of them, I even went on a holiday to Mauritius. But I never felt like I belonged there and I was kicked out because I got suspended from school. When I arrived at the next foster home, I got a card from my brother and sister that said, ‘Please behave and stop moving.’ It really upset me because I didn’t think it was my fault that I kept moving.
But you guys never forgot about me. When you rang to tell me that I won the guitar scholarship, I was so happy to hear your voice. I couldn’t take the scholarship because I’d moved house again. You told me that there would be other opportunities. I believed you.
Mum and Dad, this is where my life started going really bad for me. After I turned twelve, I lived in about twenty different hostels. Some were better than others. Some had people who I thought cared about me, some didn’t. The young people in the hostels didn’t really fit into normal society. They did drugs and would hurt people; all of the things you told me that I shouldn’t do. When I first went there, I felt scared. After a while, I felt really down and started hurting myself. I spent some time in a psychiatric hospital but I didn’t even fit in there. I often wondered whether you knew where I was.
I started to become someone I didn’t like. I was first locked up for having an argument with one of the workers at the hostel. I think a part of me really wanted to go to jail. I’d heard so much about being in there that I thought that it would make me tough. But when I was there, I was just scared. The two guys in the cell next to me were yelling at me the whole night about how they were going to bash me. I felt like a child again, like I was twelve years old. I felt that I had no-one who cared about me. I thought about you, Mum and Dad, and hoped that you would come and get me.
When I got out, I started smoking ice. I know you told me not to do drugs, but I couldn’t stop myself. I wanted to destroy myself because I was hurting so much. I didn’t know who I was any more. One day I was driving past a group of young people and the guy I was with said that we should rob them. I think he had it planned, because he had a screwdriver with him. I sat in the car while he got their money. Ever heard the saying that ‘evil prevails when good men do nothing’? I was a good man doing nothing.
I’m ashamed for you to know but for the next few weeks I lost all control. All I cared about was destroying myself however I could. One day we drove to a small town a few hours away. We needed to disappear because the police were after us. After smoking some ice for a while, my body started fitting. I heard one of the guys tell the others to drive me down the road and leave me in the bush because he didn’t want me to die around him. I thought they were my friends.
The next time I saw you was when I walked into the Children’s Court. How did you even know that I was there? When I saw you, I felt different, like I wasn’t alone any more. When I pleaded guilty to all of the charges I wanted you to know how much I felt I had let you down. But I couldn’t look at you because I was so ashamed. When I was sentenced to jail, I could tell that Dad was crying. I’m so sorry for making you upset. I didn’t know it would hurt you so much.
The other week I had a visitor at 8.30 a.m. People aren’t allowed visitors until the afternoons so I knew immediately that something was wrong. It was one of my previous foster parents and she was crying. She told me there had been a car accident. She said that you had both been killed.
I screamed. I wanted to run and get out of there. I had only just got a letter from you last week. I don’t know who I am without you.
A week later, I went to your funerals handcuffed to an officer. I was so scared of people seeing me handcuffed because I didn’t want to stand out. A few people said hello, and a few people ignored me. I would have ignored me. At the service, I stood at the back but I could still see everything. They showed a family photo on the big screen and I was in it. I started crying. Somebody started talking up the front, and they said how much you loved me; how you had been my counsellor and spent hours talking with me, even when I’d left your house years before. I never truly understood that you thought about me the way that I thought about you. I dropped a note into your grave telling you this.
I am desperately sad without you.
I’ve just got back to my cell after your funeral. I have stuffed up so much. I’m sorry that I’m here. Did you know that after I left your house all those years ago, I never called anyone else Mum and Dad? It just never seemed right. You were the people that looked after me. I want you to know that, of everything that I have ever received in life, it is your love that has been the most precious. It is your love that gives me courage from here on. My life has meaning because of you.
Thank you for teaching me that I am someone. If you had faith in me, then I can have faith in me too.
I love you,
This letter is an extract from Out of The Frying Pan: Bittersweet Tales of Stumbling into Adulthood.
Next fortnight, we’ll be back to discussing the (sometimes wacky) science of child development.
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