Dr Gary Clapton: ‘Tiny pieces here, tiny pieces there’ – the memories of a child in care
Jim was 56 when he saw his mother for the first time. Given into care as a baby, he was in children’s homes until he was 16, and, as was written about him, ‘discharged’ from care to a subsequently failed housing tenancy because he had no life skills or maturity to maintain himself.
There followed the ups and downs of life on the streets, in halfway hostels, being a silver-service waiter, then time spent in prison and on drugs.
The Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry has heard many similar accounts from those who have been in care and referred Jim to us for help in getting access to his care files with the hope of tracing any relatives. We located and obtained his file and when it arrived, found 25 sheets of hard-to-read photocopies. Less than two pages for every year he had been in public care.
Even the information provided was scanty, including a half-page basic health reports. There were no school reports or the views of those with the responsibility for his care, no insight into his welfare from a baby to a young man. There was nothing to leaven Jim’s abiding memories of being labelled ‘troublesome’ and shown no emotion.
He did have one good recollection. That was of the cook in one of his homes. ‘Nan’ was kindly and let Jim hang about in her kitchen and watch her bake. This was not in the case papers. However, what we did find were letters from his mother and a Christmas card from grandparents.
Jim had never been given these or seen them until we opened his papers. When he was an infant his mother had written from the hospital in which she was residing that she wished to be sent a photograph of him, that Jim meant ‘everything’ to her, and that she ‘didn’t want to lose him’.
It will be appreciated that to a man who had grown up in a virtually loveless, official environment, believing that he was, in his words ‘cursed’, this was a moment filled with great pain but also much comfort.
There was nothing in the records that could provide a clue as to why Jim’s mother was unable to bring him home. As we carefully sifted through the brief details of his life in care, we found a photograph of Jim aged around 12. When I think of the bulging photograph albums I have kept, I’m ashamed what little there was in Jim’s file.
We did find the evidence of the existence of a brother and sister and set about finding them. Using our skills from our years of tracing and mediating for people that have been adopted, we found a niece of Jim’s and made contact with her.
Unfortunately, the news came that Jim’s mother had died, around 20 years ago. The care home where she spent her last years had changed hands and no longer had records but what Jim’s niece did find was a photograph of his mother.
Amazingly, this turned up on a Google images search and was from a local newspaper featuring her as a winner of a food hamper in a small competition. At last Jim had sight of his mother. For a man who had gone to the lengths of using an alias out of self-disgust, her letters and this photograph had helped repair some of the damage.
The search continues for Jim’s mother’s resting place. Because the care home records are no longer in existence, Jim cannot pay his respects. We have contacted every council cemeteries’ archivist in Fife. They have all been helpful but to no avail. For the next step we will approach the longest-established funeral directors in the area.
At the same time, now that we know of other branches of the family, we will search for and approach them. This has been a complex process for Jim and he acknowledges he could not have been done it on his own.
Searching for documents can be costly, for example the price of certificates of births, marriages and deaths is £15, tracing using the internet is complex and contacting people who have never met you and do not know you exist (as was the case with Jim’s niece) is challenging.
With little knowledge of childhood and adolescence and no knowledge of where his mother may be buried, it is understandable that Jim talks about his life as “tiny pieces here, tiny pieces there” and asks “don’t spare me the truth”.
Dr Gary Clapton is a senior lecturer at the University of Edinburgh and a supporter of Birthlink.