Scars are like tattoos, but with better stories. So I’ve been told, anyway. It’s true I quite like it when I catch someone glancing at my right upper arm or my left eyebrow. I can see that they are wondering how they got there; imagining my courageous stand-off with a knifed attacker in a busy shopping centre; picturing my defensive moves to dislodge the jaws of the hungry shark; admiring my skills of survival against all odds. Unfortunately, my life has not been that adventurous. However, it doesn’t stop me from enjoying relating my quarrel with barbed wire in the middle of the night, or the desk-throwing incident of my schooldays.
Although men can be quite proud, boastful even of our external wounds, we find it much harder to talk about our internal scars. One of my friends tragically lost his father when he was 14. Another was witness to the motorcycle accident that killed his brother and cannot forgive a God who would allow that. Another was brought up by his mother after his dad walked out the house and never came back. I only know these things because their wives told my wife. Just as she probably told them of the horrific racial abuse I experienced as a child. Perhaps women seem to understand the powerful storytelling that can also come from the scars that nobody sees.
Invisible scars and tough starts
Filmmakers, authors and directors love stories founded on invisible scars. Most of our most favourite heroes of film and literature had the toughest starts in life. James Bond was adopted. Spiderman and Superman were both fostered. Batman was an orphan. Frodo and Harry Potter were fostered in kinship care. Luke Skywalker was adopted. James and the Giant Peach James was a looked after child. All of these characters are not depicted simply as victims of their past, but as strong, resilient survivors with a vision for the future and a life of purpose.
If only things were the same in real life. If only Ian Fleming, J.K. Rowling and George Lucas were in charge of the universe and vulnerable children could become invulnerable heroes, rescuing their friends, defeating the bad guys, championing justice, and even saving the world.
Very occasionally I meet a real-life hero who is willing to talk about the invisible scars of their past. I once had the privilege of meeting Kriss Akabusi, a man who may well have the biggest smile in the world. The gold medal-winning British athlete who went on to become a television host and celebrity wasn’t wearing his smile when we sat together in an empty football stadium in Milton Keynes. He told me his story – how he and his brother had been taken into care as primary school children. He told me about the children’s home that they both lived in together until they left as teenagers. He explained the hope that went through their minds every time that potential adopters came to the home and how he and his brother tried to look as adoptable as possible. But they both aged out of care and had nowhere really to go. Kriss, like so many care leavers, joined the army and it was in the army that one of his officers took him under his wing and spotted his athletic ability. An army officer, Sergeant Ian Mackenzie, was an irreplaceable father-figure in his life and it made a huge impact on the young British-born Nigerian. When I met Kriss he had had a successful life in so many respects but he still confided in me: “I think I would have made someone a good son.”
Today I met a man whose foster parents threw in the towel after he had been with them for 12 years. He was taken to a children’s home and told he would have no more contact with them either in person or in writing. He lived there for six years, struggling with a deep sense of betrayal and abandonment. Never having even dreamed of going to university as a teenager, Lemn Sissay has since been awarded two honorary doctorates and an MBE and is now the vice-chancellor of the University of Manchester, elected to that position over the wealthy and powerful figure of Peter Mandelson, Labour’s chief spin doctor. He champions the cause of disillusioned young people, encouraging them to express their internal scars and hidden stories through poetry and writing as he did. Meeting him in person today was thoroughly inspirational.
Neglect, abuse and homelessness
But too often in real life, the stories turn out very differently. Those young people who are taken into foster care because of neglect and abuse often remain in care until they age out of the system when they are 18. They may only account for 1% of the population’s young people but comprise 11% of our homeless population, 24% of the prison population, and depending on geography, anywhere between 30% and 70% of sex workers. There are many amazing organisations that strive to make a difference in the lives of prison inmates, the homeless and those trapped in the sex industry, but I wonder if their jobs would be a lot easier if only somebody had helped these same people when they were children. Perhaps their lives would have turned out very differently if only they had had a loving and secure fostering or adoptive family who enabled them to understand and accept their scars and see them as stories of resilience and survival.
Right now in the UK there are about 93,000 children in the care system, children that for a variety of different reasons have been removed from their birth families. 95% of those children are living with foster families, of which our family is one. There are around 5,000 children today in the situation Kriss and Lemn once were in, waiting for adoption and being overlooked by potential adopters. They are usually older children, many of them boys from black and ethnic minority families, many of them are in sibling groups, some of them with extra needs, each of them with their own unique, incredible potential. There are thousands of brilliant foster carers in the UK, but sadly children leaving care in their teens often struggle to do well on their own and many end up not in education, employment or training. A large number of these young people become homeless, in prison, in sex work or struggling with addiction. They are also far more likely to have their own children removed into care than the average member of the population. We need to help break this cycle – to step up and offer the help that children in care need right now.
What is it that can make the difference to a vulnerable child so they become not a perpetual victim, but a potential hero? I am on a mission to find more carers who can open up their homes and cheer a child on to be as courageous as James Bond, as resourceful as Superman, as loyal as Harry Potter – and as real-life as Lemn Sissay. The UK urgently needs foster carers and adopters who can be the unshockable, unshakable and unbreakable parents these children need. Perhaps you think you are are not qualified for this role – you have too many scars of your own. But heroes of this sort rarely come from textbook-perfect family backgrounds; the vast majority are tattooed with a story or two of their own. Not that they will share these readily, though. You may have to ask a woman in their lives. What is your story? If you can relate in any way to children growing up in difficult circumstances, then why not consider putting yourself forward to be a foster or adoptive parent today and making a difference for the next generation?
Make a difference
I know the difference that foster carers and adoptive parents can make in a child’s life. I have seen it with my own eyes. My family became a fostering and adopting family ten years ago and it has been the most difficult and the most rewarding thing we have ever done. We currently have six children living with us, but we realised there are so many more children that need help that we ended up not just starting a charity but witnessing the birth of a movement of people who are willing to do whatever is necessary to make sure children who have had a tough start in life get the families they need. Filmmakers have gifted their services at “mate’s rates”, business professionals have given their services, engineers, artists, designers, social workers, and refugee workers have all brought their skills together to help. So what can you do?
Firstly, are you in a position to foster or adopt children that could really benefit from having a man like you in their lives? Someone who will champion their needs, defend them from abuse, provide for them, love them and stand by them through all the rubbish that has come their way and may still come their way? Why not give us a call on 0300 001 9995 to tell us your story and find out more about the stories of children that you could help.
Secondly, do you have a skill you can make available to us that we could change the culture on the issue of vulnerable children so that our society doesn’t see these children as a problem, but instead sees their potential? We’d love to hear from you; just drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know how you can help us spread the vision and we’ll be in touch.
Thirdly, we are small start-up charity with a huge vision. We would ask you to consider getting behind our work financially. For small charities, regular donors make a big difference to our planning; even £10 a month would go a long way. But perhaps you would like to support us through fundraising – running a marathon, a long-distance cycle race or a skydive, why not make us your designated charity?
I asked Kriss Akabusi what he would say to someone who was considering being a foster carer or adoptive dad, and he said to me that people should consider it very carefully but to remember “you may be the love that this person has never experienced in their life”. There’s a challenge for all of us.