Childhood '79 is a documentary series looking at children and society, produced by Ted Anderson to mark the International Year of the Child. These two episodes, part one entitled ‘Who is Hilary?’ and part two entitled ‘I'm a survivor,’ focus on Hilary, a foster child in England, and her search for her identity. The interviewer is Alwyn Owen.
Part 1: Who is Hilary?
Hilary moved through a series of foster homes from the age of five. She and her older sisters went into a short-stay foster home after their mother left them and their father could not cope. She held on to her belief that life would go back to normal one day; she withdrew into herself as she couldn’t accept the reality.
She talks about the 'reception centre' [short-stay foster home] and her impressions of that being there with her three sisters. They stayed together as a unit and felt separate from the other foster children. The home was run by a single woman and Hilary felt frightened by her. She recalls going to her sisters for comfort and advice. If something started to hurt her she would push it to the back of her mind. She tells a story of her father visiting her when she was sick and bringing her sweets but they were taken away from her and handed out to the rest of the children. She and her sisters didn’t form any friendships there as they thought they would not be there long enough as they would go home. Hilary held onto this belief and it was what kept her going.
Hilary moved her first foster family home with her younger sister when she was eight years old. She really thought a lot of the woman who ran the home as she accepted Hilary for who she was. Her parents visited only occasionally. She never asked her mother why they were in that situation. She attended a Catholic convent school and felt safe there as it was the only thing that remained stable even when she was moved from home to home. She used to hang around at the school after everyone had gone home and help the caretaker. It gave her a sense of purpose that made her feel secure. She felt different from the other children as they sometimes moaned about their parents when they were not allowed to do something, whereas she felt no resentment towards hers.
Her two older sisters, Elaine and Frances, went back to live with their mother in London and Hilary was left with her younger sister Madeleine at the foster home. Madeleine was a difficult child to handle and had been affected by their situation; whereas Hilary became introverted, she showed it by becoming a troublemaker. When Hilary moved to her second foster mother, Madeleine was sent back to the Children's Home. This affected Hilary deeply; she saw that Madeleine had misbehaved and was sent away and thought that she could not afford to do the same. Hilary loved her first foster mother very much as she was very understanding. Hilary talks about learning the ropes and breaking the rules in each new home; not all of the foster parents were understanding when she inadvertently broke the rules.
When she was nine years old she moved into her second foster home and the difficulties that posed. Hilary never felt at home with that family and always worried that she would break the rules. The foster parents had an adopted daughter as well as Hilary at the time and they were treated differently. She recalls telling this foster mother she didn't like her and asking how to get back to the Children’s Home. She doesn’t remember if her asking that question had any effect. She never had the same social worker twice so she couldn’t build trust with them, and there were difficulties talking to them because the foster parents would be present during these discussions.
She tried to run away, taking with her with two carry bags of books, which were the only things she felt were important enough to take with her. She went to bed with her clothes on to wait up to run away, but she was told on by the other foster girl in the house. She had no plan for what she would do; as a self-preservation technique she did not allow herself to make plans. She felt she had no one she could open up to and trust. The nearest she had to a confidante was a sympathetic teacher at school. She was confused about her true feelings at this point because she had trouble reconciling how she actually felt with how she should feel. The line became too blurred for her to distinguish.
Part 2: I’m a survivor
Hilary retreated into herself and became very introverted. She immersed herself in books as she found comfort in being able to care about the story which was not part of reality. She became very secretive as she was frightened whenever she did anything that it might be wrong; she had no way of knowing right from wrong in the home. She became adept at covering for herself. She didn't accept it was reality so didn't get into the game of blaming anyone. The thought that kept her going was they everything was happening for a reason and she could learn from it, but she treated life as fantasy and all she had to do was bide her time until it ended. Later in life she found it hard to face the reality of any situation without fantasy.
She recalls moving to the third foster home and realising there were things going on behind the scenes; people had control over her life that she did not know about. She had no warning of her impending move until her school friend came to the door one day and said Hilary was coming to live with them. Her foster family then moved, and Hilary thought that moving was a good excuse to get rid of her. The new home had a girl the same age as her who she already knew from school, but problems arose here with an adopted boy. Hilary thought he seemed to get special treatment from the parents and therefore conflict arose. The foster family were building a new house and gradually she realised that there was nowhere for her there. Eventually the family told her she couldn't go with them.
In the fourth foster home the family had one young child aged about five. Hilary was about 11 years old now. She began to realise that people got paid to look after her and concluded the only reason she was there was the money. She felt like she was the younger girl's servant. She felt very much an outsider in that home, but she kept those feelings to herself. She was always being told that she should be feeling grateful for these people giving her a roof over her head. She felt like she was not part of the family and when they went out she was left at home. Once when her foster family had relatives to stay, they were given Hilary’s room and she was sent to stay with the woman next door. This was a good experience for Hilary as she felt safe with the neighbour and she told her she wanted her to be her next foster mother.
A teacher once told her that Jesus was a foster child and this made her feel much better. Her religion was very important to her at that time, and it gave her great comfort to think of this. Being at church gave her a sense of belonging. After this home she went on to boarding school in London, where her mother was living. The idea was that she could go home during the holidays and get to know her mother again. Living at school made her feel secure and she started to relax. However, the school was Catholic and run by nuns who were very strict, and she was still not able to express herself. She had a breakdown during this time. Her security had now become a prison and she felt that she could not go back. She was doing voluntary work at that time in a home for paraplegics which made her feel much better than going to school. At that point she was living with her older sister who went to work and therefore did not know that Hilary was not attending school.
After this she married but quickly separated. She talks about any scars left by being a foster child and feeling she had no identity. At that point she was married and a mother but still had no sense of herself, so she decided to look for some answers. She realised that she had buried her personality beneath layers of other people’s opinions of her. She says she was a quiet child and wanted to please people so she moulded herself to their wishes, and in so doing lost sight of her own personality. Now she considers herself a survivor. She wants to help people to improve the system as she doesn’t believe the people who hurt her did it deliberately, she believes they were acting in what they thought were her best interests. She believes that she will be able to relate to the children who are currently in the system, which is less possible for adults who have not lived it themselves.
Ann Baker, a social worker specialising in foster care, talks about Hilary's story and experiences and how some of them typify the foster child experience. Her first family were the only ones who accepted her for who she was, not who they wanted to be; Baker says that Hilary’s reticence created a vicious circle. The more she withdrew, the more insensitive the foster family seemed to her as it became harder for them to relate to her. Baker compares Hilary’s foster care experience to the system in New Zealand today. She says social care has become a lot more sensitive of the child’s right to have a say in their own situation.