My mind snaps back to the road. I'm certain I'm not fit to drive. Deep Purple’s “Highway Star” screams at me from the speakers. Yesterday I started work at seven-thirty am, having slept in at the home the previous night. I should have been in bed half an hour before midnight, but the kids were up until two fighting each other, fighting us, and trashing the place. It was gone half past three in the morning before we finished the paperwork. "You’ll get the hours back" my manager assures me.
It goes on to my timesheet as overtime, which may or may not be paid as such once my rota has been worked out for the month. Overtime is time-and-a-quarter, paid once we work over forty-two hours a week calculated as part of a rolling six-week average and received a month in lieu. After ten years in the industry, I’m still not on a regular salary and still don’t fully understand how my pay is worked out. Still, it pays the bills. Well, most of them. Most months. All I know is, with every payslip, I can’t help feeling short-changed.
As I pull my car into the drive I see one of the maintenance staff boarding up the broken kitchen window. His colleague is ordering a replacement pane over the phone. Neither has bothered to measure. The company owns five homes, and the maintenance staff know each window’s measurements by heart.
Longhope is our biggest home. It’s a large, detached house with two bedrooms for children, a large bathroom, and a staff sleep-in room on the first floor. The ground floor comprises two further bedrooms, the office (which doubles as the second sleep-in room), the kitchen, a bathroom, two lounges and a conservatory. In the large garden is what’s best described as a summer house, referred to as ‘the shed’, which is used as the manager’s office. All our houses are named rather than numbered. All are remote enough from any neighbours that we do not keep any of them awake at night. As I switch the engine off I hear a smash and a "Fuck off cunt!" and reconsider my decision to park right outside the house. Instead, I park on the road and walk the short driveway. Overlooking each car park the company has attached a sign to the home warning it takes no responsibility for damage caused to any cars, including those of staff. This should read ‘especially’ the cars of staff. We lose a few staff each year after one child or another has written their car off. Nobody believes the company will be so blasé about their car until they try to claim a penny for the damage. The company has several times paid for repairs to the cars of social workers, Youth Offending Service workers and representatives of Local Authorities –anyone who can cost them money by refusing to place any further children at the home or threaten to sue them. Staff are neither. “Those are the types of kids you chose to work with,” is the standard response.
I park my car on the road and lock it. The weak May sun drips onto my back. The day looks warmer than it is. By the time I’ve walked back up the drive two staff members are holding the child, Mikey, as a third removes a large stone from his grip. "Cunt!" is screamed twice more before I reach the front door, along with a “Paedophile!” or two for good measure. One of the maintenance men is now ordering a bathroom window from the glazier. I can’t be certain but I think I hear the phrase “little mad bastard” as he redials. He knows the measurements for that one too, every bit as well as the glazier knows the route to Longhope. Both nod at me as I pass.
As I enter the front door Mikey -who barely comes up to my shoulder, but is as scrawny as an alley-cat and just as fierce when cornered- kicks and punches at staff. When he realises he is being held too securely to do this he spits instead. Both staff have been with us for several months now and already have become used to this. Once he begins to tire Mikey will stop struggling and introduce the threats. Threats to get the staff fired for touching him (within five minutes they will both repeatedly be called “paedophiles” again), and threats to “knock them the fuck out” once he gets free. Mikey is a fairly typical kid in care: wiry, dressed in a hooded tracksuit and a too-big baseball cap, angry at everything and with a history of neglect and abuse newcomers to the industry have difficulty comprehending.
Another child, Tom, paces the hallway deciding whether or not to join in with what's happening outside. Tom has been with us for five weeks. He arrived with less than a week’s warning, and our exiting therapist quickly diagnosed him as being on the autistic spectrum. We are currently making notes on his behaviour - any patterns or triggers we see, successful behaviour management strategies, what activities he enjoys, how he builds relationships with staff, and any other significant behaviours we observe. The therapist used the first four week’s notes to write a “Therapeutic Interventions and Behaviour Support Structures” plan. She will present and read through it at this week’s team meeting. It’ll be her last before leaving for a better-paid post outside the company. As ever the behaviour support plan, which is what everyone calls it, will be the staff observations we submitted. She’ll collate them into a document spiced up with extra jargon, and add a summary of the generic therapeutic approaches the company uses across its homes. She’ll take a good ten minutes to explain it to us as if we’ve never seen it before. Most of them are out of date before they are printed. The company’s policy is to produce these documents within the first twenty-eight days of a placement. It looks ‘pro-active’ and ‘efficient’. In reality, every child goes through a settling-in period, and the vast majority of the behaviours they show us in the first month or so are their way of finding out where the boundaries are and which staff are the most manipulable. Once they know, and once they feel safe enough in the placement to express themselves, their behaviours change dramatically – often within a week of the plan being written. But that doesn’t matter. Producing a behaviour management document within twenty-eight days looks good and keeps the social workers happy. If ever you need to demonstrate to a professional you’re doing something, show them a report.
I warn Tom, if he does interfere with Mikey’s incident I'll confiscate his Playstation for a week and inform his Youth Offending Service worker. He tells me to “fuck off”, but goes to his room anyway. I wait long enough to be certain he is not going to come back out, unlock the office door, and open another energy drink.
Tracey Beaker this is not.
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