British child care system 'lacks love'

Lemn Sissay and Lisa Faulkner, with Kate Thornton, talk about their experiences of the care system on White Wine Question Time

Poet Lemn Sissay and actress Lisa Faulkner became friends on Twitter, united by one common interest: children in the British care system.

Both have experienced it, from very different perspectives, and met in person for the first time on this week’s episode of Yahoo podcast White Wine Question Time.

“I found out about your past and then I heard you on Desert Island Discs,” Lisa told Lemn.“It was one of those things where you go: My daughter's adopted, and you [are] a beacon of somebody I could go ‘Look at this guy! He's got something so amazing!’ You're so creative. Your words are beautiful, and you've done it. You're there. You're alright.”

“All children are bad and good, but a child in care is labelled as intrinsically bad, intrinsically naughty.”

The journey to adoption

Lisa’s journey into fostering and adoption began in 2008 when she legally adopted her daughter Billie, aged just 15 months. This came after a long period of trying for a baby via IVF, something she documents in her book Meant To Be.

The former Masterchef winner was keen to write a book that could help others going through the adoption process, and she said she had been overwhelmed by the response.

“I've written cookery books and I've done loads of acting, and people sort of feel they've known me for a long time,” she told podcast host and friend Kate Thornton.

“The emails that I've got and the messages I've got, if I'd have had one of them, that was the reason to write the book. And I've had so many people saying, ‘I can do this’ or ‘I've gone through this many miscarriages’, or ‘I'm now on my last IVF and you've given me hope, and there's that light in the darkness and the sun will come out from behind the clouds’. And that's why I wanted to write that book.”

While Lisa found lots of support while adopting Billie, she said becoming the mother didn’t come without its challenges.

“I know what she needs, and I know that I'm going to have to parent her slightly differently to other people,” explained Lisa.

“It's not an excuse and it’s not a tag that she wears around her neck, but there is a plus. I call it a plus.

“There's something that means that I parent her slightly differently because I have to. All I can do, as her mother, is hold her hand through it.

“And what I say to her all the time is [...] what I am responsible for is the fact that you are safe and that you are my girl and that I will hold your hand through all the shit that you might have to go through. Because I can't make it all better, but I can always be there.”


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While Lisa has had a largely positive experience of children in the UK care system, Lemn’s experience was somewhat different.

He was fostered at birth by a white Christian family, who decided to return him to the care system when he was just 12.

“Having taught me that I was their child forever they then put me into children's homes at 12 and never contacted me,” the award-winning poet told Kate Thornton.

“They closed the door and that's it. They were the people who said to me, ‘This is your mother, this is your father, we're yours forever’ and constantly reassured [me] throughout [my] childhood because [I] didn't look like them.”

Lemn then spent the next five years in the care system, living in a variety of children’s home until he got his own home at 17.

The whole experience left a huge mark on him, something he talks about in his gripping memoir, My Name Is Why.

The thing both Lisa and Lemn believe to be missing from the British care system? Love. And they think if we can introduce this, there will be a lot less damage done to the children who experience it.

“They are punished, and in a punishment regime which has no hug at the end of it and no reconciliation except for the fact that they're bad,” said Lemn.

“All children are bad and good, but a child in care is labelled as intrinsically bad, intrinsically naughty. This is where the importance of love needs to come in. And something's going to be released by the government [soon] about trying to include love in children's services.”

The greatest thing

Lemn tracked down this birth mother, Yemarshet Sissay, when he was 21. But it was too late to turn their relationship around and he said in an interview in The Guardian that they are “as close as she can allow herself to be”.

He hopes people will always consider adoption, despite how hard it is.

“Adoption is the greatest thing that a human being can do for another human being, in my opinion,” he said.

“Because a child is going to test you emotionally, financially, politically, socially, on every level. An adoptive mother can love a child just as much as a woman who's had the child themselves.”

Lisa Faulkner with daughter Billie back in 2009

This is a statement that Lisa herself can definitely relate to.

“People always say, but how will I love a child that I didn't make?” she told Kate.

“I love my friends, I love my sister, my dad, I love my dog. I love my godchildren. I adore my nieces, my nephews, and I really love my partner, who's going to be my husband.

“I love these people with the capacity that I had no idea that I could love them. So if I've got that love there, of course I'm going to love a child that needs that love. “

For more information about adoption and fostering, visit Family Lives.

Hear Lemn Sissay and Lisa Faulkner talk more about adoption, plus the power of words, in the latest episode of White Wine Question Time. Listen on iTunes and Spotify now.