In The State of It, Chris Wild’s follow-up to his seminal 2018 memoir, Damaged, the harrowing story of growing up in care in the 80s and 90s, we focus on what is known as semi-independent living. This is where children in care go when they reach 16 and, with very few exceptions, remain until they are 18 with little or no aftercare thereafter.
Some of the stories in Damaged, especially those documenting underage girls, banned from wearing knickers under their nightdresses, being raped, sodomised and passed around like dehumanised pieces of meat between police officers, local dignitaries and – unbelievably – those actually in charge of children’s homes, have remained with me to this day. The book still sits on my office shelf, a stark, daily reminder of my own privilege, my children’s privilege and – let’s be clear – more than likely the privilege of everyone I know. Out of everyone that I went to school with, as far as I am aware, none of my circle of friends has taken their own life or died because of a drug overdose. Chris, who is 15 years younger than I am, can count 22 such casualties among his fellow residents of the now infamous – and thankfully demolished – Skircoat Lodge in Halifax.
An evisceration of the private and public sectors.
The State of It, for the most part, picks up Chris’ life in London after the publication of Damaged and shines a light on his work in the semi-independent living sector. If, after Damaged, I was hoping for an easier read then, I have to admit, my hopes were soon dashed. The State of It is an excoriating evisceration of both the private and public sectors, where owners of private facilities are unavailable to deal with emergencies because they’re getting pissed on a yacht in the South of France, where social workers – paid for by you and me – leave traumatised sixteen year olds to find their own way, after dark, to a new home in a new part of town (or even a new town entirely) with all their worldly possessions in a bin bag, and when private owners, fat from the fruits of lucrative contracts with local councils – our money again – refuse to provide even a bar of chocolate to give even the most meagre of welcomes to terrified 16 year olds facing their first night in strange surroundings.
This is the story of the forgotten children. Asylum seekers who have made unimaginably horrific journeys across continents, only to conclude that the inhumanity of the British system is actually worse than facing daily shelling in Syria, Sudan or Yemen. Children unable to break out of the “County Lines” drug distribution network but who are treated as criminals, scum and the dregs of society rather than the victims that they surely are. Young people who choose to get arrested carrying drugs because at least a spell in a Youth Offenders’ Institution provides food and warmth.
I am furious. Not only with those in the private sector putting profit before people or those in the public sector marking time by doing the bare minimum until they can claim their pensions, but also with myself for giving so little thought to these forgotten children: the children, through no fault of their own, born to violent fathers and drug-addicted mothers, left to fend for themselves on the streets in the most deprived parts of town. I am furious with Tory austerity, during which we still managed to commit to renewing Britain’s nuclear arsenal and, since the pandemic, bung millions to politicians’ mates to produce PPE that doesn’t work.
And I am furious with many of us on the LGBTQ scene, including myself, once so outward looking and supportive of the struggles of others, spending hour upon hour squabbling about stripes on flags or trawling social media for any perceived slights or mis-steps, just so we can join a Twitter pile-on accusing someone that we don’t know of bigotry. Yes, how LGBTQ+ people are treated and perceived matters (otherwise I wouldn’t be doing this job) but what these young people are facing is not only a scandal, it’s an emergency.
When I spoke to Chris as part of my research for The State of It, he related a story of a recent conversation he had had with a Member of Parliament. Chris declined to name the MP who had told him that he would rather commit funds to repairing pot holes than to children’s services as repairing the roads was more of a vote winner. If that is the case, then it is incumbent upon all of us with a vote to ensure that we make our priorities clearer to those who seek to represent us. Chris did well not to name the MP – I’d have published the name in a heartbeat.
There is some hope. The Government has committed more money and made some encouraging statements but only after years of austerity and cuts, so let’s approach their new found compassion in hope rather than expectation. And, because of the success of Damaged, Chris himself now has the ear of politicians, business leaders and other decision makers so he is now being called upon for his experience, knowledge and suggestions to fix our broken system.
Let’s hope they listen.
Buy The State of It here.
Visit Become, the charity for children in care and young care leavers, here.
Read Rob Harkavy’s original review of Damaged here.