Home doesn't mean safe
Blog by Leah Jayne
I am experiencing a lot of mixed emotion about writing this piece, a part of me is relieved that what I’m about to write isn’t me but an overwhelming part of me feels heartbroken. The thought that this could have been me and it is the position that many vulnerable children are in feels like a gigantic kick in the gut. What if this pandemic happened when I was 10, or 13 or 15? Would I have survived?
School was my escape, if that was taken from me, would I have made it to where I am today? These are questions that penetrate my mind often, and I am honoured to be able to collaborate with the Amnesty Children’s Human Rights Network to write this piece for them. Children are far too often the hidden victims, I for one was a hidden victim for many years and only retrospective am I able to see light in the all-consuming darkness that I was subjected to growing up.
As many of you know, I grew up in foster care and I am a fierce advocate for foster children to have their voices heard in a silencing system. This unwavering fire that is inside me is driven by the injustice and pain that I experienced growing up, I would like to add that coming into foster care at 13 did not stop the terror. I was taken into care at the age of 13, I lived with a foster family for 3 and a half years. Declared homeless at 17 and moving from Nightstop to Nightstop until finally November 2017, I found my home. Can you imagine that? Nearly 18 years of hardship, abuse, neglect and never-ending psychological trauma that I wasn't worth anything. I was treated like I was a monster. How did I get through it, you ask? Well, education was the driving force that got me through the darkness. Learning had a grip on me that stopped me falling. My school gave me the courage to carry on, it was my safe haven. Teachers inspired me, nurtured me, helped me grow.
Each day I would go to school knowing for the next 6 hours I was in the presence of adults who would keep me safe, friends that would keep me distracted and, in an environment, that I didn't feel so broken in. It was my escape and even when I was sick, I wouldn't let anything stop me from going to school. At school, I was valued, people cared about me. I was SAFE. I can't emphasise enough how imperative going to school was for my wellbeing, my survival. I dreaded weekends, I dreaded the school holidays - isolated, afraid, subjected to trauma. During these times there was no let down.
Now, I imagine this pandemic happened when I was younger and the heartache I feel is sickening, it is so very heavy. This is the reality for so many children. The silent, unheard, hidden victims of society. Falling through the cracks during this pandemic. There I would be, stuck in a toxic, abusive home, no escape, no support. With no consistency or positive enforcement, my soul would have withered into nothing. Had I been below the age of 13 when this pandemic occurred and living at home still, I would have been severely malnourished, likely left on my own, no intellectual support or encouragement. Trapped. The word trapped is whirling through my mind as I think about how I felt then and how I would have felt if a younger Leah was living through this pandemic.
I recall very vividly being home alone and terrified, I phoned ChildLine. I was speaking to them, opening up about my living situation when I heard my Mum coming home. My heart sank and I ended the call as quickly as possible, deleting the call from history to avoid being found out. I was terrified and that fear almost silenced me. Now, I imagine that if this was me in lockdown how I would not be able to catch a moment to ask for help, to reach out. I imagine this is the case for so many children, frightened and trapped.
I count my blessings that this is NOT me, but it WAS me, every weekend, every bank holiday, every half term, every summer. This was me, worrying for my safety and wellbeing.
I understand that vulnerable children are still able to attend school, but if you could count the number of children that are being kept home by their foster carers, I assure you there would be many. I for one, know my foster carers would have loved to have done that - it would have given them more control over my life and the chance to diminish my hope that I could make a life for myself even more. It would have destroyed me. Or the number of vulnerable children that aren't in care, suffering in silence, with no excuse to go to school, how are they coping?
The purpose here is to shine a light on the rights of children, a light that has been forever switched off with children in the shadows. Children are so very pure and impressionable, and we must do everything that we can to protect them, to give them a voice, a platform to be heard. The words spoken by our youth speaks truth that is unfiltered, untainted by societal expectations. We must protect and nurture that.
For every child in this position, I urge you to have courage, to carry on in the presence of fear and know that day by day, you will get through this. Your past and present do not define your future, so keep dreaming through this, because there is a life out there, a wonderful life that is all yours.
I speak out for every child silenced. I fight for their voice and right to be listened to and protected. Staying home does not mean staying safe. This pandemic must not stop us trying to protect children.
Photograph: 7-year-old me, holding the sun in her hands. Growing up, I held on to hope that as long as the sun never fails to rise and fall, I would always be there when morning called. In that photograph I held the world (well, the sun) and to me that meant that I had an endless amount of opportunities in my hands, in me and nothing could take that away from me.
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.