Kinship Care Week guest blog: Melanie Onn MP

Melanie Onn, Member of Parliament for Great Grimsby, was raised by her great aunt from the age of seven. In this guest blog, she shares her experience of growing up in kinship care.

25 April 2017 | Kinship care

Melanie Onn MP is the Member of Parliament for Great Grimsby. In this guest blog, she shares her experience of growing up in ‘kinship care’, raised by her great aunt from the age of seven.

I was six turning seven when I arrived at her terraced council house with my Mum for the summer holidays. I never left.

My Great Aunt Kath had a history of picking up strays. She was forever complaining about the cats that appeared out of nowhere in her kitchen, just because she happened to leave food outside the back door (for the hedgehogs). The owners clearly didn’t feed them or look after them well enough.

In the 1950s she had taken care of my uncle, then after a short gap of thirty-odd years she got me. I was six turning seven when I arrived (reunited with our pet cat from two years earlier) at her terraced council house with my Mum for the summer holidays. I never left.

It wasn’t planned, or at least I don’t think it was, there wasn’t much organised. It just sort of happened.

That summer was like all childhood summers. Never ending sunshine. My memory says I was outside in the garden all the time (a novelty as I’d been living in a first floor flat), eating “witches’ hats” from the ice cream van and watching Wacaday to my heart’s content.

When the summer holidays finished the kids went back to school. I was told that my school went back a week later so I stood behind the sideboard in front of the window waving at all the other children as they went to and from the school that was at the end of the road.

After a while it became clear that I wasn’t going anywhere, so she took me to the Headteacher’s office and signed me up to primary school. It all seemed quite straightforward, apart from lack of a uniform, and I started Year 1 in Mrs Bell’s class after that. And that was it – the sum total of any officialdom in our lives. No social workers or support, no advisors. I wonder if anyone was even aware of the arrangement. If they were, as long as it was working, they were content to leave it be.

My Great Aunt must have been in her 60s when I went to live with her. It wasn’t just her: in addition to the neighbour’s dog and an African grey parrot she looked after, the menagerie of cats and roast-chicken-fed foxes, we had a lodger, Michel Wlodarczyk, a Polish man who’d been a soldier in the war. He had lived with her and her mother since the end of the war and, despite being in his 70s, was always busy doing people’s gardens. She also looked after ‘Aunty Nellie’ in the bungalow across the road, doing some shopping, cleaning and company keeping with her.

It was quite an unusual setting for a six year old. I spent a lot of time with old people. Every third Thursday of the month (something like that) I would be taken out of school early so that she could go on her ‘fish and chip supper’ bus trip to the Civic in Immingham – bingo and raffle included. I am sure that wouldn’t be allowed now, but no-one said anything at the time.

No social workers or support, no advisors. I wonder if anyone was even aware of the arrangement. If they were, as long as it was working, they were content to leave it be.

In her younger years, Kath had worked as a cook in the Post Office and in the cress beds over the railway lines. As a pensioner she had her state pension and small Post Office pension and some lodgings from Mich. What she got to help pay for me as an additional cost, I’m not sure, perhaps some money from my mum when she had it. She would have needed something because I was greedy and would eat and eat until the cupboards were empty. I presume she got child benefit, although as a teenager I was given a cash card to have as pocket money.

She must have struggled; if there were school trips she couldn’t afford them. I think sometimes neighbours or friends’ families helped out, but I still remember taking some money towards school dinners in every week. I was involved in lots of activities – Sunday School, Brownies, gymnastics, dancing and, later, a community drama group. They only cost pennies to join in with. I had one Brownie uniform which lasted me from Year 1 through to Year 4, although it was getting a bit indecent by the end, and one leotard for dancing/gymnastics until I made it in to the reserve gym team and got a team leotard for a Christmas or birthday.

I don't think anyone ever contacted her at any point to see if she was coping or needed any help.

At that time she handwashed most things, apart from bed sheets and towels when she would drag the twintub and spinner into the middle of the kitchen. To make things easier she got me blue blouses for school rather than the white that everyone else wore, then they didn’t need washing so often. She grafted so incredibly hard. She was still of the ‘scrubbing your doorstep on a Monday, washing your windows on a Tuesday’ generation. She vacuumed everyday, made a main meal with pudding, washed the pots by hand and still had time to pick and shell broad beans from the garden.

I don’t think anyone ever contacted her at any point to see if she was coping or needed any help.

While I was in primary school things were fine. I was well behaved and quite happy. But relations got a bit tougher in my teenage years. Not only did hormones kick in and opinions of my own start to be formed, but the lodger, Mich, had a terrible stroke when I was about 14.

Kath now had a stroppy teenager and a seriously disabled man to look after. Over the next couple of years, our relationship completely broke down. It was so bad that my Nan feared we would hurt each other. There was still no official involvement. From our perspective we had never needed any help so we never had contact with any services that might have given some extra support. To my knowledge she had never been into either my primary or secondary school apart from to sign me up, she avoided all that, including parents’ evenings, so she didn’t know any of the staff there who she might have been able to talk to. She would have been too proud to anyway. Instead it just got worse and worse until I moved out with the help of a local charity for young people.

We didn’t speak for about seven years after that and really we only made up after my son was born, 10 years after I’d left. She died in 2010 of heart failure.

The role of these unsung champions of children and family should be celebrated. Proper help and support networks should be easily available, with greater consideration of the quiet retirement people give up to take on the job of being a parent again in their older years.

Now I meet many families in similar positions. Pensioners struggling to look after headstrong youngsters, lives so far apart through the generations they just can’t understand one another. The new parent figures doing their best, the youngsters rebellious. Often the new living arrangements are as a result of trauma in the family, bereavement, mental health difficulties, substance misuse or prison, domestic violence. Regularly they remain without proper support, still so many struggling to get the financial help they need or the right housing. The system is happy to let them get on with this cheap option (kinship carers save the government and council hundreds of thousands of pounds by avoiding foster care or children’s homes), and I’m sure many are still slipping through the net of officials’ awareness.

The role of these unsung champions of children and family should be celebrated. Proper help and support networks should be easily available, with greater consideration of the quiet retirement people give up to take on the job of being a parent again in their older years.

 


April 24-30 is Kinship Care Week.

For more information, go to mentoruk.org.uk/kinship-care-week 

To donate to the Kinship Care Week campaign,
go to uk.virginmoneygiving.com/fund/KinshipCareWeek