Can you introduce yourself please?
I’m Mark Riddell, care leaver.
Originally, I am from away up in Scotland, Aberdeen the windy city. I have been in social work for what feels like a hundred years. I was born in 1968 and only entered care in 1980. My campaigning for children in care and care leavers started in 1983 when I was 15yrs old and in a residential children’s home. It was a big home 15 bedded in fact. I was invited to a ScotPIC annual meeting which was to discuss children in care. At that time children in care and especially residential was in a bit of a mess. Leaving care well, there was not really a leaving care service, you just left. Primarily I am a social worker by trade but have turned my hand at most aspect of children’s social care. I am now a Service Manager for children in care and care leavers in Trafford. I am currently working with DfE and The Children’s Minister as an advisor for their leaving care strategy.
My campaigning for children in care and care leavers started in 1983 when I was 15yrs old and in a residential children’s home.
Tell us a little bit about yourself?
Well I am a social worker by profession but I am also an author. As my way of dealing with care I wrote The Cornflake Kid and laterally The Cappuccino Kid. The Cornflake Kid was my way of coming to terms with care instead of talking to a social worker or psychologist which I did a lot of in the early days of care and got a little bit fed up telling the same story to lots of professionals. The Cappuccino Kid was me as an adult questioning relationships, being a husband and fatherhood after my fairly messed up childhood and chaotic adolescence. I have been married for 25years this year and have two grown up children, a daughter of 22yrs and son of 19yrs.
Do you mind telling us the reasons you went into care?
My mother had been unwell for quite a while without me or my brothers knowing as we were still young children. Alongside this my father was an alcoholic. My mother unfortunately died when I was 9yrs old of a brain injury. My mother was the crutch under my father’s arm so when she left my father never really go off his knees. His alcoholism just got worse to the point when we had no option but to come into care.
What was it like when you first went into care?
It was sort of strange as my father had used going into care as a bit of a threat to behave when we not behaving. He described it as a bit like a small prison for kids but really I had no idea. I remember being picked up from my aunt’s house just after the new year by a social worker. We drove to another suburb of Aberdeen. I was a bit worried as I kept looking out for barbed wire fences and locked gates. Finally, the car stopped outside a normal house in a normal street. The social worker said this is home for now and we went inside. It was a house with five bedrooms, kitchen, living room and dining area, play room, toilets and an office. I shared a room with my younger brother for a short period then got my own room.
I was a bit worried as I kept looking out for barbed wire fences and locked gates. Finally, the car stopped outside a normal house in a normal street.
Overall, what has your care experience been like?
Overall I would say good, the care was good and people really cared and tried to do their best. I think environmentally it was really tough. Sharing a home with anything from five children to fifteen was tough. All those different characters and personalities and trying to find your position in an established house was hard. Alongside this I had to deal with lots of main carers. Residential care is very different to foster care in that you will have probably one of two main carers telling you what to do or to aspire to. I had in excess of twenty carers telling me what to do.
Also this was the 80’s. It was a great time for me as I had found music through my older brother who was a punk. After experimenting with early punk and Ska tunes I mellowed into the mod scene with bands like The Jam. I suppose the music and being a mod did it for me. I know this sounds the classic thing to say but I found myself. I could be someone and in the words of The Jam ‘to be someone is a wonderful thing’. In those days we were identified by our clothes. I managed to get a clothing allowance once we had got rid of the voucher book which was standard in all kids homes nationally. Basically, it was a book you took to certain shops to buy clothes. The clothes were grey pants and grey jumpers not the two tone suit or mod parka that I wanted. I got the allowance and off I went to buy my clothes. This was a great memory for me.
I could be someone and in the words of The Jam ‘to be someone is a wonderful thing’.
Unfortunately, the 80‘s came with a health warning. In Scotland, there emerged a glue sniffing epidemic. It was a sort of poor person’s drug. When I moved to the large fifteen bedded unit glue sniffing was rife, and although I resisted for a year I eventually succumbed as things happened in my own family particularly at birthdays and Christmas when you got nothing. For a year it was tough and there was things I did that pushed the staff caring for me to the edge, it also pushed me to the edge. I was probably a hairs whisper away from being locked up. On one particular occasion which was a defining moment in my care career I had a particularly difficult weekend and had caused a lot of damage to the kids home. I packed my belongings into black bags and got ready for the next move to a kids home. I sat outside the office door waiting for the manager to arrive. He sat me down and said ‘oh well what next’. I told him I had packed my stuff. He looked at me and said surprisingly ‘why where are you going? this is your home and you are staying, we will just have to replace the windows and doors’. That was it. I stopped glue sniffing, talked to all the other kids and got them to stop. This was at the time I mentioned above when I went to the ScotPic meeting. It was the start.
What is your favourite childhood memory?
Not so sure really! Probably when I bought a second-hand bike from a mate. It was a Raleigh Grifter. It was a cracking bike and was probably by best mate as I went everywhere with it.
What is your biggest achievement?
It is difficult to measure achievement as it spans all of our lives. Having a sense of who you are and where you want to be. For me that was my own family.
What challenges have you faced and how did you overcome them?
In care I overcome the challenges by finding music. It is my timeline, history, its how I define and make sense of the things I have done. Think about it, you hear a tune and you go oh I remember that. It pulls a memory and evokes an emotion. The words drive you forward. Music makes me feel good.
Has your past had a positive or negative effect on your future?
Certainly, motivated me. I knew in the 80’s what was wrong with care as I had gone through most of it. By the 90’s and after traveling the world and meeting a lot of special people including Sylvester Stallone as an extra in Rambo III inspired me to get into social work and to change it. Which I did.
What has driven you?
One word passion. That’s it. Never give up. Learn how to get in the front door. There is no point pushing on a closed door.
Who is your role model?
The manager of the kid’s home that told me home was home. Unfortunately, he passed away a few years ago. God rest his soul, Alex.
What keeps you going?
My family, a determination never to give up and that we need more than one chance to get to where we want to be. Stick ability!!!
Have you ever felt like giving up?
Not really, not even in some of the dark times. My push is my mother and she is still watching what I am doing.
How much have you changed since you left care?
Funny question. From the brash kid in care with lots of demands I have probably learned how to turn my care experience into positive dialogue so I can compete on the same level as other professionals, or even the Children’s Minister. Older and wiser……
Do you think you were ever judged or labeled for being in care?
All the time by the community and other professionals, but hey ho I have my own story and I am telling it as I see it.
This is my time.
I have my own story and I am telling it as I see it.
This is my time.
What’s your message to children in care?
Anything is possible. Take advantage of the opportunities that you are offered.
If you could change anything about your life what would it be and why?
Not a single thing. It’s exactly where I want it to be. It’s a tough road but find something like music. It never lets you down. It’s there when you need it. Switch it on and play it loud……..
How did it feel proving people wrong?
It was great coming out of care and surviving it as so many don’t. Out of the eight kids I was with at the end of care only four are alive. That is not good and that’s why the system has to change.
That’s why I am there.
Getting the first in the country ‘outstanding’ leaving care service judgement does not sound like much but for me it was huge as a care leaver and the manager of the service. After 32years someone has said I am going in the right direction and to top that getting an MBE for services to children in care and care leavers was just amazing.
What do you think about care now?
It has certainly changed, but we are far from there yet.
There are lots of things going on that I hope will make a difference for example having a PA until care leavers are 25yrs, Staying Closer for young people in residential care, apprenticeships in local councils, safer and better housing and a national offer from government and local government that holds councils to account in supporting children in care and care leavers.
As long as we listen to children and young people we cannot go wrong.
How do you become successful despite a care background?
I have always used my care background to let people know who I am. I know this sounds corny but this is my history and I am proud of it. In interviews I have always reversed the thinking that I have to prove to people that I am the best person for the job. Instead I go through the process of thinking do I really want to work for you with what I have got!!!!
What is your message to professionals and foster carers?
Ask yourself what would you do with your own children.
Children in care are our children.
Is there something you’re most proud of?
Again this sounds corny but working with children in care and care leavers is something we are given. If you are given it you should do the best you can to make a difference.
The Cornflake Kid and The Cappuccino Kid are available to be purchase via Amazon