Rona Whitfield

Can you introduce yourself please?

My name is Rona, I’m 21 and I live in Worcester.

Tell us a little bit about yourself?

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My favourite thing to do is spend time with young people and I’m currently studying Youth Work at the University of Worcester. I work for the GreenFingers project, a local alternative education project for looked after children who are struggling in mainstream education. I also volunteer at New College Worcester, running a youth club for blind and partially sighted young people.

I’m a long standing member of Worcestershire’s care leaver’s council, Speak Out, and sit as a representative on the Corporate Parenting Board and the Virtual School Governing Board. I also get the chance to advocate for looked after children and care leavers at various events such as most recently the foster carers conference and the leadership exchange. I volunteer for Worcestershire Young Carers when I have any free time that coincides with their meetings, and I’m also the youngest member in the biggest and best local choir; Voices Unlimited.

*phew!* I think that’s everything.

Do you mind telling us the reasons you went into care?

Until the age of 12 I lived on a little estate with my Mum and Dad, both of whom were disabled. My Mum had a physical disability which affected the feeling and movement in her legs, and therefore her mobility. My Dad has a learning disability and suffers from depression and schizophrenia.

My parents never really had enough support to care for themselves and me, despite family living really nearby, so from a young age I did a lot for myself and for them. Just a couple of days before Christmas 2008 my Mum was taken into hospital with an infection in her leg that turned out to be gangrene. The doctors tried to treat it with antibiotics but ultimately it was too late and they had to amputate her leg above the knee. During this time I stayed with Dad who was struggling and turning to alcohol to try and gain back some control. My Uncle who I’d only met a few times, despite him living just down the road, never liked my Dad so saw this as a time to get involved and be the hero. He convinced my Dad and social services that I should go and stay with him and his wife. Everyone agreed to this and I was told I’d be staying for a ‘few days’. So that was my first Kinship placement, though I didn’t know it at the time. I ended up staying with them for about 5 months.

Meanwhile my Mum recovered from her surgery and began adapting to life as an amputee. Due to her disability she couldn’t balance on a prosthetic leg so when she left hospital she would become a full time wheelchair user. This meant that my family had to move house to an adapted bungalow on another estate about a 20 minute drive away (though my parents didn’t drive). At this point I still believed I would be returning to my parents and so started chatting to my school friends about painting my new bedroom and unfortunately moving schools. One night my Uncle came upstairs to talk to me and told me that my Aunty wasn’t very well and so they wouldn’t be able to look after me anymore, and I would be going to live with their daughter, her fiance, and her two children (who luckily also lived just up the road). Again I stayed with them for a few months but the family holiday to France cemented the fact that I didn’t fit in with their perfect life and wouldn’t be staying.

So not long after I started back at school my Cousin sat me down and told me that I would be going into foster care because ‘she couldn’t afford to care for me’ (I later found out that this wasn’t the case.) Nothing else happened for a while so I put the thought to the back of my mind and figured they’d be trying to find me a family. Then one weekend when I was going to stay with my parents (which I did every other week) I was told I’d be staying until the Monday and going to school from there instead of coming home Sunday night. So the following Monday I went to school and did lessons as normal until last lesson of the day which was Maths. At the start of the lesson my Head of House came and took me to her office and asked me “where do you want to go tonight?” I didn’t really understand the question so I told her I didn’t mind and she sent me back to my lesson. Just before the end of the lesson another member of staff who I’d never really spoken to came and collected me and took me down to reception. She asked me if I knew I was going into care and told me a social worker I’d never met was coming to see me.

I thought that she was just coming to talk to me about what was going to happen and where I’d be going, I thought I’d get chance to plan and pack.

At this point I thought that she was just coming to talk to me about what was going to happen and where I’d be going, I thought I’d get chance to plan and pack. When she arrived she said “Come on then” and I realised that I was going into care there and then. So we got in her car and she drove me to the other side of the nearest city, somewhere I’d never been, and dropped me off with my new family. During that journey I didn’t know whether I’d be going back to school the next day or even if I’d see my family or friends again.

What was it like when you first went into care?

Going into care is an experience like no other. There is no other time where as a 12 year old you’ll be placed in a stranger’s house on your own and left to get on with it. I had a strange sense of De Ja Vu that I think my brain created to protect me because I couldn’t quite get my mind around the fact this was all happening. I felt lost and abandoned, angry and confused that nobody had told me what was happening. I’d been practically in charge of my own life and my parents’ for the majority of my life, so to have someone making decisions for me and then expect me to be parented, and by a stranger at that was unfair.

Going into care is an experience like no other

Overall, what has your care experience been like?

Though I’m pretty down and negative about my experience of going into care once I settled in I had a really positive experience and began to thrive in a new environment where I only had to focus on being a teenager. I always refer to my foster carers’ house as ‘a b&b for teenagers’ because they provided me with the practical things I needed to be able to get on with achieving what I wanted to. I didn’t need a family because I already had one who despite their faults loved and cared for me. My foster family provided me with a safe home, food on the table, and someone to my laundry while I got to focus on school and developing as a young person.

I didn’t need a family because I already had one who despite their faults loved and cared for me

What is your biggest achievement?

Currently I feel my biggest achievement is getting into uni, despite it taking a little longer than the average person, and completing my first year with pretty good grades.

What challenges have you faced and how did you overcome them?

Around the age of 15 my mental health began to decline pretty rapidly with the pressure of school and exams, probably combined with attachment issues from my past and coming to terms with the things I’d experienced. At my worst I was barely sleeping, having multiple panic attacks in a day, and feeling pretty unsafe in my own head. Eventually I went to the doctors and went on medication, which although it’s not a long term fix helped me to regulate my emotions to be able to get through school and get some cognitive behavioral therapy. I still struggle now from time to time but I know that I can get help and support to stop me from getting back to the place I was a few years ago, and I’ve learnt the signs to know when things aren’t right.

I know that I can get help and support to stop

Has your past had a positive or negative effect on your future?

I believe that without the experiences I’ve had I wouldn’t be the person I am today. Growing up around disability has given me a different outlook on life and provided me with the skills to be able to adapt the way I can support different people. My experience as a care leaver has also given me a unique advantage in my work as I have some understanding of what the young people I work with have been or are going through.

Who is your role model?

When I think about role models there are two people that come to mind.

The first is my Mum  …. She was told she wouldn’t be able to do a lot of things but even from the age of 5 she defied the odds

The first is my Mum. My Mum was born in the 60s with a pretty serious disability and had to be operated on just hours after birth. The doctors told my Nan that her daughter would never walk and probably wouldn’t survive past the age of 16, and if she did she would never be able to have children. Throughout her childhood she had multiple operations including leg lengthening operations and fitting shunts to drain fluid from her brain. She learnt to walk at the age of 5 using a wheelbarrow as support and despite falling over a lot she always managed to laugh it off. Unfortunately my Mum passed away two years ago at the age of 53, but given the odds she was given I think that she had a pretty incredible life. She went to college to study catering where she met my Dad and during her time there she did a 10 mile sponsored walk and often went out walking with Dad. They got married not long after they finished college and tried a few times to have children but eventually accepted that it wasn’t going to happen. Then by surprise Mum found herself pregnant with me and did all she could to make sure that I was born healthy. My Mum was like a force of nature and the most strong but stubborn person I’ve ever met. She was told she wouldn’t be able to do a lot of things but even from the age of 5 she defied the odds and stuck two fingers up to anyone that told her she couldn’t do what she wanted. I like to think I’ve inherited my Mum’s can do attitude and rarely let anyone tell me no.

The second person that comes to mind is Sally, one of the youth workers that supports us in the children in care and care leavers councils to do what we do. When I first started I had to write an essay about a role model and I posted that essay on my blog here.

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What keeps you going?

Simply, the knowledge that people care about me and I mean something to them.

Have you ever felt like giving up?

There have been times both personally and professionally when I’ve lost all direction and wanted to give up. When my mental health was very poor there were times when I very nearly gave up on everything, but I got myself through it with love and support from my friends. On the other hand, professionally, with our recent inadequate Ofsted report and seeing the failings of the system that works for our young people despite all the work we do as young people trying to change it was disheartening, and sometimes I wonder whether things will ever change. However, without us I believe that things would be a whole lot worse for young people so I know that we just need to keep fighting.

Do you think you were ever judged or labeled for being in care?

I often feel that I’ve been judged for being a care leaver, but I enjoy changing people’s perception when they actually meet me and get to know me. I think we should be proud of our experiences and prove to other people that they do not define us, and ultimately we will beat the stigma.

I enjoy changing people’s perception when they actually meet me and get to know me

Rona writes her own blog The Mind of a Musician

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