Please be aware this piece contains references to abuse, exploitation mental illness, self-harm, suicide attempts and addiction, which some people may find distressing.
I’ve had a social worker since I was 10 or 11 years old. My dad was just really abusive and my mum didn’t know how to manage that. It would just be constant verbal abuse, so I started going out a lot. I would walk around the area all the time. One time, I bumped into a couple of people that looked a bit older. I started spending time with them because I had nowhere else and they had a house to go to – there was shelter, food… That’s all anyone wants really. So I ended up spending a lot of time with them.
It was never sexual but they wanted me to do stuff for them, like sell drugs. They felt like older brothers – protective. But I also knew that if I messed up, the protection wasn’t going to be there anymore. I never got in trouble with the police doing that because the police don’t stop girls. There were times when I would be holding something for one of them and the police would come – he would be getting searched and I would just walk off.
When I did get arrested, it was because of fights at home with my dad. As I got older, I started to think, “I’m not taking this anymore, I’m not going to keep getting hurt by you.” I would lash out. I would say something and he would go mad and start breaking stuff and call the police and say that I’d broken it.
When the police came, they’d arrest me. They’d put me in a cell and then they’d make my dad come and bail me out. They would ask me what happened but they’d do it when they had me in handcuffs and were searching me. If they’d treated me like a human, sat down with me and said “is everything okay at home?” or asked if they could help, it would have been different. They should be working with colleges and social workers more too. They should be seeing a pattern.
They don’t always know how to ask young people about what’s happening in their lives. I had a gangs worker when I was younger and she kept talking about “sexual exploitation”. I didn’t know what she meant and I wasn’t going to go and google it. I think when people ask about what’s happening in your life, they need to break it down more and use simpler words – like, “they’re violating you” or “they’re not good people, they could harm you”. Using words like “harm” is helpful – that would make me think something was wrong.
When I did try and tell someone what was happening at home, they would dismiss it. I remember asking my social worker to take me into care but they weren’t listening. It took me getting pregnant, and saying that I felt like my life and my child’s life was going to be in danger if I stayed, for them to take it seriously.
The first worker that I had when I was getting arrested didn’t really understand. He was young as well, and had gone through jail and stuff – but he didn’t get it. He related more to boys. It seemed like he was reluctant to talk because he was a man. Sometimes it’s the worker that feels uncomfortable, and that makes you uncomfortable too.
I feel like another reason they people didn’t really understand is that my culture is different. There was a lack of empathy. When I had a worker with a similar background to me, she got it more, and knew that what was happening was wrong. It’s so important to have someone you can relate to. I would want a worker who has gone through stuff – who has survived abuse and understands your perspective – not someone who’s just gone to uni.
It was different when I started working with my young women’s worker at Redthread. I’ve been working with her for three years now. Before then, I was running away a lot and still getting in trouble with the police and I’d ended up in hospital. I got a call from her and I remember saying, “I don’t want to talk to you, I don’t need support.” A couple of weeks went by and I decided I didn’t want to be spending time with the people I was with anymore, but that was hard and lonely.
I remember just picking up the phone and calling the young women’s worker and asking to meet. She told me we could meet wherever I wanted and there was no pressure to meet again if I didn’t want to. We met in a department store and I just started talking. She made me feel comfortable by telling me things about herself. We’ve met ever since. Getting her perspective on the situation helped me leave those people behind.
She really helped me after I gave birth to my daughter too. My anxiety got really bad but she supported me to get on buses – to take my daughter out. I didn’t know how to cook so we’d do weekly sessions. Sometimes we cooked something really good, and sometimes it was just a mess, but it was something to look forward. When you have no one there – no support, no friends – you have to have a reason to live. So I was looking forward to those weekly meetings every week. She was always in my corner.
Now, I’m at college. I want to go to uni and study criminology. That’s what my advocate did, and she was so, so helpful. I want to work in a prison with young people. I want to advocate for them and understand how they got there. I’ve got a lot on my plate with my daughter and studying and getting the qualifications, but I’ll get there…