Breaking the cycle: A personal story

23 May 2017

By Kerry Littleford, public health worker, Hackney


Kerry Littleford told her story at EIF National Conference 2017, before joining journalist Louise Tickle to explore her personal experiences and insights. A video recording of Kerry’s speech and the following conversation is posted below. Please note that no part of this text may be used, copied or shared without the author’s express permission.


When I started thinking about what I wanted to say here today, my thoughts would always revert back to my mum. But with it, a dilemma. I’ve spoken about my mum before, at events and even on radio. But it never stopped me wondering about the ethics of doing so. Should we really be telling other people’s stories? Can we tell those stories and keep their integrity? But my mum’s story is also my story – I can’t tell one without the other. We’re inextricably linked, and always will be.

I’m the eldest of nine children. I’ve been the matriarch of my family since my earliest memories – at first looking after and trying to protect my mum, and then one by one, my siblings. When I was 13, I watched as six of those siblings got taken away in several vehicles to new homes and I stayed behind. I had always been the one to protect them, the one to lock them in bathrooms if the house got too violent, or to lie with them at night when they were too scared to sleep. But when they all got taken away and I was left behind everything changed. I had never felt so helpless.

A year later I watched as my new baby brother got taken away. A year after that, my new baby sister. I was now 14 with eight younger siblings, and they were spread as far and wide across Birmingham as you can imagine. Up until the seventh child was taken from my mum, I stayed with her. I was deemed mature enough to make my own decisions at that point (I was 13) and so I continued to watch my family being plucked from my house from the inside. At 14 I went to stay with my friend’s family.

After that, everything I knew about being a family was turned upside down and inside out: it wasn’t guaranteed that you’d stay with your mum forever. It was no longer guaranteed that you would even see your siblings. You see, when your siblings are fostered, you still get to see them, but for only a few hours a week. There are 168 hours in a week. I went from seeing my siblings 168 hours a week to just two. Two hours to love and play and be happy, all under the watchful gaze of two strangers in a contact centre. At contact I continued to try and hold the family together but it would get harder each time. Guilt started to erode me. My brothers and sisters would draw me pictures and write me letters asking when they could come home again. I couldn’t answer them.

Even worse, when your siblings are adopted you don’t get to see them at all. My two youngest siblings were adopted and I haven’t seen either of them since 2001.

When I talk about this to people I know certain assumptions are made about our family – and some of those assumptions are right. Because we were a typical family where the cycles of deprivation and dysfunction passed through the generations. Where poverty, neglect and violence were handed down like family heirlooms. My mum had been a child in care, and now so were her nine children. She had been neglected, and in turn had neglected her children. And I found myself asking, why didn’t she learn from her past? Why wasn’t she trying to make things better for us? Was it that she didn’t want to? That couldn’t be true, because I know she has a good heart and cares about us all, so what was it?

I found myself asking, why didn’t my mum learn from her past? Why wasn’t she trying to make things better for us? Was it that she didn’t want to? I know she has a good heart and cares about us all, so what was it?

And we were the typical council estate big family on benefits you can imagine. Yes, we were poor, and I mean below-the-breadline poor – asking neighbours for food poor. One of my most embarrassing memories is reading a letter from the council when I was about 11 saying the neighbours had complained about us begging for food. I was shocked. I’d never associated my actions with begging before: I just asked the neighbours for some food sometimes because my mum had asked me to, and because we needed to eat.

And yes, we were neglected. We were the family at school who constantly had nits; if you walked around our house with bare feet they’d soon turn the soles black. My mum never did school work with us at home. ‘Risk’ wasn’t a word I think my mum had ever heard – her awareness of risk was, and I would say still is, non-existent. We were constantly put in risky situations. But for me, it was just the natural way of things. Because when you’re a child, everything you experience is just normal, whether it’s happy or sad, frightening or calm – it’s all just normal. And the life I’m describing to you now, it all felt very normal at the time. I assumed that every kid I knew had some similar life at home.

‘Risk’ wasn’t a word I think my mum had ever heard – her awareness of risk was, and I would say still is, non-existent. But when you’re a child, everything you experience is just normal, whether it’s happy or sad, frightening or calm – it’s all just normal.

So we were poor, we were neglected, and we witnessed and experienced violence. We were being looked after by my mum, and a stream of interchangeable bad men. All of those men shared the same desires of control over my mum by force, and this would sometimes spill over onto us. One thing I realised as I got older was that my mum had very little control over her own life. All nine children, although loved, were never planned. Pregnancy was a thing that happened to my mum because the man would decide if contraception was used or not. The man’s pleasure in those moments was more important to him than anything that came afterwards, including the heartbreaking moment of having your child taken away. Does anything show a lack of control more than knowing if you get pregnant again you won’t get to keep the child, but having no say over whether you become pregnant?

The thing you have to understand about my mum is, she has a good heart, and for the most part, she was a good mum. We were washed, dressed and at school most days. She accepted help where it was offered; from teachers, from people at church. But she was incredibly isolated, and that contributed hugely to the dissolution of our family. Her siblings and parents had very complex relationships with histories of care, violence and alcohol abuse, and my mum ran away from all of that at 15 and continued what she had always had to do, and that was look after herself. But she had never been prepared for it, and she had never been prepared for starting a family.

One thing I realised as I got older was that my mum had very little control over her own life. She accepted help where it was offered; from teachers, from people at church. But she was incredibly isolated, and that contributed hugely to the dissolution of our family.

I was taken into care at 14, but I had been on a risk register for neglect and emotional abuse from the age of 4. That’s 10 years of social care involvement where all of the issues that my mum had continued. Over those years my mum continued to have children whilst falling further and further into chaos, and no work was ever done with her to build her self-esteem, to learn how to parent or just to be more confident in the skills that she did possess.

People tend to learn from mistakes and experiences, and most people look at ways to improve their lives and the lives of their children. This has never seemed the case with my mum, although she always says she’s proud at how well we’re doing, she never did anything to make it so. She doesn’t seem to recognise the mistakes that she’s made, so she never learns from them. She’s accepted her lot in life, so she never challenges it. I’ve never seen my mum cry. And I’ve seen her being horribly beaten up, and have all of her children taken away from her. But I’ve never seen her cry. And she wasn’t one of those mums who told us we shouldn’t cry, I’ve just never seen her do it. I don’t know a lot about my mum’s childhood because she never talks about it, but I know, in my gut, that it was bad.

What I’ve described to you so far is a family in the throes of dysfunction and deprivation, the cycles of which we see copying as we move down generations. A woman who was in the care system, having her children taken into care. A woman who watched her mother suffer violence at the hands of her drunken father, suffering that same violence from the partners she chose. I think everyone would agree with me that this is not good for anyone. It’s not good for the mother, it’s not good for the children and it’s not good for society. So can these cycles be broken? And if so, how? I firmly believe that they can, and I think I’m a testament of that. But I also believe if the right intervention had come along for my mum, the cycles would have been broken much earlier and our family would look a lot different right now, and I truly believe, would be a lot happier.

What I’ve described to you so far is a family in the throes of dysfunction and deprivation. But I believe if the right intervention had come along for my mum, the cycles would have been broken much earlier and our family would look a lot different right now, and I truly believe, would be a lot happier.

A few years ago, whilst working at Hackney council, I was asked if I wanted to help work on and set up a pilot project (later called the Pause Project), and I soon discovered it was a project that would work with women just like my mum. It would be an intensive programme working with women who had had multiple children removed from them and were likely to have more removed in the future. I remember the group right at the beginning talking about how these women are often alone, trying to bring up their children but failing. ‘They are then surrounded by professionals, but eventually those children are taken away and the mother is left on her own again. And all the issues going on for that woman remain until she becomes pregnant again, and then once again she is surrounded by professionals until that child is taken away. And once again she is left alone. So why aren’t we working with these women to try and solve some of those problems before they get pregnant again? But mostly, why aren’t we working with those women to prevent more children going into care, to prevent more misery in the world?’

And I thought back to my life as a child and it all made sense. We had all been surrounded by professionals trying to put things in place to make her version of parenting work, but once we were all gone she was left to fend for herself – until she became pregnant again. There was never any ongoing work between those times to try and solve some of those issues to prevent what was becoming a very predictable, and a very destructive, pattern for my family.

I thought back to my life as a child and it all made sense. We had all been surrounded by professionals trying to put things in place to make her version of parenting work, but once we were all gone she was left to fend for herself – until she became pregnant again. There was never any ongoing work to try and solve some of those issues.

That was actually the first time in my life that I really thought about the fact that there could’ve been a different path for my family – I too, like my mum, had accepted the way of things. This was how the world worked – these women were doomed to follow patterns, make mistakes and lose their children. But that’s not the case, and it never had to be.

I think the experiences my mum had as a child meant that she would never be cut out to be a mother without guidance and support. And I mean intense guidance and intense support. How are people supposed to know how to do something they’ve never been taught, or even how to do something they’ve only watched being done badly?

I often think what would have happened if a project like Pause had been around whilst all of this was happening. Would it have worked for our family? Would my mum have become a better parent, a stronger woman? Would she have built the confidence to have a career or start relationships with good men? Would we have been allowed to go back to her? Would she have had as many children, and if not, I start to think about what it would be like not having some of my siblings. That thought is unimaginable now.

There is one thing I think she would have gained, and that’s some degree of control over her life, and the ability to make her own choices.

I haven’t spoken about the financial implications of this on purpose, although we all know the savings made by these women not having children taken into care, versus the money spent on them being taken into care – but I really wanted to focus on the difference early intervention can make for people, for their lives and their futures. Not everyone gets the same chances in life, not everyone gets the same amount of choice. We have a duty to take care of those who are vulnerable, who need that extra support, who were never given the life chances so many of us got, of which we build our foundations. We can sit here and be bystanders whilst members of our society continue to fall through the cracks, or we can work together to get in as early as we can to break these cycles and to give them the chances and the choices that many of us were so lucky to have.

We can sit here and be bystanders whilst members of our society continue to fall through the cracks, or we can work together to get in as early as we can to break these cycles and to give them the chances and the choices that many of us were so lucky to have.