As part of Britain’s Forgotten Children season on Channel 4, this moving documentary charted journalist Rachel Roberts’ attempts to trace some of the children with whom she was in a care home in Doncaster. She also wanted to find the matron of the home, Tina – of whom she had nothing but fond memories – and her husband Dennis. This particular sentiment was one that we were to discover was shared by all those she met who’d also been in Tina and Dennis’s care.
Rachel, who’s now 38, was just four years old when she and her sister Jenny were placed into the care of social services and – unlike many of the people we’ve encountered in this emotive series of documentaries – described her time in care “a positive experience” adding, “I was really happy there.”
Rachel and Jenny – as far as she knew at the beginning of the film – had been placed into care because their young mother couldn’t cope with her and her sister, being barely more than a child herself. She knew too that her father had attempted to look after them for a while but had failed, hence they were taken to the residential care home in Doncaster.
The girls were in the home for fifteen months before being fostered by a couple in Scotland, and with just one grainy photograph to help begin her search, Rachel turned to social worker Ariel Bruce to help her to track down some of the other children in the photo as well as Tina.
However, Ariel warned Rachel that for some of the adults who were children in the home with her, tracing them and talking to them about their experiences there may cause painful memories to affect them, so she advised caution when approaching her peers who may not have had the positive experience that Rachel herself did.
However, between them, they began the search, and for Rachel, this meant going to Doncaster to read her own case file to find out the truth surrounding the circumstances of her placement into care, and it was a journey that was to set her upon a path of revelation that was to prove shocking and highly emotional.
Rachel wept as she read her file and discovered a number of shocking facts that included finding out that she had five half-brothers and one ‘full’ brother; all of whom she knew nothing of before reading her file. Through her tears and obvious shock, Rachel said, “There were other children, I never knew that.”
She also discovered that her mother hadn’t left Rachel and her sister because she couldn’t cope, but had in fact “run off with another man” who the file revealed was a, “Seaman of Indonesian origins”. It seems that her mother, Susan, was just 15 years old when she’d begun a relationship with Rachel’s father, who was 22 years older than Susan. She also found out that her father had been in prison.
It was evident to see how shocking this new knowledge was for Rachel but despite finding out she had other siblings, she stated that she didn’t “feel the need” to find them, but as the film went on, she met one of her half-brothers entirely by accident…
Rachel had returned to the house that was previously the care home and noticed a pub across the road that she didn’t remember from her time in the home, so, hoping to glean some new information, she went into the pub and asked to speak with the landlord. He was called Stefan and he seemed to know a lot about the home and Rachel herself. It transpired that not only had he been in the same care home, but he was in fact one of Rachel’s five half-brothers.
In a highly emotional conversation with Rachel, Stefan expressed his hatred for their father and described how he would come to the home to visit Rachel and Jenny but never once visited with Stefan or his brothers. He also told her how it was also deemed at the time that Rachel and Jenny should not be told they had siblings, let alone that some of those siblings shared their home.
Stefan is clearly a man who’s been highly traumatised by his childhood, and especially by the rejection from his father, and it was desperately sad to see Rachel trying to find any words of comfort for this newly discovered brother for whom childhood memories were clearly very different to her own and caused him a great deal of anger and pain.
It was a tale that could’ve been taken from the script of Shameless; a drunken father, an abandoning mother, numerous and scattered siblings and childhoods shadowed by those abandonments, and as Rachel left the pub and the unexpected meeting with her half-brother, she said that the meeting and the knowledge gained through it had left her, “totally and utterly broadsided”.
With all the knowledge that Rachel now had regarding her mother, her opinion of her began to change. Where she once pitied her and believed she was just a young woman who couldn’t cope, she now found herself “judging her.” Rachel stated to the camera, “You abandoned your children to start a relationship with another man”.
In the meantime however, Ariel had tracked down two of the boys from the photograph, brothers Bradley and Dean who both still lived in Doncaster. They didn’t recall a great deal about the children’s home but they did recall a child called Brian who they recollected bullied and intimidated them and they also expressed an interest in seeing Tina again. And like Stefan, their childhood had caused them trauma in their adult lives; both men had difficulty forming relationships and believed this was because they’d been separated whilst in care and only reunited when both boys turned 16.
Rachel next met Michael, a boy she remembered from the home who also still lived in Doncaster. Ariel had warned Rachel prior to her meeting that Michael may be deeply troubled. “I think he’s had quite a difficult time of it” Ariel said, and as Rachel found out, he had indeed. Michael had spent ten years in care before being returned to his family but, he found life at home intolerable and aged 14, he ran away and lived rough for many years before ending up in prison. This was another sad meeting as Michael recalled how he, his brother Stephen and sister Tracey were in the home at the same time as Rachel, but he too remembered that there was “plenty of love” in the house.
Next, Rachel met 44 year old Caroline who’d spent most of her childhood in care and had in fact lived in ten different children’s homes. Caroline told Rachel how she was expelled from school and became “a tearaway”. She remembered Michael and Brian and she too had memories of Brian being “a bully”. Unlike Bradley, Dean and Michael though, Caroline did manage to emerge from her troubled past able to form lasting relationships; she’d been married for 14 years and had a daughter. Caroline told Rachel that she hates her mother for leaving her and her siblings, and especially as she’s a mother herself, she couldn’t imagine leaving her children in the way that her own mother did. However, Caroline also recalled the love that Tina showed her and she too wanted to meet this kind lady again.
Rachel later met with another of her brothers, Bryce – she’d discovered that two of her siblings were called Bryce; one was her ‘full’ brother, the other a half-brother. The Bryce she met with was her ‘full’ brother and he told her more about their mother and father, but she too had news for Bryce in that she told him their father had had two nervous breakdowns. However, Bryce, like Stefan, had nothing but feelings of animosity towards his father and told Rachel that if he’d had breakdowns, he’d brought it on himself; after all, he’d “run off” with a minor Bryce said.
He also told Rachel that throughout his life, he’s wondered if he was to blame for being put into care; had he been a troublesome child? Had he been loud or naughty? And despite knowing in his heart of hearts that this was not the case, like many children in care, he assumed a burden of guilt that was not his to assume, but it was there anyway. Both Bryce and Rachel expressed their anger that they were kept apart as children and neither really knew why that had been the case.
Again, this was another highly emotive meeting but one less so was with Florence, another ex-resident of Ascot Road children’s home who’s become a successful businesswoman and who also has a child. Florence recalled how she considered Tina to be her mother and the home to be her ‘real’ home as well as saying how much she missed Tina and the home when she was returned to her parents aged 11.
Soon after meeting with Florence, Rachel had a breakthrough and found an address for Tina and Dennis, but on Ariel’s advice, she wrote to them first rather than just turning up on their doorstep. In the letter, Rachel explained that she was looking for – and had met some of – the other children who were in Tina’s care and how, more than anything, she’d like to see Tina and Dennis again. Tina happily replied that she too would like to meet again so some thirty years since their last encounter, their reunion was poignant.
It was made all the more so when Tina – who’s clearly a very loving woman and who’s dedicated her life to the care of children – showed Rachel some photographs and slides from her childhood. One that brought Rachel to tears was a photograph of herself and Jenny cuddling a giant teddy bear.
After the meeting, Rachel’s new feelings towards her mother evolved further and she stated that she felt Tina was the only mother-figure she’d ever had and that she couldn’t have asked for one better, adding that now, her biological mother seemed “irrelevant.”
Rachel next met with Robert who’d been at the home with his brother David, however, it transpired that David had committed suicide aged just 18, a fact that Robert, now a man in his forties, still struggled to come to terms with. His grief was evident and still raw as he took Rachel to David’s grave where he was buried with their father. Not a lot of time was given to recollections of his childhood but again, he remembered vividly a boy called Brian who’d been a bully and someone who’d frightened Robert and David.
And it was Brian who Rachel was to meet next…
His story was another sad one; he’d been in care from being just ten days old until he was 16. He’d experienced corporal punishment in some of the homes in the form of “the slipper” or the cane, though he said he felt no anger about that and stated that it hadn’t done him “any harm.” He also described how he’d been married and had two sons, both of whom he’d won custody of and brought up himself, however, when questioned about the issue of everyone remembering his as a bully, he said that he had no recollection of bullying anyone and if he ever met with anybody who believed he had done so, he’d apologise.
He was in fact to get a chance to do that for by now, so many people had expressed a desire to see – and thank – Tina, Rachel had arranged a reunion, however, Brian did not attend which Rachel philosophically observed he probably “had his own reasons for not coming.” I imagine that Brian probably did recall being a bully, and maybe he expected some backlash for that from the adults those children now were, but with a past as troubled as Brian’s, one can perhaps understand his need to dominate and control other children, as distressing as that would’ve been for the children in question.
However, the reunion went ahead with most of the people Rachel had tracked down attending and tears were shed but there was also shared laughter and lots of thanks were imparted to Tina and Dennis.
As the credits rolled at the end of the programme, it was stated that since filming the documentary, “Rachel has volunteered to become a mentor for children in care”.
So was this a ‘happy ending’ or even a ‘happy’ story? Well, yes and no. In making this film and embarking on the journey of discovery that she took, Rachel’s feelings of sympathy towards her parents, especially her mother, turned into some resentment and then ambivalence. She was saddened by some of the stories of her peers but heartened by the outcome of others, however, above all else, she, and many of the children in that typical ‘70s photograph that sparked the entire series of events, got to say thank you to the woman who’d made their troubled lives so much more bearable by showing them love and kindness of a sort that seems to have been all to rare for children in residential care homes.
This was a touching and moving film, as all this series of programmes have been, but sharing Rachel’s journey of discovery felt like a very personal and intimate thing; as if we the viewer were taking the journey with her rather than observing as outsiders and I think Rachel deserves thanks for sharing her story in this way. Laying bare your past and opening old wounds is never an easy thing to do but to do it with a camera in tow must’ve made it more difficult.
I hope that perhaps in a year or two, Rachel will do a follow-up so that we can find out how her relationships with her half-brothers have evolved, or indeed, if in fact they do.