Little Prisoners: A tragic story of siblings trapped in a world of abuse and suffering

Little Prisoners: A tragic story of siblings trapped in a world of abuse and suffering


   Sunday Times Bestselling Author

Casey Watson Little Prisoners

   A Tragic Story of Siblings Trapped in a World of Abuse and Suffering


Copyright

   This book is a work of non-fiction based on the author’s experiences.

    In order to protect privacy, names, identifying characteristics, dialogue and details have been changed or reconstructed.

   HarperElement

    An Imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers 1 London Bridge Street London SE1 9GF

   


   and HarperElement are trademarks of HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd

   First published by HarperElement 2012

   1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2

   © Casey Watson 2012

   Casey Watson asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work

   A catalogue record of this book is available from the British Library

   LITTLE PRISONERS. © Casey Watson 2012. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the nonexclusive, nontransferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on-screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, reverse-engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins e-books.

   Source ISBN: 9780007436606

   Ebook Edition © APRIL 2012 ISBN: 9780007436613 Version 2016-11-25

Dedication

   To my wonderful and supportive family

Contents

   Title Page

   Copyright

   Dedication

   Chapter 1

   My husband, Mike, always bagged the window seat on planes,…

   Chapter 2

   Fighting the need to gag, I ushered everyone inside, pasting…

   Chapter 3

   When Mike and I returned to the living room the…

   Chapter 4

   It felt like the middle of the night when I…

   Chapter 5

   ‘We come bearing gifts!’

   Chapter 6

   The type of fostering Mike and I had originally been…

   Chapter 7

   Finding out they were ‘in care’ upset the children dreadfully,…

   Chapter 8

   It was a Saturday afternoon, towards the end of September,…

   Chapter 9

   If I was frustrated by a lack of action on…

   Chapter 10

   The main finding Anna wanted to share with me concerned…

   Chapter 11

   The journey back home from Wales was a tense affair.

   Chapter 12

   I had decided, during one of many bouts of sleeplessness…

   Chapter 13

   It took Ashton some time to act normally around us…

   Chapter 14

   I didn’t have a clue how to turn things around…

   Chapter 15

   I called Anna the next morning. I felt helpless; I…

   Chapter 16

   ‘You know what?’ Mike said to me the following evening,…

   Chapter 17

   I brooded about that meeting all week. After we’d left…

   Chapter 18

   It had been such a delight to see Justin. He…

   Chapter 19

   Only a couple of weeks after the birth of Olivia’s…

   Chapter 20

   I grew more convinced, with every passing day, that these…

   Chapter 21

   It wasn’t that I wanted to label the children –…

   Chapter 22

   Just as had happened at Christmas, Easter passed almost unnoticed…

   Chapter 23

   The call came from Anna just over a week later.

   Chapter 24

   It was agreed that we’d say goodbye to the children…

   Epilogue

   This letter takes pride of place underneath the photograph of…

   

   

   Acknowledgements

   

Chapter 1

   My husband, Mike, always bagged the window seat on planes, so I had to lean across him to watch ours land. He ruffled my hair.

   ‘Hey, look at you, eager beaver!’ he said. ‘Can’t wait to get home again, can you?’

   We were returning from a glorious week in Corfu. Just the two of us. A rare break, and one we really needed. We’d just said goodbye to our most recent foster child, Sophia, and the impromptu holiday had been a real tonic. Sophia’s had been a two-week emergency stay that had stretched to almost a year. It had also been a pretty bumpy ride.

   I snuggled up as far as my seat belt would let me, anxious to reassure him that that wasn’t the case. Well, not quite. ‘Oh, love,’ I said. ‘It’s been a fantastic holiday, really. But you know what I’m like. I’m missing the kids now. Especially baby Levi.’

   Levi was our little grandson and one of the joys in our lives. ‘I know,’ Mike said, squeezing over so I could see out. ‘Me too, if I’m honest. But we’ll be home in next to no time … ah, here we go. Let’s see how he lands it.’

   We both watched as the plane seemed to float towards the runway. No bumps today. The pilot touched down perfectly.

   

   Looking after Sophia, who was now 13, and in temporary residential care, while they tackled her mental health problems, had been an experience we wouldn’t forget in a hurry. The outlook was positive, and we were still seeing her regularly, but what we’d been through when she was with us had taken its toll. Not just on the poor child but on us as a family, and now we were safely back on terra firma I realised just how much I needed to see my own children. Riley, my eldest, and mother to my gorgeous Levi, had given us the news, just the evening before we’d left, that she was now pregnant with our second grandchild. We’d been so thrilled, and now I was itching to get back to her and give her another hug.

   I also couldn’t wait to see Kieron, our son, who I knew wouldn’t relax till he had us safely home again. He has Asperger’s syndrome and one of its features is that changes in routine made him anxious. Though he’d been away himself for a few days’ holiday with his girlfriend Lauren and her family, I knew it wouldn’t stop him fretting about whether we were okay.

   And now we’d touched down, I couldn’t wait to actually get home and see them, so getting away from Manchester Airport couldn’t happen soon enough. I hate airports, especially in the middle of the day, when they’re at their busiest, and today wasn’t going to be an exception. We were herded along blindly down endless white corridors, then, due to all the extra security procedures, stood in one interminable queue after another. I sometimes wondered if we wouldn’t be better off going by boat. Finally, we emerged into the baggage reclaim area, but typically, there was no baggage yet in sight.

   Sod this, I thought. I hadn’t had a cigarette in ages. ‘Mike,’ I said, making a familiar gesture. ‘D’you mind waiting for the cases, love, and I’ll see you outside?’

   He smiled indulgently, bless him. ‘Go on, then,’ he said. Which was kind of him – as a non-smoker, I knew how much he wished I’d give up. Which I would, very soon. But not today. Giving him a quick peck, I headed off towards the arrivals hall and outside, rummaging in my handbag for my cigarettes as I went.

   As I did so, I also pulled out my mobile. Time to switch it back on and catch up with everyone. I was particularly keen to speak to Riley, of course, just to check all was well with the new pregnancy. Plus I knew she might be anxious to speak to me too. We were close, and she knew just how much looking after Sophia had taken out of me. I knew she’d would want to catch up.

   My thoughts were confirmed within seconds of turning my phone on. A series of bleeps, as text after text began appearing – though the texts, I could see, were all from voicemail. Hmm, I thought. Someone’s keen to welcome me back. The much-needed cigarette shelved for the moment, I dialled voicemail, put my ear to the phone and listened.

   It hadn’t been Riley, but they were all from the same person. John Fulshaw, the link worker at the fostering agency Mike and I worked for. They’d all been made today, and were all pretty much identical. ‘Casey, can you please call me as soon as you get this?’

   I was immediately alert. This could only mean one thing. That he must have another child in mind for us.

   Mike appeared then, dragging both our cases behind him. They’d obviously not taken as long as we’d expected. I waved my mobile at him. ‘Hey, guess what?’ I said to him, my grin widening at the prospect. ‘John’s been on the phone, leaving messages!’

   ‘Bloody hell, Case!’ he said. ‘We’ve only just touched down! What messages? What does he want?’

   I shook my head. ‘I don’t know yet. But I’m hoping it’s another kid.’

   Mike rolled his eyes at me. ‘Already?’ Then he grinned. ‘Go on, then. Ring him. Might as well do it now.’

   My excitement mounting, I dialled the now familiar number. Over the past couple of years, we’d grown very close to John. These days he was more of a friend than a boss, and I felt I was becoming used to all his little ways. He was a born worrier and he sounded worried now.

   ‘Oh, thank God, Casey!’ he said. ‘I was beginning to think I had my dates wrong. You are back in the UK now, are you? You’re not still on hols?’

   ‘No, we’re here,’ I said. ‘What’s up? You sounded slightly panicked on voicemail.’

   ‘“Slightly” is putting it mildly,’ he answered. ‘We’ve been landed with a real emergency situation, and, to be frank, I have nowhere else to turn.’

   ‘Go on,’ I said, even more intrigued now. I couldn’t help it. For all the lows of my job, this bit was one of the highs. This part when you had no idea what was just around the corner. What the child would be like, what their problems might be, what grim circumstances they’d come from and why.

   I heard him take a breath. ‘Look, I hate to put this on you, Casey. And you can say no if you want, you know that, don’t you? But well, it’s a sibling placement. Two children …’

   ‘Two kids. Oh, my!’

   ‘Yes,’ he confirmed. ‘Young ones. Older boy, younger girl. And it’s a desperate situation – they have to be moved as soon as possible. They’ve both been grossly neglected and are – or so I’m told – in a terrible state. And that’s both mentally and physically.’

   ‘Physically? Have they been hurt?’

   ‘No, it’s nothing like that. Well, as far as we know, it isn’t. More neglect. Serious neglect. They’ve been living a bit like animals. It’ll be a challenge, Casey, I’m not going to lie to you. They have some issues. Their behaviour will need managing. The only thing I can say is that it’s going to be an extremely short placement. Just interim. Two weeks, three at the most.’

   ‘Well,’ I said, gesturing to Mike, who was watching intently. ‘You know what I’m like – always up for a new challenge. And the two of them … what ages?’

   ‘Erm, six and nine, I think. Or thereabouts.’

   Little ones, then. In comparison with my last child, for sure. ‘Look,’ I said. ‘I’m obviously going to have to run this by Mike first.’ Mike’s eyebrows rose. ‘Make sure he’s happy with it, okay? Can I call you back?”

   ‘’Course you can.’

   I chose my words carefully as I relayed all this to Mike. I wasn’t sure if I was hoping he’d say no to it or not. On the one hand, it was an exciting new challenge – albeit a brief one. But two badly neglected young children. That was completely new territory. I was used to having one difficult-to-place child at a time. Two of them together, and so young – that was something to think about. It had always been teenagers who were my natural forte. Challenging teenagers, yes. But not little ones!

   There was also the question of it being short term again, though this wasn’t entirely unexpected. It was a bit annoying – after all, Mike and I had trained as specialist carers, employed to work to an innovative behaviour modification model – but along with others like us, we’d already been warned that due to government cutbacks we had to be flexible, and that we might be required to undertake any kind of fostering, in order to meet the council’s needs. I supposed it was sensible – better to be utilised than sit around waiting for a child who met our model’s criteria.

   But even so, it felt a shame not to be able to do what we’d trained for – we’d done it with our first placement, Justin, and had really seen the benefits. But, hey ho. Such was life in the public sector. And the words ‘badly neglected’ triggered something maternal inside me. Poor mites. What grim story would they have to tell?

   Mike was looking at me, considering, as he took in what I’d told him. ‘Two little ones,’ he said. ‘And one of them only six? That’s going to take it out of you, love. You have thought of that, have you?’

   Which, of course, sent me straight into overdrive. Finally lighting my cigarette, I fell into step with him as we made our way to the long-stay car park. Stuff and nonsense, I told him. I was in my early forties, not my dotage! Plus I’d already been reminded how tiring little ones could be. Now we had Levi in our lives, it had all come right back. And I pooh-poohed his comment that Levi didn’t actually live with us. I was fired up now. Of course we’d be able to manage, I told him. How difficult could they be? Anyway, I pointed out, it was the summer holidays, wasn’t it? So no school stress to fret about. And I could take them out, keep them occupied. To the park. To the swimming pool, to the cinema and so on. And Riley would help. Little Levi would love it. And it wouldn’t be for long, I reminded him.

   But his face, when I was done, still had doubt etched across it. ‘Look love,’ he said. ‘It’s you I’m thinking of here. I’ll be at work. It’s you that’ll have to deal with them.’ We’d reached the car park by now and he turned as we passed the barrier. ‘But if you think you can do it, go on, call John back. Say yes. I have a feeling you’re not going to take no for an answer, anyway, so we might as well put him out of his misery.’

   I leaned across and kissed him. ‘We can do it, love. “We” being the operative word here …’

   ‘Hey,’ he said. ‘I can still change my mind, you know!’

   But he didn’t. He wouldn’t. He knew what I was like. I gleefully grabbed my mobile and began dialling.

   

   Twenty-four hours later, and the house was a hive of activity. I’d been thrilled by the children’s response to the news; after Sophia, whose problems had caused the whole family a lot of heartache, I had expected them to be a lot more reticent. Instead, Kieron was already enthusing about how he and Lauren could take them bowling, and even Riley, though more reserved, and also quick to point out how much hard work young kids were – just like her father! – was happy to pitch in.

   We had a four-bed house, one bedroom housing Mike and I, and one housing Kieron, and the third bedroom was currently a confection of pink butterflies and fairy princesses, the way we’d decorated when Sophia had come to live with us. Given the little ones wouldn’t be with us for long, it made sense not to go overboard changing things. The pink room would happily house the little girl who was coming, and her brother could go in the fourth bedroom, the spare room, which was currently home to Kieron and his college friend’s DJing equipment – all the mixers, amps and decks essential to the making of new tracks. It really just needed a good clear-out and clean up, and all the contents transferring to the garden shed.

   We’d had some more info by now, from an extremely grateful John, who, had he been able to crawl along the phone line and hug me, would, I could tell, have probably done so. As it was, he just had to content himself with thanking me profusely and letting me know we’d have everyone’s full support. The children now had names at least; the nine-year-old boy was called Ashton, and his six-year-old sister was Olivia.

   I’d get more in the afternoon, he said, when the social worker called me, but in the meantime he wanted to let me know that a new bed was already on its way. Happily, Mike, who was a warehouse manager and very busy with his own job, had taken two days off to get the rooms straight, so I could at least be sure the children would both have somewhere nice and welcoming to sleep.

   By lunchtime, I was happy that we were getting things organised, so, leaving Mike and Kieron painting – they’d found a big tin of blue emulsion, left over from when we’d decorated for our first foster child, Justin – Riley and I made a trip into town for some bits. I knew it wasn’t really necessary, but the word ‘neglect’ kept jumping out at me, so even if they would be with us only a short while I was determined these poor little ones would find the experience a positive one. It would take no time at all to grab some bits from all the local charity shops: books to read, toys and jigsaws, soft toys and dolls – just some kiddie paraphernalia to help make them feel at home.

   Riley and I were just staggering back in through the front door with our haul when the phone rang. As promised, it was the children’s social worker.

   ‘I’m Anna,’ she told me. She sounded young and very professional. ‘And I can’t tell you how grateful we are that you’ve agreed to help us out. John’s told us so much about you and Mike, and we really don’t know what we’d have done without you. And I have to tell you …’ I mentally braced, because the tone of her voice had now changed markedly, ‘… that the situation’s become somewhat more urgent.’

   I wasn’t sure what she meant. In the world in which we worked we were used to pretty much everything being urgent. Well, if they needed something, anyway – it didn’t necessarily work in reverse. ‘More urgent?’

   ‘In that we’ve had to give the parents notice. That we’re going to be removing the children in the morning …’

   ‘The morning? You mean tomorrow morning?’

   ‘I’m afraid so,’ she answered. ‘We would have moved them today, but of course it was only fair to give you notice …’

   ‘But what about the pre-placement meeting? We know absolutely nothing about them.’

   I should have expected this, I thought ruefully as I waited for her answer. In theory, before a child is placed with a foster family, there is a defined process – a formal meeting, in which all concerned parties are present, so that social services can give the new carers some background and so that a plan of action for the child or children’s future can be put in place. But in practice … Hmm, I thought, we’d been here before, hadn’t we?

   ‘I’m so sorry,’ she said, ‘to land the two of you in it like this. We will, of course, arrange an urgent meeting with you, once you have the children, then we can tell you both everything we know.’

   I could almost hear her holding her breath, waiting for me to argue. But I’d committed, and these kids needed a temporary home, now.

   ‘Okay,’ I said.

   ‘Oh, thank you so, so much,’ she answered. Rather worryingly.

   

   After a fitful night mostly spent making mental lists, the following morning found me sitting in my garden, drinking in its glorious summer scents. It was looking – and smelling – particularly gorgeous, as Kieron had cut the grass for me, and Lauren had done some weeding. It would be the perfect place, I thought, for these poor, sad little children, to run around and let off some steam.

   I still knew barely anything despite speaking again to John the previous evening. He’d backtracked just a little on his original grim announcement; having found out more, he now assured me they didn’t have too many serious behavioural problems. They were just two frightened kids, who, for no fault of their own, were going to have to be taken away from their parents. I couldn’t begin to imagine the circumstances – and there were just too many potential reasons for me to try – but what John had told me (well, as far as he’d been made aware, anyway) was that they simply couldn’t cope with taking care of them.

   So sad, yet, tragically, so common. I breathed deeply, my eyes taking in all the violets, pinks and yellows – and, as I made an impromptu shopping list for Mike to take to the supermarket for me, I could only wonder, and hope, that things would be addressed sufficiently that at some point those parents could have them back.

   This was central to what we did – we tried to provide hope for the future. Hope that either families would be reunited or, if that wasn’t possible, that the children concerned could at least be equipped with some life skills to get them through, and then hopefully placed permanently, with carers who’d give them a fighting chance of happiness.

   Bob was bounding around the lawn as I sat and philosophised, and seeing him brought a smile to my face. They’d love our dog; no-one could fail to, because he had such a lovely temperament. Kieron had sprung him on us all, out of the blue, almost two years back. He’d been languishing in a rescue centre, abandoned and unwanted. I grinned to myself. Rescuing waifs and strays seemed to be a Watson family trait.

   ‘You done yet?’ It was Mike, come to join me in the garden. ‘Only, if I’m going to get there and back before these little ones arrive, I’d better scoot.’ He surveyed the list I passed him with growing consternation. ‘Bloody hell, love! You sure we need all this lot? We don’t even know the kinds of foods they like yet. Wouldn’t it be better to hold off on some of this until they’ve got here?’

   ‘Mike, all kids like that stuff,’ I answered. ‘And don’t stress me, not today.’

   He gave a mock salute. ‘As you wish, Your Majesty.’

   ‘And hurry,’ I chided, grinning. ‘We haven’t got all day!’

   

   As it turned out, we had barely an hour before the car drew up outside, only moments after Mike had returned, laden with bulging supermarket carrier bags. The cupboards had been pretty bare, what with us being away, so it had been a mad rush to get everything put away. Mindful of how scared the children would be, I shooed both Kieron and Bob back out into the garden, so they could meet the whole clan in less intimidating stages – Riley and her partner David wouldn’t stop by with Levi till tomorrow, so the kids would have a chance to settle in and get to know their new temporary home first.

   Mike went outside to greet them and to help them with their stuff – our last child had had about half a dozen cases – while I finished pulling cups out of the kitchen cupboards. By the time I’d returned to the hall, he was already back, however, clutching just the one small suitcase and a bin liner. The children themselves were following along behind him, with a man and a woman, the latter being Anna, I imagined.

   Finally they were all gathered on the doorstep in a huddle.

   At which point, I should have ushered them all immediately in, but even I – and I have seen a lot in my time – had to take a second, just to process the sight of them.

   John had been wrong. The word ‘neglect’ didn’t cover it. These poor little ones looked feral. I took in filth – so much filth that it almost looked tattooed on their scraggy limbs – matted hair, almost in dreadlocks, and rags, in the main, for clothes. Their expressions were wide-eyed and terrified and hollow, and they clung to their carers like baby monkeys to a mother; even as I watched the man try to disentangle himself from the boy, I could see just how tightly the gnarled brown hands gripped on.

   The smell hit me next. It was so fetid as to be indescribable, and it was all I could do not to cover my mouth with my hand. You can read Dickens, watch Dickens and visualise his descriptions, but these children, looking every inch like kids from a Dickensian orphanage, smelled bad in a way I’d never before imagined.

   But the thing that most struck me, as I smiled my best smile and welcomed them inside, was the head lice they had in their hair. I’d seen lots of head lice, at the school where I used to work. And like most mums, I’d deloused my own from time to time. But these were lice like I’d never seen them before. As I leaned down to give the little girl a welcoming cuddle, it hit me. There were so many, and they were so active, that her hair looked alive. The more you gazed on it, the more you saw what a seething mass it was. A virtual lice-metropolis had established there.

   No, I thought, again. The word neglect really didn’t cover it. I glanced at Mike and I knew we were both thinking the same thing. What else were we about to uncover?

Chapter 2

   Fighting the need to gag, I ushered everyone inside, pasting a smile on my face, leaning down towards the children, and starting with the usual introductions.

   ‘Now, you must be Olivia,’ I gushed, smiling warmly at the frightened little girl. Like her brother, she had dirty-greyish, straggly blonde hair, and such sad, sunken eyes – two huge blue pools in her pale face. ‘And you’ll be Ashton …’ I went on, smiling at the tousle-headed boy. His hair, I noticed, for all that it was matted around his head, was almost as long as his sister’s. He nodded nervously, as he stepped past me into the hall, his whole demeanour suddenly reminding me of a little boy in a Second World War film who’s just stepped off a train full of frightened evacuees and is determined to maintain a stiff upper lip. ‘You’re very welcome,’ I finished, grinning broadly at them both. ‘Come on,’ I said. ‘Come in. It’s lovely to meet you.’

   I straightened again, shocked at how tiny they seemed. So much smaller and younger than the ages ascribed to them. I then turned my attention to the two adults. ‘Nice to meet you both,’ I said, proffering a hand, which, after disentangling themselves from the children, who were still clutching on to them, the man and the woman shook in turn. ‘And this is my husband, Mike,’ I finished. Mike duly did likewise, before saying his own cheerful hellos to the little ones, who visibly shrank back at the sound of his voice.

   ‘Great to meet you too,’ the female social worker said. ‘I wonder … could the children perhaps go and sit down somewhere? Watch some telly or something? You’d like that, wouldn’t you?’ she added, turning to her two charges. Ashton nodded.

   ‘Of course,’ I said, ‘Come this way, kids.’ I led them both into the living room and switched on the television, flicking through to find a cartoon channel for them to watch. Mike, meanwhile, I could hear, had led the two adults into the dining room, so we could all have a proper briefing over coffee before they left.

   The children sat, huddled close to one another on the edge of the sofa, meekly and silently accepting the drinks of squash and biscuits that I’d already prepared in anticipation of their arrival. They looked I thought, a little like extras from Les Misérables. I tried not to think about their proximity to my soft furnishings. Head lice can’t jump, I reminded myself firmly, as I left them to it and went to join the adults.

   Mike was pouring coffees when I walked into the dining room. ‘Here we are, love,’ he said, handing me my one.

   The female social worker smiled across as I took my place at the table. ‘I’m Anna,’ she said. ‘We spoke on the phone. And this is Robert,’ she finished. ‘Robert Foster.’ He raised a hand. ‘He’s the family support worker attached to the children.’

   Mike, the coffees dealt with, now sat down as well. ‘So,’ he said, ‘what can you tell us about these two?’

   ‘Not as much as we’d like,’ Anna immediately confessed. ‘I’ve only been working with the family for the last couple of months, you see. The last social worker on the case was involved with the family for six years, or so I’m told, but, regrettably, she’s on long-term sick leave right now, so I’m pretty new to the situation. All I can tell you is that there are three more children – all of them younger; two, three and four, they are – who were removed and found a placement two months back.

   ‘Five kids!’ Mike exclaimed, voicing my own thoughts. They’d been busy.

   Anna nodded. ‘Indeed, but it’s these two, being older than the babies, who are proving problematic for us. Up till now the service has been unable to find anyone willing to take them.’

   ‘Why were they removed?’ I asked her. ‘I mean, I can see they’ve been neglected, but is that it? Is that the only reason?’

   Both Anna and Robert looked slightly uncomfortable at the question, and it was Robert who now stepped in to answer. ‘Mainly,’ he said. ‘Yes, that’s about the size of it.

   Gross neglect, quite a number of complaints, from various sources, and the parents, to be frank with you, seem incapable of looking after themselves, let alone five kids. Learning difficulties, both of them. Dad fairly mild but, in the mother’s case, really quite severe. So we’ve been going through the usual channels, of course – there’s a court hearing coming up soonish for a full care order, but as the hearing date’s got closer, and our investigations more frequent – and also more thorough, of course – it’s become increasingly clear that we’d be doing the kids a disservice if we left them with the parents any longer.’

   ‘But why so sudden?’ Mike asked him. ‘That’s what we don’t understand. Why now as opposed to after the actual hearing. What’s prompted it?’

   He was getting to the nub of it. There must be a reason. What had they discovered, bar the lice and the stench and the obvious dishevelment, that would prompt them to take the kids so suddenly?

   Anna answered. ‘Like Robert said, the situation’s just deteriorated. And despite several warnings, the mother’s not turned things around. We simply couldn’t leave them, that was all. She’s not been feeding them, washing them, washing their clothes – stuff like that, mainly. And they’ve been eating out of dustbins and stealing food from other children’s lunchboxes in school. We just had to act, basically … well, you’ve seen for yourselves now, of course.’

   I glanced towards the living room. ‘Those poor, wretched kids,’ I said. ‘They just look so sad and scared. This must be awful for them.’

   ‘It has been. It is. It was really traumatic taking them.’ I saw the anguish in her expression and I believed her. This was probably the least edifying part of her job. No, more than that – it must have been grim for her. ‘They were clinging to their mum,’ she said. ‘Screaming at her to stop us. To help them. Really upsetting …’

   She tailed off, and I could see it was upsetting her now. ‘So what about their stuff?’ I asked briskly, to change both the tone and the subject. ‘They don’t seem to have much, even by these kinds of standards.’

   ‘That’s it,’ Anna said. ‘They have nothing. Literally nothing.’ She nodded towards the hall. ‘I helped pack, so I can tell you, there’s nothing of use in there. Couple of sets of disgusting pyjamas, a couple of raggy hoodies and T-shirts – very little else.’

   I could feel a wave of sadness wash over the table. Poor, poor children. What desperate straits to be born into.

   ‘So,’ Mike said, trying, as I had, to lift the tone again, ‘anything else useful you can tell us?

   ‘Well, just about their medication, really,’ Anna answered. ‘We’ll obviously sort everything out paperwork-wise, when we have the pre –’ she smiled ruefully. ‘Ahem, pre-placement meeting. But in the meantime –’

   ‘Medication?’ I asked. ‘What medication?’ This was news to both of us and it filled me with dismay. Sophia, our last child, had had a rare disorder called Addison’s disease, and along with all her other problems, the illness had caused many, many more, as we struggled with a regime of careful nutrition and daily meds, any wobble in which could potentially make her seriously ill. And had done, more than once. I shuddered to recall the stress of it. And now again. What on earth was wrong with these ones?

   ‘Oh,’ Anna said, colouring slightly. ‘Did John not explain? Or maybe I forgot to explain to him. Both the kids have been diagnosed as having a form of ADHD. They are absolutely fine on their Ritalin,’ she was quick to reassure me. ‘And they’ve both had it for today, so you don’t need to worry. In fact, it’s nothing to worry about in any case, really. Just a tablet each morning and that’s all there is to it. They do have a specialist they’re under, of course, but they’ll be here so short a time that it’s not going to be relevant to you. Just a tablet a day, and that’s it sorted.’

   That the children had ADHD – attention deficit hyperactivity disorder – wasn’t really much of a surprise to me. As a behaviour manager in the local comprehensive I’d dealt with plenty of kids in school who were similarly afflicted, and was familiar with the condition and its symptoms, not to mention the action of Ritalin on them – that ‘zombie’-type demeanour the drugs seemed to make them have. But, yes, compared to Sophia’s Addison’s disease, this was mild. But I felt my hackles rise, even so. Not relevant to me? Of course it was relevant, I thought, you silly woman! And fancy just springing something like that on us at the last minute. Did she really forget before? I was doubtful.

   ‘Okay,’ I said pointedly, ‘but is there anything else we should know?’

   ‘Not really,’ she said, seemingly oblivious to my slightly chippy tone. ‘Like I was saying, we’ll be here the same time tomorrow for what should have been the pre-placement planning. I’ll bring all the paperwork, of course and – oh, in the meantime, my boss asked me if I’d give you this.’

   She reached into her bag and pulled out a white envelope which, when I opened it, turned out to be stuffed with ten-pound notes.

   ‘What on earth’s that?’ asked Mike, seeing it and grinning. ‘Danger money?’

   ‘It’s two hundred pounds,’ Anna replied, her own smile somewhat sheepish. ‘I know it’s a bit irregular, but you’re to spend it as you see fit. You know – get anything you think the children need. We’re well aware how much stuff you’re going to need to get for them, even if it is for a very short while.’

   Very irregular, I thought as I pushed back the flap. And it was. The normal procedure was that we’d buy anything our foster children needed, then put in the receipts and justify – very robustly – why we’d needed to spend the money. It would invariably be weeks and sometimes months before we saw it back in our bank account. Yes, this was odd indeed. And it made us both wonder. Why exactly were they trying to butter us up so much? Were they that worried we’d change our minds and reject them?

   

   They needn’t have worried. While the social workers said their goodbyes to the children, I took a quick peek at the sorry pile of belongings in the hall. Anna had been right. In the case there were indeed two pairs of manky, torn pyjamas, jumbled up with a couple of T-shirts, the colour of dirty washing-up water, and a couple of broken photo frames, containing pictures of, presumably, their mum, dad and what looked like all five siblings together. In the bin bag there was very little more. A couple more items of clothing that I wouldn’t even have used as rags to clean my kitchen floor, an empty baby’s feeding bottle and a large undressed doll. It looked like it should have belonged to the bad boy in the Toy Story movie; faintly sinister, with half-shorn, matted hair, missing eyeballs and scribbles of ballpoint pen all over its face and body.

   ‘That’s Olivia’s,’ Robert whispered, as he emerged from the living room. ‘Loves that doll, apparently. Dad got it for her when she was four. Only toy she has. The other one has nothing.’

   ‘Literally?’

   ‘Yes,’ he said, frowning at me. ‘Literally.’

   I put the dolly carefully back in the dusty bag. There could hardly have been a more apt metaphor, I thought. And in every sense, as we were soon to find out.

Chapter 3

   When Mike and I returned to the living room the children were exactly where we’d left them, but one thing had changed – it was the smell. The room reeked now, and I went across to open some windows. These poor kids. It broke my heart to think they could be left to get into such a state.

   ‘Now, then, you two,’ I said brightly. ‘What would you like to do first? I bet you’d like to see your rooms, wouldn’t you? Yes?’

   Olivia, her arm looped tightly through Ashton’s, looked immediately up at her big brother. Ashton nodded. ‘Do we both sleep together?’ he asked, shyly. ‘Cos we do at Mummy’s.’

   Mike shook his head. ‘No, Ashton,’ he said. While you’re here you will have a nice big boy’s room, and Olivia will have a nice small room all to herself.’

   Olivia jumped up so suddenly she startled me. I could see tears springing in her eyes. She looked horrified. ‘No, mister!’ she said. ‘I sleeps wiv my bruvver! I already lost my little bruv and sisters!’ Her voice was plaintive. ‘An’ I need to be looked after!’ she finished, sniffing back tears.

   I was struck again by how much younger than her six years she looked. I bent down and scooped her straight up into my arms. She was as light as a feather; it felt like I was holding a baby, all the more so when she wrapped both her arms and legs around me, then buried her face in my neck and began sobbing. ‘Shhh, sweetie,’ I soothed. ‘You will love your room, I promise. It’s a princess’s room, specially for beautiful little girls like you.’

   ‘But, miss,’ she sniffled. ‘I always piss the bed when I get scareded, an’ I will be scared, I really, really will!’

   ‘She will, miss,’ Ashton added. ‘’s why we need to sleep together.’

   I kissed Olivia’s forehead, trying my utmost to keep her wild infested hair from my own, before settling her back down onto the sofa. ‘Now, listen, kids,’ I said gently. ‘First off, you’re making me feel like I’m back at school again. It’s Mike and Casey, isn’t it, Mike?’ Mike grinned at them and nodded. ‘No Mr and Miss stuff round here. And second, the bedrooms have already been arranged for you.’ I turned to Ashton. ‘Ashton,’ I said, ‘At nine, you are practically a grown-up – far too old to be sharing a room with your little sister. She’ll be absolutely fine, and we can keep your doors open, and with the landing light on too, so she won’t be scared. You don’t want to be in a room cluttered with toys and dolls, do you?’

   I could have bitten my tongue as soon as heard myself say that. What was I thinking? These kids had never had any toys. It must have gone over Ashton’s head, though, because he looked thoughtful before saying, ‘Yeah, Olivia. I’m fed up with sharing with girls anyway. I wanna proper grown-up boy’s room so I can do boy’s stuff, okay?’

   ‘Yeah, well!’ shouted Olivia, her tears gone, her voice indignant. ‘I’m sleeping in a princess room, so there! An’ I don’t want no smelly boys in it, okay?’

   ‘Well, that’s that, then!’ laughed Mike. ‘Come on, then, kids. What are we waiting for? Let’s go and show you round the house!’

   But I stopped him. ‘Hmm, Mike,’ I said. ‘I tell you what. Why don’t I show them around while you pop down to the chemist’s and get some of that special shampoo we used to use on our kids when they were little?’ It took a few seconds, but, with the help of my scratching my head somewhat emphatically, it eventually dawned on him what I meant. ‘Ah,’ he said. ‘Good idea! Anything else I need to get while I’m there?’

   I was just about to open my mouth, when Olivia piped up. ‘Could you get us some stuff for our nits, Mike?’ she asked him. ‘Anna said you’d get rid of ’em for us.’

   

   While Mike set off to get the head-lice shampoo, I thought it would be a good idea to take the children to meet Kieron and Bob. They were both chilling in the sunshine, Kieron asleep on my sun lounger and the dog, more practically, given his fur, stretched out in the shade under a bush. The children whooped, and immediately ran to pet him, which woke up Kieron, who sat up, still sleepy. He rubbed his eyes for a bit before fixing his gaze on the two little ones and exclaiming, ‘What the …? Oh my God, Mum!’

   ‘Hush!’ I chided. ‘They’re not deaf, Kieron, for goodness’ sake. And besides, it’s just dirt. We’ll soon have them cleaned up. Oh, and they have head lice, just to warn you, so not too close, eh?’

   He wrinkled his nose in distaste. ‘Oh, don’t worry. I won’t be.’ But then he jumped up from the sun lounger. ‘Hey, you two!’ he called. ‘How about you come and tell me who you both are, then?’

   Ashton shyly introduced himself, once again adopting that rather stiff, formal expression he had when he’d arrived. It was rather endearing, I thought. It was as if he knew he had a responsibility to set a good example for his little sister, by giving a good account of himself. A responsibility he clearly took very seriously.

   ‘An’ this is my little sister. She’s called Olivia,’ he explained. ‘But you can probably call her Livs, can’t he, Livs?’

   He turned to his sister, who was blushing now, under Kieron’s smiling scrutiny.

   ‘Can I?’ asked Kieron. ‘Would that be okay with you?’

   Olivia stood and thought for some time before answering. ‘Maybe,’ she said eventually.

   Kieron nodded seriously. ‘Well, you just let me know when,’ he said. ‘Okay?’ It was difficult for me to keep a straight face.

   Olivia it was, then. For the moment at least. But so far, so good. As they had clearly warmed to Kieron – he was such a sunny personality, it was difficult for anyone not to – I suggested that it was he who led the tour of their new bedrooms, while I went off to phone his sister, Riley. There was no way I was going to put the kids in any of the things that had come with them – they were fit for nowhere but an incinerator – so I needed some clothes for them urgently. And, bless her, Riley said she’d head straight into town and get them two sets of T-shirt and shorts, plus flip-flops, and some underwear to see us through the night. Once they were respectable, of course, I could take them in myself, to choose their own clothes and nightwear, but for now that would do. Thank goodness it was summer.

   I joined the party upstairs just as Mike returned with the bug-zapping lotion. It was almost lunchtime but I had a higher priority. To see the lice gone before they infested the whole family. They might not be able to jump but they were very efficient crawlers, and anxious young children needed lots of hugs and cuddles. Not a very practical combination if we wanted to stay nit-free.

   ‘Right,’ I said, brandishing my family-sized bottle. ‘Time to get you both showered!’

   The effect was electric. They both huddled on Olivia’s bed. ‘What’s wrong?’ I asked them. ‘You need to get in the shower so I can do your heads with my special magic shampoo.’

   ‘We’re scared,’ Olivia whimpered. ‘We don’t fink we like showered.’

   ‘There’s nothing to be scared of,’ said Mike in his best reassuring voice. ‘Casey and Kieron and me all have a shower every day. It’s lovely. You’ll enjoy it. Tell you what –’ He gestured towards Ashton. ‘Ashton’s the eldest, and he’s a big boy, so how about he goes first? That way he can show you how easy it all is. Come on Ash!’ he said jovially. Ashton looked terrified but, bless him, he got off the bed and followed Mike, albeit very reluctantly, into the bathroom.

   Olivia, at this, leapt up and followed the pair of them, huddling nervously behind me in the doorway. Us helping the children shower was unusual in itself. But one of the things Anna had mentioned as an afterthought was that they’d both need quite a lot of help with personal care – washing, hair washing, toileting, teeth cleaning – since they had no idea how to look after themselves. This was something that would have to be written into the safe-care agreement; a document that every carer has created for them and filed, for each different child they look after. It details care specifics such as whether the child is allowed to play outside, whether they are fit to travel alone and so on, and also contains details that cover the carer in the case of any allegations, including whether help with personal care is needed, and the specifics of privacy in the child’s bedroom.

   That this short placement would be quite physical was clearly evident, and I was reminded, as Mike helped Ashton to take his raggy clothes off, that we would need to be sure the document covered that. Then, when he’d done, Mike turned on the shower and, having checked the temperature, helped Ashton to stand in it. It was only seconds before the air was filled with a series of piercing screams. ‘Arrrgh!’ he cried. ‘Arrrgh! It really hurts! Get me out!’

   Mike had had his back to me, but now he turned around, his expression grim.

   ‘Grab me a towel, Case,’ he said. ‘I need to get him out of there.’

   I grabbed one from the pile of clean ones we’d brought in from the airing cupboard, and it was only as I thrust it at Mike that I could properly see all the raw sores that covered Ashton’s skinny little body.

   I threw the towel over him myself, while Mike turned off the water, and tried to calm him while gingerly patting him dry through the fabric. I had never seen anything quite like it.

   ‘There, there, sweetheart,’ I said to him. ‘It’s okay now. No shower. Perhaps a bath would be best.’

   He nodded, sniffing away his tears. ‘I can do a bath,’ he said bravely. It was gut-wrenching. Horrible. How could these kids be in this state and the social worker have no idea?

   ‘How long have you had all these nasty sore spots all over you, sweetie?’ I asked him.

   He shook his head, his wet hair forming commas on his brow. ‘I dunno. A long time. I dunno. Always?’

   

   Olivia too was covered in similar sores and scabs, just as we’d anticipated. Scabies, I guessed. Something like that, anyway. We’d have to have a doctor check them out and treat them as soon as possible. Many looked infected and were weeping. It was as grim a sight as I’d seen in a long time, and had particularly upset Kieron, who’d had tears in his eyes when he’d come to see the source of the commotion, while Mike and I had got Ashton out of the shower.

   We helped Ashton carefully into the bath and Mike and I tried to gently wash him, between us, while Kieron perched on the loo seat, with Olivia on his lap, trying to stem her increasingly fearful tears.

   This was as up close and personal as we’d been as a foster family, and though our modern bathroom no way resembled that Victorian orphanage, I wondered what anyone might make of the scene, should they see it – they could be forgiven for thinking we’d procured these two little ones via time-travel, because they really did look like they belonged in another age. It was hard to believe how much filth and grime came off Ashton that day. We sponged him gently – never scrubbing – but even so, the grisly gnarly scabs kept sloughing off, revealing bright red inflamed skin underneath. It was so pitiful it even made tears well in my own eyes. They’d obviously been living like animals.

   This was brought home most forcibly when I tried to clean his battered feet and, taking a good look at them, because they looked so odd, decided Ashton must have webbed toes. It was very rare, but not that rare, so he could well have. ‘Mike,’ I said, nudging him. ‘Take a look at this.’

   He did so, peering closely, then said quietly, ‘Oh, Case …’ He gently started massaging the webbing between Ashton’s big toe and the next one, and we both gasped when a triangle of something plopped into his supporting hand. We both looked at it, horrified. It was dirt! A big grey plug of dirt! A further inspection, which I found difficult to make without gagging, revealed all his toes similarly glued together by solid filth. Mike had to use a toothbrush to remove the disgusting deposits in their entirety, revealing skin between the toes that was completely raw and livid.

   Next up was to clear the filth from the bath sides and plug hole, and do Olivia, who was in no better state than her brother. Only then could we properly dry them both – being as gentle as we could – and, finally, put them both in clean clothes. As Riley wouldn’t be arriving for at least another hour, I had Kieron achieve this by rummaging in his wardrobe, and finding two of his big T-shirts to put them in.

   And so it was, half an hour later, that they were arranged with him at the dining-room table – looking tiny and pink, in their band-name emblazoned T-shirt ‘dresses’, their hair doused in nit lotion, their bodies in left-over calamine (Levi had recently had chickenpox) – nibbling shyly on toast. I’d made a pile of it and plonked it in the centre of the table. I didn’t want to give them more so late, for fear of spoiling their tea.

   Kieron, by now, had got over his shock, and seemed keen to entertain them – he’d brought down a big sketch pad and some felt pens – so I took the opportunity to pop into the garden for a cigarette.

   Mike was already out there, sitting at the garden table, in the sunshine, with his back to me, his head resting in his hands.

   I went over to him and rubbed his shoulder. ‘You okay, love?’

   He straightened. ‘No, not really. God, love, it’s appalling. I have never seen anything like that in my life. Well, except perhaps on telly, but – sheesh! I just can’t believe the state of them! Can you?’ I shook my head. ‘I can’t believe,’ he went on, ‘that any mother or father – particularly a mother – could allow her own children to get into such a state.’

   I sat down and lit my cigarette. ‘I know, but, love, it happens. And if she’s got learning difficulties, too … But I do know what you mean. It’s one thing to see it in the papers or on the news, but, this – having to clean up those kids – I agree. It is shocking. It really brings it home.’

   In truth, it wasn’t perhaps quite as shocking for me as it was for Mike and Kieron. My years in school had given me plenty of insights into the state of kids from some impoverished families. But not like this; this was neglect on a completely different scale.

   But at least we’d got them clean, I thought, which was a start. Now it was just a case of doing what we could for them, before passing them all on to their long-term carers. And we could do so much, I thought, putting out my cigarette, and going back inside. And the feeling was endorsed when I went back into the dining room to find them huddled up on either side of Kieron, who was playing a game with them, starting to draw cartoons and having them try to be the first one to guess which characters they were.

   It was a fascinating tableau and I watched from the doorway for a while. Ashton – being the eldest – was trying to look cool and disinterested, whereas Olivia, in complete contrast, was rocking back and forth in her excitement, making squealing sounds and chewing on her hand. I watched Kieron gently remove her fist from her mouth and encourage her to try and have a guess.

   ‘It’s G … G …’ Olivia trilled excitedly. ‘Ash, it’s G … G …’ She reached across and grabbed Ashton’s damp hair and tugged on it. Now it was clean, I could see just how long it was. I made a mental note: cherubic though he looked with his now soft and curly locks, I must get it cut as a matter of priority. ‘Get off, Livs!’ Ashton snapped, clipping his little sister around the head. ‘I know who it is, okay? I’m not thick!’

   ‘Hey,’ Kieron chided. ‘Less of the hitting, okay? That’s naughty, Ashton. And well done Olivia! It is Garfield. You clever girl, you!’

   I was amazed. I couldn’t believe my son had understood what on earth she was on about, because I certainly hadn’t. I was just about to go in and congratulate Olivia myself, when I heard a key in the lock and saw a shadow through the glass in the front door. It was Riley and Levi, bearing clothing.

   Riley smiled at the children, who were studying her warily. ‘And who do we have here, then?’ she asked the two of them. ‘Hey, Levi,’ she added. ‘Some new friends for you!’

   At the mention of the baby, the children’s wariness disappeared instantly, and they both got down from the table and clustered round the buggy. Levi, on form, did his new party trick. He was twenty months old now, a proper toddler, and his most fun thing to do was to flap his arms frantically and go ‘Hiyah! Hiyah! Hiyah!’

   Olivia, particularly, was enchanted, and I was reminded that these kids were probably very used to babies, having lived cheek by jowl, probably, with three of them. ‘Hiyah,’ she mimicked at him. ‘Hiyah, liccle baby! Oh, you’re so sweet! Like my dolly! Who’s called Polly! Hang on, babes, I’ll jus’ go get her!’

   Olivia sped off upstairs, and Riley laughed as she began pulling carrier bags off the handles of the buggy, so I could inspect the new things she’d got for them both. ‘Got some live wires, then, I see!’

   And the upbeat tone continued for what remained of the afternoon, the children clearly responding well to both Kieron and Riley. If anything, they seemed more relaxed around our kids than they had been so far with the perhaps more authoritarian figures of me and Mike. Which was no bad thing, I mused, as I left them to it and went into the kitchen to clear the decks for tea, because it meant – if I was lucky – that both my kids would be happy to help out a bit with the pair of them. Which was no small thing. Sophia, who’d been twelve, had had multiple issues, and there had been multiple occasions when she’d clashed with one or more of us. We’d had as many traumatic, stressful times with her as good ones.

   This, on the other hand, seemed far less complicated a business. We’d enjoy our short time with these little ones, all of us, as a family. And as Riley had plans to become a foster carer herself, once hers were older, I knew she saw the hands-on experience as useful training.

   In the meantime, I needed to feed my new charges, and managed to establish, once I’d worked out that offering them choices was an alien concept, that sausages and beans would be a sensible thing to cook.

   ‘But we can’t use these,’ Olivia told me, as I handed out their cutlery, just before I dished up. ‘We’re too liccle for them things. We need spoons.’

   And some basic training, I thought silently, as I swapped knives and forks for dessert spoons for today. As of tomorrow, I’d start teaching them some everyday skills. And, boy, was I glad I’d opted not to dress them in their shorts and T-shirts, because even with the cutlery they professed to be used to, I’d never seen children – not those over six months of age, anyway – make such a comprehensive amount of mess in such a short space of time. By the time they had finished eating, half their tea was splattered over them – both their freshly washed hair and their newly scrubbed faces and their T-shirts one horrible sticky mess. The only plus side was that they still needed to have the nit lotion rinsed off, so at least they’d be in the bath again anyway.

   As for the dining room, Mike was having to try extremely hard not to laugh his socks off. I’m a stickler for cleaning – borderline obsessive about it, actually – and I could see he was finding this chimps’ tea-party hilarious.

   ‘Oh dear,’ he laughed wiping the tears from his eyes. ‘You’re going to have such fun with this little lot!’

   

   He was still giggling about it, hours later, in bed. He couldn’t stop. And though I kept trying to chastise him, it eventually became infectious. It was funny. There was me, Mrs Doubtfire – Mrs Hyperactive Houseproud – and I couldn’t have picked a more challenging pair of urchins if I tried. So I laughed along with him. This would be an adventure, I decided. And after the stress of our last foster child, a potentially much less harrowing ride. And they were both of them so sweet, that you couldn’t help but want to hug them.

   ‘Rather you than me, love,’ Mike qualified, grinning. ‘At least till I’m convinced it’s definitely hasta la vista for the bugs.’

   I started itching at the thought, but I drifted off happy. This would be fine. Two sweet innocent children who we could really do some good for.

   Little did I know that, so far, we’d seen nothing.

Chapter 4

   It felt like the middle of the night when I woke up. I didn’t know what it was that had woken me, either, only that something had startled me. I wasn’t sure what. Had I dreamt it? Imagined it? I reached across to press the light button on my alarm clock. 4 a.m. Maybe one of the kids had got up to use the toilet. I slipped out of bed quietly, so as not to wake Mike.

   Once on the landing, tiptoeing quietly, I peeped in to check in Ashton’s room. I could hear him snoring gently, so it couldn’t have been him. But then I noticed that not only was Olivia’s door closed – I had left it open, as promised – but there was a strip of light visible at the bottom.

   I pushed against the door softly, conscious that I didn’t want to frighten her, and as it began to open so did my mouth. I simply couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

   She was squatting on the bed, clutching what I realised was an open jar of jam, and met my gaze with huge terrified eyes.

   ‘Olivia?’ I said softly, though in incredulous tones. ‘What on earth is going on?’

   She swiped her fringe from her eyes with a jam-covered hand. There was jam everywhere it seemed, on her face, in her hair, smeared down her front, on the bed. In fact, as I took in the scene I could believe it even less – the whole duvet was covered in food.

   ‘No, lady,’ she answered tremulously, scuttling towards the wall and clutching the jar even tighter to her chest. ‘I didn’t do it. I didn’t do anyfink!’

   My principal reaction was one of sadness. In any other circumstance it would be one of anger, I knew, but looking at her, crouched in the midst of all this mess, the only thing I felt for her was pity. The bed was in chaos, playing host to an upturned bag of sugar, an open tub of butter and two empty boxes of cereal. There were also God only knew how many empty biscuit wrappers strewn around. She must have already had quite a feast. In fact, it looked, for all the world, like there had been a major eating binge, of the type you often hear about in magazines, illustrating the distressing practice of teenage bulimics. But this was a six-year-old – hardly more than a baby! What had prompted it, I wondered? This was surely not down to hunger. She’d eaten normally during the day and had done nothing to indicate she was starving, yet she’d amassed, and clearly munched her way through, one hell of a lot of food.

   It was psychological, clearly. Something to do with her background. From what we knew, and from the scrawny state of them, it was highly likely food was scarce for these children. Perhaps this was a behaviour born out of fear about where the next meal might be coming from. Or perhaps sneaking down for food in the night was the only way she could be sure to get some. Poor little mite. I crossed the room and perched on the end of the bed.

   ‘Olivia, sweetheart,’ I said to her gently. ‘You mustn’t do things like this, love. It’s wrong. For one thing, you should be sleeping, and for another, it’s, well, it’s taking things that don’t belong to you, isn’t it? Stealing.’ She continued to stare at me, as if in a trance. ‘Love, were you hungry?’ I persisted. ‘Was that it?’

   Now she shook her head. ‘Not hungry, miss. Sorry. I swear to God almighty, I won’t do it no more, miss. I promise!’

   I couldn’t help but raise my eyebrows at her strange choice of words, as I held my arms out to her, beckoning her towards me. ‘Come on love,’ I said softly, braced for the sticky paws that I knew would soon be wrapped around my neck. ‘Come here and let’s get you cleaned up, sweetheart. And get this bed straight so you can get back to sleep, eh?’

   As I’d anticipated, Olivia let me scoop her into my arms, and after stripping her of her filthy nightwear and scrubbing her down with baby wipes – all of which she now seemed perfectly happy to submit to – I gathered the whole duvet and its contents into a ball, and replaced it with a spare from the airing cupboard. I could sort out the chaos in the morning.

   Olivia then scooted meekly back under the clean covers. No point, I decided, in engaging her in further conversation. ‘There,’ I said simply, bending to plant a kiss on her forehead. ‘All tucked up, nice and clean. Now back to sleep, okay?’

   She nodded and then obediently closed her eyes for me. But I was wide awake. I barely slept for the remainder of the night. These children were going to be some challenge.

   

   ‘So did you sleep at all, love?’ Mike asked, as I greeted the new day to see – and smell – a steaming mug of coffee being placed on my bedside table. I’d need it, I thought, as I pushed myself up to a sitting position and realised the lateness of the hour.

   ‘Not much.’

   ‘I thought not. So what happened, exactly? She wet the bed? I saw the bedding on the landing.’

   I shook my head, and filled Mike in on what had actually happened. ‘Not unsurprising,’ was his considered opinion, once I’d finished. ‘They really do seem like something out of a Dickens novel, don’t they?’

   I sipped my scalding but oh-so-much-needed coffee and frowned at him. ‘And it’s our job to haul them back to the 21st century.’

   ‘But not for long,’ Mike soothed. ‘Anyway, I’ll go down and sort the breakfast things, shall I?’

   I grinned. ‘If you can find any cereal, that is!’

   That was the good thing about mornings. A new day, and everything suddenly seemed more manageable. As I gathered both my wits and my dressing gown to face whatever this one held, I could hear the two of them chattering away happily in Olivia’s bedroom, and felt my normal positive, can-do mood returning. It was slightly dented, admittedly, when I went in there only to have my nose assaulted by the stench of urine, but common sense told me this was all par for the course. ‘Neglect’ was such a small word for such a big, wide-ranging, multi-faceted problem. These kids, it was clear, had never been potty trained. But that was something I could easily do for them, starting now.

   The TV was blaring away to itself, and the two of them were sitting cross-legged on the floor, busy piecing together a jigsaw. ‘C’mon, kids,’ I said, stepping over them to go and open up a window. ‘Time to tidy that away now and come down for breakfast, okay?’

   Olivia, seeing me, leapt up immediately, and tried to cling to me like a baby panda. It was good to see she was so affectionate, I thought, as I scooped her up onto my hip, but rather less good to see – or rather, for it to slowly, damply dawn on me – that she was also wringing wet. And so was I, now. Ashton too, I saw as he also stood up, had a suspicious wet patch all up the back of his night things.

   I herded them both into the bathroom, and began stripping Olivia out of her wet things. Ashton, taking my cue, undressed likewise, ready to wash, and though I made an effort not to pay him too much attention as he did so, noticed that he was clearly embarrassed. Now that, at least, was a good thing, I thought to myself. Feeling uncomfortable about bed wetting was at least half the battle. I felt confident I could soon have him dry. In fact perhaps he was dry, and this was just a lapse, due to the trauma of the past couple of days.

   Ignoring his damp things completely, I turned to Olivia. ‘Did you have an accident?’ I asked her gently as I filled the basin. The question was rhetorical – of course she’d had an accident – but her answer still flagged up the extent of the ‘neglect’.

   ‘Yesh!’ she told me, proudly, as she picked up her sodden pyjama bottoms, gleefully showing me what she obviously considered to be a very impressive stain.

   ‘It’s okay, Casey,’ Ashton added, in a reassuring tone. ‘Don’t worry. She’ll soon be all dry again.’

   Bless him, I thought, as I sponged his sister down, diplomatically leaving him to sort himself out for now.

   Once they were both clean and dry, I got them dressed in some of the new clothes Riley had bought for them and we eventually got downstairs for breakfast. True to his word, Mike had everything laid out ready, but it soon became evident that neither of them were interested. In fact, by now, they seemed much more interested in winding each other up; punching each other and running around madly, laughing manically for no apparent reason. It was almost as if they had morphed into different children, the shyness of yesterday having completely disappeared. Ashton, particularly, suddenly seemed a different child; one who now delighted in driving his sister mad; pulling her hair and teasing her and generally being a rather bullying big brother, something that would also need addressing.

   ‘Right,’ said Mike sternly, in an attempt to regain control. ‘Enough of all this. Time to sit up nicely at the table! It’s time for breakfast!’ But his words fell on completely deaf ears.

   Trying to balance the two full bowls of cereal I’d poured, I approached the table and tried myself. ‘That’s enough!’ I snapped, trying to get and hold their attention. But it was hopeless – they just ignored both of us. Perhaps, I decided, I needed to change tack. Perhaps raised voices were something they had got used to simply tuning out. So instead, placing their cereal bowls on the table, I spoke more quietly. ‘Fine,’ I said. ‘This breakfast will be on the table for five minutes. If you haven’t sat down and begun eating it quietly by then, I shall assume you don’t want it and will take it away, and there’ll be nothing more to eat until lunchtime.’

   This, thankfully, seemed to work. Finally, two sets of suspicious eyes were on me, and the children, my words having obviously sunk in, climbed onto their chairs, picked up their spoons and started to eat.

   It was still like feeding time at the zoo, though. ‘My God, Case,’ whispered Mike as we stood by the kitchen partition and watched them. ‘If they carry on like this, this is going to be a nightmare! I hope they start calming down a bit!’

   Shit! I thought suddenly, remembering. ‘Mike, their medication! It’s the bloody ADHD, all this! They must have to have their tablets first thing – of course!’ What with everything, I’d completely forgotten to ask what time of day they needed to take their pills. And now I’d had my answer. As soon as humanly possible after they wake up! I hurriedly gave them one each, and made sure they took them, then prayed that they were pretty fast-acting. Because it really was like watching feral children in action. Though they’d picked up their spoons, they were mostly using their hands to eat, shovelling the food in at an alarming rate, and spilling half of it on the floor. They also didn’t sit on their chairs, but crouched on them, like chimps, almost as if ready to pounce or flee.

   Noticing Olivia’s bowl was empty now, I reached to take it from her, but stopped mid-way, as the six-year-old began to growl at me. She raised her hands in front of her, bent her fingers into claws and began hissing at me – it really was something to witness. I was then startled when Ashton banged his fist down on the table. ‘No, Livs!’ he barked at her. Olivia hung her head and immediately began whimpering, clearly scared. I just couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing.

   

   It took an hour for the children to completely calm down. I had tried jigsaws and colouring books, a game of football in the garden … I’d even tried to make a game of them all helping me and Mike to clean up. Nothing had worked, not until the drug had kicked in, upon which the transformation was as sudden as it was huge. I’d seen the effect of Ritalin in school, of course, but never so dramatically as this. And, right now, I couldn’t have been more grateful.

   The downside, however, was that they were now a bit like zombies; though ready to follow instructions, which was a positive, they were also confused and a bit droopy, with dampened spirits. Theirs must be, I thought sadly, a pretty strong dose. I made a mental note to take the pair of them to see Dr Shackleton; our local doctor had been the family’s GP for many years, and was always happy to support us with the children we fostered. Perhaps with support, and the right environment, we might be able to lower it slightly. It would be good to pass them on having made some progress in that regard, at least, even if, in the time-frame we probably had available, something of a big ask.

   By now Kieron, who had finished college and was now busy job-hunting, had come downstairs. Now the kids were so much calmer, he was happy to stick around and help Mike to mind them while I went into town with Riley to do a proper shop for them. In time I hoped I’d be able to take them out with me, but for now, while they were still such an unknown quantity, I felt happier leaving them safely indoors. I had to hurry, too, as the social-work team were due later. So it would definitely have to be something of a smash and grab – I just hoped the same wouldn’t be happening at home.

   

   Riley and I loved to shop. Always had. In fact, after playing with little Levi, going shopping with my daughter was one of those simple pleasures that I really enjoyed. Whatever the stresses in my life, there was little that couldn’t be made a bit better by spending mother-and-daughter quality time with Riley.

   And we could certainly shop. In no time at all we had amassed five sets of underwear each, five cold-day outfits, five warm-day outfits, two pairs of new shoes, two coats, two more sets of pyjamas plus two of pairs of novelty children’s slippers. We also added more jigsaws, a tub of Lego, a stack of books and two new PlayStation games, the ones we had being too geared to older children. We’d picked up a couple of new dolls for Olivia, too, one with long hair, and one a baby doll that could drink and wet its nappy. It came with a potty, and I thought it might prove useful when it came to potty training – something I clearly needed to address quickly, particularly with Olivia. I’d easily doubled the amount the social worker had given me, but I didn’t care. I would be able to claim it back eventually.

   ‘I can’t wait to see their little faces,’ I told Riley, as we hauled our booty into the boot of my car. Riley neither. ‘Can I give Olivia the Baby Born one?’ she asked. ‘Oh, I used to love mine when I was little!’ I nodded, belatedly picturing Mike’s face as well, and the expression it would have on it when I told him what I’d spent. But no matter. These children needed a lot more important things than toys – security, routine, love and boundaries, decent discipline – but they needed to play too.

   And we were soon to get a stark reminder of just how much they did need. Our return, and the opening of all our carrier bags, was greeted not with joy, whoops of delight and barely contained excitement, but instead with blank faces and disinterest. Yes, they were both polite, and said thank you – and to both me and Riley – but as for interest in the toys and games and books we had bought them – there was none. They looked for all the world as if they didn’t even want them. Such a sad and dispiriting thing to witness.

   

   The cars rolled up at 2 p.m. as planned, for our promised meeting. Anna and Robert were in the first car, while John, who’d obviously travelled separately, was behind.

   By now we’d given the children lunch (happily, now they were dosed up, a much less manic affair than breakfast) and they were sitting in the living room, glued to the TV. So I left them to it, and while Mike organised teas and coffees for everyone, ushered our three guests into the dining area of the kitchen. I smiled to myself as Mike grandly placed the matching milk jug and sugar bowl on the table. I’d only acquired them recently, specifically for the purpose of these meetings, having never been someone who’d have owned such things before. I remembered my mum’s comment when she’d first clocked them in my kitchen cupboard. ‘Ooh, check you out, Casey!’ she’d teased. ‘All this posh crockery! You know you’ve made it when you own a milk jug and sugar bowl! Just don’t be getting too big for your boots, now!’

   We’d both laughed. We were definitely not a family for airs and graces. But if I was going to be hosting meetings for all these social services professionals, I felt I needed to smarten up my act on the china front a bit. Ironic really, when you thought about what most of the meetings were about.

   Hellos all done, and Anna and Robert having formally introduced themselves to John, this one kicked off without any delay. Straight away I could sense a bit of tension in the air, though I had yet to find out what the cause was.

   John got started. ‘Right, then,’ he said. ‘Two things I need to know. First, some more background on the family and the situation and, second, the length of the placement. Mike and Casey –’ he glanced at us here – ‘are a valuable resource on my team and, as I’m sure both of you appreciate, this temporary placement with them is a favour. But one, as I’m sure you know, that we can’t extend indefinitely.’ Straight to the point, no messing around. That was John. I looked at the other two, now shifting uncomfortably in their seats. I wondered what it was we were about to hear.

   ‘I’ll try to answer your questions as honestly as I can, John,’ Anna answered. ‘I do realise that this is a lifeline you’ve thrown us, and we appreciate it.’ She smiled ruefully at me. ‘And we know it’s above and beyond the call of duty.’ She started shuffling among her pile of paperwork, and pulled out some pages. ‘Okay,’ she continued. ‘So the family first came to our attention some eight years back. At that time Ashton, of course, was the only child. Karen and Kevin Wardhill – the parents – both have learning difficulties, as you know, and apparently Kevin’s cousin, Sue, was the one to make a complaint to us, saying that they were neglecting the baby. Forgetting to feed him, going out and leaving him unsupervised – things like that. So we intervened, but the report from the social worker was unequivocal. Ashton was deemed both happy and healthy, and that, therefore, was pretty much that.’

   I interrupted. ‘But surely, if it was the father’s own cousin who was worried …’

   Anna shrugged. ‘The report’s clear. At that time, her fears were deemed to be unfounded. And you never know what people’s motivations are, of course … But the plot thickened, as they say, because she then went to the police a year later and reported that her cousin – this being Kevin again – had sexually abused her from a young age. This time, of course, the police demanded action. Given her new allegations about her cousin, we agreed it would be prudent to keep a regular eye on both Ashton and any further children.’

   ‘And?’ asked Mike.

   ‘And the cousin then retracted the sexual abuse story – I have no information about the circumstances – but we were now, of course, involved. And the seeds had already been sown.’

   I thought about how much time had passed – and how many offspring were now involved. This was turning into quite an epic. ‘And then what?’ I said. ‘They had four more children, and you say social services have been involved since Ashton was a baby? So how did we get from there to here?’

   Anna cleared her throat. She looked embarrassed. And seeing her expression made me sure that we were about to hear an all too familiar story. But you were damned if you did and damned if you didn’t where social work was concerned. ‘Robert,’ she suggested, ‘why don’t you run through some of the follow-up reports and recommendations?’

   Robert duly plucked a file from his briefcase, which was on the table. ‘I know how this will look,’ he said, ‘when you see it in black and white, but there’ve been a succession of different social workers attached to the family over the years, each with their own priorities and agendas. In retrospect, it’s clearly a family that should have been dealt with a long time ago, but you have to remember –’ he looked earnest – ‘that our primary aim, always, is to help parents cope. To give them strategies and tools to assist them. The last thing we want is to break up loving families.’

   I stared at him incredulously. I’d barely had them two days, and on that evidence I could hardly believe that he believed – or at least, seemed to – that these kids should still be with their parents. Was that what he was saying? ‘So why did they come into care, then?’ I wanted to know.

   ‘Well, in the end, we realised they couldn’t cope. They’ve had several warnings and there’ve been lots of interventions, but after year after year of evidence, such as them being sent to school unkempt’ – I smiled wryly: such a benign word to describe the state of them! – ‘and not being fed, running around at all hours of the night … they were stealing and getting into trouble from a very young age. Eating out of bins, pinching the contents of other children’s lunchboxes … I can obviously leave you a full report to read … Anyway, the list went on, and we eventually applied for a court order.’

   John had been listening to this intently and scribbling notes. ‘Ah, the court order. I understand this is still ongoing. Is that right?’

   ‘Yes,’ Anna confirmed. ‘And, um, it’s just been adjourned again. The final hearing was supposed to be this week but it seems the parents have a new solicitor who is insisting upon new psychological reports being compiled for both parents, plus the children.’

   ‘Do we know why?’ John asked. ‘Are they mounting a defence? And what does this mean in terms of looking for a placement?’

   ‘Well, that’s the problem, to be honest,’ Anna admitted. ‘Until it’s ruled that the children are officially in the care of the local authority, it’s going to be extremely difficult to get a full-time placement for them. If we do that, we are obviously pre-judging the outcome of the final hearing, and the parents’ solicitor will have us for that.’

   I was a bit lost by now but, thankfully, Mike seemed to understand. ‘Hang on a minute,’ he said, having been mostly silent up to now. ‘So what you are actually saying is that this “short-term” placement – this “interim” placement – may, in fact, not be that at all.’

   John obviously understood the implications too. ‘Yes, Mike,’ he said, as he slammed down his pen. ‘I think that’s exactly what Anna is saying. I’m not at all happy about this. To be frank, it feels like we’ve been duped. Surely you knew this when you contacted me last week?’

   Harsh words and apologies began flying around the table then, but, even with one ear on the recriminations and accusations, my other was on the sound of the two little mites in my living room. I could hear them chuckling, presumably at the cartoon they were watching, oblivious of the fact that their future – their stark, uncertain future – was being discussed in the very next room. It seemed clear to me, then. If we didn’t keep them, who else would? And when it then came to light – John was nothing if not dogged – that social services had, in fact, been searching for some where to place them for a whole year, I realised the enormity of the damage they’d probably already suffered; no wonder the two of them seemed so feral.

   I knew then that we had to keep them – for as long as was needed. They needed a home and some security; a civilising influence. Why couldn’t we be the ones to give them that? I caught Mike’s eye then, and I could tell, to my relief, that he felt the same. These poor ‘neglected’ tots could at least count on us, I thought.

   Though I might have thought differently if I’d known what was coming.

Chapter 5

   ‘We come bearing gifts!’

   It was a week or so later, and my mum and dad had arrived to see the children. Fostering was always going to be a whole-family occupation, but with the two we had currently (and with the knowledge that they might be with us for a while yet) I felt it doubly important that we get all our close relatives on board. They were happy to get involved – they always had been, from the outset – but I also felt the children could really benefit psychologically from being in the thick of a big, loving, ‘normal’ sort of family, their own childhoods, so far, having been so barren in that respect.

   ‘Oh, Mum, you shouldn’t have,’ I said, grinning at the sight of Dad trailing behind her, carrying a big carrier bag from our local toy superstore.

   ‘It’s our pleasure,’ she said. ‘Really, love. We thought we could all do some painting. Give you an hour’s break, perhaps,’ she added, kissing me.

   Olivia, by this time, had come out of the living room to see who’d arrived, and was jumping up and down with glee and asking to be picked up. She was really so much like a toddler, I reflected. ‘Nan an’ granpa here!’ she shrieked delightedly, while Ashton, now in the doorway, smiled shyly.

   We all trooped into the kitchen and I set about making a pot of tea for them while the kids pulled them over to the table. Ashton seemed to take to Mum straight away, and pulled a chair up close beside her almost as soon as she sat down. ‘Now then, young man,’ she said, as Dad placed the bag in front of them. ‘Let’s see what we’ve got for you both, shall we?’

   Olivia, meanwhile, having now persuaded Dad to pick her up, was busy stroking his hair and kissing his cheek. I kept an eye on her. Privately, I was becoming a little concerned about Olivia, my fostering antennae already twitching. Much as I was pleased to see her – to see both of them – being affectionate with the family (the opposite, sadly, is often true of damaged kids), I had noticed she tended to behave differently around the men. She was so little, yet there was still this definite sense of flirtation; she wouldn’t be aware of it – how could she, she was six! – but it was there. It was tangible, and slightly unsettling.

   And today was no different. ‘Gwandad,’ she was asking him. ‘Can I sit on your knee? Casey got bony knees so I don’t like going on her lap. But can I sit on yours to do the painting?’

   Dad laughed, as he settled her instead onto a chair. ‘Much easier to paint on your own chair,’ he suggested. I smiled to myself. And much less chance of him getting paint all down his trousers. ‘Come on,’ he said, as Mum began opening up the pots they’d bought. ‘What shall we paint? How about a picture of your nice bedroom?’

   But Olivia was having none of it. She pestered and pestered, till Dad eventually conceded and let her sit on his lap after all. And before long, the noise level had fallen to a hush, as both children immersed themselves in the task at hand.

   Leaving them to it, I turned around to find some biscuits for everyone and pour out Mum and Dad’s mugs of tea. But within moments, I heard my dad speaking sternly. ‘No, Olivia,’ he was saying. ‘You mustn’t do that. If you don’t keep still,’ he went on, ‘then you’ll have to get down.’

   ‘But I was only wiggling for you, Gwandad,’ she said, her expression completely guileless. ‘Don’t you like it when liccle girls wiggle for you?’

   Dad looked every bit as horrified as I felt. I rushed across and plucked Olivia from his knees. I could see that he was completely at a loss for words. And with good reason. ‘Come on, sweetheart,’ I said to a bewildered Olivia. ‘Come and sit here by your brother. Granddad’s going to have his cup of tea now and it’ll be hot.’ She pursed her lips now, clearly miffed to have been relocated next to Ashton, then folded her arms on the table and placed her chin on them. ‘I miss my gwandad,’ she said, pouting. ‘When can I see him?’

   ‘I don’t know, sweetie,’ I said. ‘But I will try to find out. I know. How about you paint a pretty picture, just for him? Then Anna could take it to him for you.’

   This didn’t mollify her. She pulled a face. ‘Gwandad hates Anna. She stoled us from him, an’ we’re not to tell her nuffink!’ She was becoming quite animated, and I knew she had my parents’ full attention. She certainly had mine. She lifted her arms now, waggling them to emphasise how exasperated she was by this. ‘Speshly my special Gwandad cuddles. It’s not right! My poor gwandad don’t have no more liccle girls to wiggle for him. An’ he’ll be lonely!’

   Her curious form of words was as arresting as ever, but it was the words themselves that shocked most. I could sense how uncomfortable Mum and Dad were becoming, as the import of what she’d said hit home. ‘It’s okay, love,’ I soothed, stroking her hair. ‘It’s okay. I’m sure your granddad knows how much you love and miss him. Tell you what, why don’t we leave the painting for a bit, and you and Ashton go and play in the garden with Bob, while Nan and Granddad and me have our drinks?

   Thankfully, this idea seemed to appeal to Olivia. She jumped down off the chair and grabbed her brother by the hand. ‘C’mon Ash,’ she said. ‘Let’s go play ball with Bob.’ The two off them then trotted off.

   Dad shook his head as he watched them go. ‘Dear me, Casey, love. That was just all so wrong. What the bloody hell was she going on about? Special granddad cuddles?’ He was silent for a moment. We all knew exactly what she’d been going on about. Not the extent or the detail, perhaps, but certainly the implication, and I could see it made my father’s flesh creep.

   And my mother’s, too.

   ‘I wonder what’s happened to her?’ she said, as I passed her the mug of tea. ‘What she’s seen …’

   ‘Way too much, by the sound of it, way, way too much,’ Dad finished.

   ‘It’s just horrible,’ Mum said. ‘I mean, it’s the most natural thing in the world to give little ones cuddles. But when you don’t know what they’ve been through … had done to them …’ she shuddered. ‘Well, it just makes it all so awkward, doesn’t it? I mean, it shouldn’t do, should it? But it does.’

   What it most did for me, though, was answer my unspoken question. This granddad, if Olivia’s innocent comments were based in fact, would appear to have been up to no good. I tried to think if a granddad had been mentioned in any of the reports we’d been given, but I had no recollection of it. I resolved to take another good look later. And to continue to keep a close eye on Olivia. Ashton, too. Just how grim a can of worms had her words inadvertently begun to reveal?

   

   And there was more to come. As we notched up a full second week with the children, I began to realise how knowledgeable they were about their bodies, and how lacking in personal boundaries they were. That they were close was obviously good, but they were physically a bit too close, touching one another in inappropriate places, and with what looked like very clear sexual overtones.

   It’s generally not useful to over-analyse sexual touching in young children. It’s normal for little ones to want to explore their whole bodies, and to introduce sanctions, or adult notions of sex and propriety, can only result in creating a tension around it, which can lead to emotional problems later on. But these little ones seemed so sexual, it was confirming my suspicion that whilst their parents might have neglected them in terms of attending to their needs, someone – this granddad, almost certainly, and others? – had actually been paying them quite a lot of attention. Children simply didn’t do some of the things these two were doing, not without there being some adult input.

   It was to be Lauren, Kieron’s girlfriend, who’d get the next piece of tangible evidence of what I was fast believing to be a worrying state of affairs.

   Lauren was currently on her summer break from college, where she was studying dance and drama, and was often round at the moment, helping Kieron with his job-hunting. It was the following Tuesday, and the two of them were on the computer, in the living room, trawling the internet while the children were playing on the floor with building bricks. Kieron had come out in the kitchen to get a drink, and the two of us were having a chat about progress, when Lauren appeared in the doorway, looking slightly embarrassed. ‘Um, Casey,’ she said. ‘Can you come back in the living room a second? It’s the kids.

   They’re … well …’

   She didn’t finish her sentence and didn’t need to. I could tell by her expression that something weird must be going on.

   I put my mug of coffee down and followed her back in, wondering what it was I might find.

   I saw Ashton first. He was lying face down on the sofa, on top of Olivia, who was lying face up. Ashton was busy gyrating his torso, as if simulating sex, while his little sister lay, pretty much passively, beneath him, except for the fact that she was doing something else. She was rhythmically patting his bottom.

   ‘Ashton!’ I snapped. ‘What on earth do you think you’re doing? Stop that immediately! Get off your poor sister!’ I crossed the room and pulled the two of them up. I then sat them down, side by side, on the settee. ‘Now,’ I said sternly. ‘I need you to tell me what you were doing.’

   There was a predictable silence from both for a moment, Ashton looking doggedly at the floor, his shoulders drooping, though little Olivia was grinning from ear to ear. Then she spoke, and at the same time placed her hand inside her shorts. ‘We were just tickling our pee pees, that’s all.’

   I kept my stern face in place, but knelt down to their level. ‘Stop that, Olivia,’ I said. She pulled her hand back out again. ‘We don’t do things like that in front of other people, okay, sweetheart? Your body is private,’ I explained.

   ‘Yeah,’ said Ashton, who’d suddenly become animated, watching her. ‘We can only do that in our bedroom, Liv, stop it!’ He leaned towards her. ‘Remember – walls have ears!’ ‘An’ eyes, too!’ she answered, dramatically, gesturing to her own now. ‘Sorry, Ash,’ she finished. ‘I forgetted.’

   If the implications of what they were saying hadn’t been so awful, their choice of words would have almost sounded comic. As it was, it was chilling, and a picture came immediately to mind: of this ‘Gwandad’ or whoever, making it clear to these poor mites just how important it was to keep their secret.

   ‘No!’ I said, firmly. ‘We don’t touch people like that at all! Not down here, not in your bedrooms, not anywhere. Walls don’t have ears, or eyes, but other people do. Other people who know it isn’t right to touch others’ private parts.’

   They both stared at me in utter confusion. Which made it hit home to me even harder. They simply didn’t understand me. They so obviously thought what they were doing was normal. Except not quite, as they clearly knew – well, Ashton did, anyway – that the adults close to them wanted it kept a secret.

   ‘Not even family, Casey?’ Ashton asked me, quite innocently, as if he was in a classroom asking a teacher a question. ‘It’s all right if it’s family. It doesn’t matter if it’s family.’

   ‘Yes, it does matter, love,’ I tried to explain to him. ‘Our bodies belong only to us, d’you understand? Which means it’s wrong to let someone else touch our private parts. It’s wrong of them to do that to you. Even family.’

   They both stared at me, two pairs of wide, uncomprehending eyes. They really didn’t understand what I was on about. I stood up again, and glanced across at Kieron and Lauren, who were still framed in the doorway, open-mouthed. We exchanged a look that said it all; if it was as entrenched as it appeared, this was going to be a massive thing to deal with. A five-minute chat with them wouldn’t even scratch the surface.

   Taking my rising as a cue that the lecture was over, the children both got up off the sofa, and began playing with the building blocks again. Whatever they were building, all I could think of was icebergs. And how I’d just got a glance at the great seething mass beneath the tip of this one.

   

   I spent much of the week that followed making notes on the computer, carefully recording every incident I witnessed and reporting it by email to both John and Anna. There was clear evidence here of an even darker family background, and it was vital the authorities know about it, particularly with the hearing coming up. I also recalled the allegation of abuse by their father’s cousin. No smoke without fire? Maybe so.

   But it wasn’t just the sexual behaviour that was disturbing. Just as difficult a problem to try and manage was the children’s lack of hygiene and their toileting behaviour.

   I had already started waging a war on poo, as it had become clear from the start that the first night’s bout of bed wetting was by no means a one-off, brought on by stress. It was actually the tip of another iceberg in itself – this one composed mainly of excrement. If my nose had been wrinkling in distaste on Day Two, it was positively beginning to curl up now. The children had clearly not had any sort of potty or toilet training. Ashton just always seemed to poo in his pants, and the little one seemed to have no consistent pattern – so I was soon finding bits of faeces everywhere. There would also be smears of it on the toilet walls, and on the walls of the children’s bedrooms – even, on more than one occasion, on my banister. It was sickening and I began to feel nervous about touching anything, not before I’d zapped it with bleach.

   And, as with the sexual behaviours, nothing I said seemed to sink in.

   ‘Olivia,’ I said to her one day, having taken her by the hand, up to the toilet, so that we could together take a look at what she’d used to decorate the toilet wall. The smell was so intense that I was gagging as I did so, but she seemed completely oblivious. ‘Do you know what that is?’ I said, pointing. She nodded and smiled.

   ‘Poo!’ she said, grinning. ‘It’s poo! Poo poo poo!’

   ‘That’s right,’ I said. ‘Poo. And now poor Casey has to clean it. And that’s not very nice for me, is it?’ She looked at me blankly. The concept of ‘cleaning’ was obviously new to her, and I wondered in what sort of God-awful place she must have lived. ‘Look, sweetie,’ I said gently, once I’d banished the offending streaks. ‘Let me show you how we go to the toilet, okay?’

   I took a few sheets of loo roll and held them in front of Olivia. ‘After we’ve done a poo, we take some paper from the roll – like this – then we wipe our bottoms – very carefully – and pop the paper in the toilet. Like this, see?’ I then did some acting. It was probably a good thing that no one could see me, because I then took more loo roll, started la la la-ing, as if singing to myself, and proceeded to mime what one did when one had finished on the toilet, wiping the paper across the seat of my trousers in an exaggerated fashion and saying ‘pooh!’, before depositing the paper in the toilet with a flourish, and pressing the flush with a grand ‘ta da!’

   Olivia, transfixed, found all this riveting and, like any six-year-old, was keen to play ‘pooh!’ herself. I let her practise about five times before she tired of it, then took her to the basin, where we then spent a splashy ten minutes practising hand-washing too. I hoped, I just hoped, that if I kept this up long enough, my banisters – my whole house – would thank me.

   But it wasn’t just a case of learning new skills. Olivia’s problems, in this regard, were more disturbing than I’d first thought, as I would find out a couple of days later.

   It was evening, and, dinner over, both the children were in the kitchen, busy completing a giant jigsaw with Mike. I’d decided to use the time to change the children’s duvet covers – washing and turning around bed linen for them had become one of my new daily chores.

   I went into Olivia’s room first, and was hit at once by the smell. I was used to bad smells now, but this was something else. It had been a hot afternoon and her windows had been closed, but even by current standards – stale urine, soiled underwear – the stench was both arresting and overpowering. I opened the windows and immediately set about trying to find the source, feeling my irritation rise, even though I knew the poor mites couldn’t help it. I was a clean freak, always had been, and living in such fetid squalor was really beginning to get me down. Gritting my teeth, I reminded myself why I took the job in the first place, but I still couldn’t help feeling angry at social services. If they knew these kids as well as they should have, they would have known about all this. For them to not brief us fully was just so bloody annoying!

   I checked the bed, and then under it, then the wardrobe and chest of drawers. But found nothing. I didn’t even know what I was looking for; only that whatever it was, it wouldn’t be pleasant. I then began clearing the toys on the floor. And then it hit me, as I passed the book case, that the smell had suddenly become a lot stronger. I put the toys down, and gingerly began pulling books from their shelves. Now the stench was so strong that I actually retched. I almost dropped the books I was holding when I finally found the cause. Hidden behind the books on the bottom shelf, squashed against the wall, were three packages of human stools, loosely wrapped in tissue paper. I backed away, disgusted, and called down to Mike from the landing. ‘Love, can you bring Olivia up here a moment, please?’

   They were up seconds later, and I gestured to Mike to take a look. He clapped his hand over his mouth and I could see that, like me, he was struggling not to gag. Olivia stood, quaking, in the doorway.

   ‘Why?’ I asked her gently. ‘Why did you do this, sweetie?’ I was genuinely struggling to make sense of it, particularly after the toileting lesson we’d so recently shared.

   ‘I not done it. Me never done it. I didn’t, Casey, honest.’ She looked terrified.

   I crossed the room and put my arm around her. She immediately flung her arms around my waist. ‘I think you did, love,’ I said. ‘But don’t worry. We can sort it all out. Don’t be scared. We just want to know why. It’s made your pretty room all smelly, and you don’t want that, do you?’

   She started crying. ‘It’s just my poo,’ she sobbed. ‘That’s all. I just wanted to keep it. But I won’t do it no more if you don’t like it.’

   ‘Sweetheart, poo must be done in the toilet, like I showed you. Always. Every time you need to go. You must do it in the toilet from now on. Nowhere else, okay? It has germs in, and it could make you sick. Make you very sick. And we don’t want that, now, do we?’

   She shook her head. ‘No.’

   ‘So from now on, when you need to have a poo, where do you go?’

   ‘To the toilet,’ she said meekly. ‘I promise.’

   

   ‘I was thinking,’ said Mike, half an hour later, the little cache of horrors now disposed of. ‘What was that slogan the agency used?’

   Olivia, by now, was back playing with her brother. I just hoped what I’d said to her had sunk in. ‘You mean the one in the ad?’ I said. ‘The one on the leaflet I brought home?’ I did remember it. And well. I was unlikely to forget it. ‘Yes,’ I went on. ‘“Fostering the unfosterable.” Why?’

   Mike grinned ruefully. ‘I think I’m beginning to get what they were on about.’

Chapter 6

   The type of fostering Mike and I had originally been trained to do used a system of points and levels to modify behaviour. A child would start on a very low level and earn points every day for completing various tasks, with which they could then buy a range of privileges, such as extra TV time, or a later bedtime. As they progressed through the programme, the tasks would get harder, but, at the same time, the rewards would get bigger too.

   This kind of behaviour modification programme was a relatively new development in fostering, and was intended for use with a specific type of child, and it had been made clear that, in the case of the children we had now, it wouldn’t be appropriate. Not only would Olivia be unlikely to understand it, but as the children were also to be with us only as an interim measure, there was no point in starting it, even if they could make sense of it – and Ashton perhaps could – as they’d be unable to do more than scratch the surface.

   But, having spoken to John Fulshaw a few days after the various incidents we’d witnessed, I decided to implement one anyway. And I did so after hearing yet another bomb-shell. Having brought John up to speed on the various toileting issues, not to mention expressing my concern about all their sexualised behaviours, I had asked – almost as an afterthought, really – how things were going with the court case.

   ‘Ah,’ said John. ‘Actually, I was getting to that, Casey. I’ve not long put the phone down to Anna, as it happens. It seems that in the light of your emails about what the children have been doing, social services are requesting a further adjournment so that all this new stuff can be added to their final report.’

   This seemed pretty sensible, from social services’ point of view. What we’d witnessed, both in terms of physical neglect and the strong possibility that all the kids had been sexually abused, could only strengthen the case for them not being returned. I thought about Olivia’s comments about her ‘gwandad’ and shuddered. But the other implication, and the thing John was obviously braced to tell me, was that an adjournment meant a delay, which meant only one thing.

   ‘So the kids will need to stay with us for even longer than anticipated, then?’

   ‘I’m afraid so,’ he admitted. ‘In fact, the other thing I have to tell you is that Anna has already been on to the Education Department to see about moving the kids to a primary school close to you for the new term. I believe she’s also asked for a full report to be sent on from their old school which, once she’s got it, she plans to bring over to discuss with you.’

   ‘Great,’ I said. Not so much about having the kids for longer – Mike and I had already crossed that bridge, and we were fine with it. But because, logistically, this would cause a real headache. ‘So it’s going to be a bloody rush job, then. Brilliant. There’s only a fortnight – slightly less – before the start of the autumn term, and I’m going to have a whole set of uniforms, PE kit and so on to go and buy. And try to socialise them too – John, you really have no idea how bad things are. They don’t even know how to eat using cutlery! Or dress themselves, or wash themselves – or anything, basically. How the hell am I going to have them ready for a completely new school in two weeks?’

   I also thought, but didn’t mention, that it wasn’t just about the kids. It wasn’t just a case of the kids adjusting to a new school, it was how the school would cope with having them!

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