Ici's story

Ici shares her family's story of special guardianship

Phil and I first met in a pretty dodgy pub in North London. We were introduced, and I felt that little bit of initial physical attraction – a good start. Then I found out he was also a Christian – another box ticked for me. So, I proceeded to interview him, throwing him question after question for the rest of the evening and the duration of the walk from the pub to our friends’ house.

I was only 19 but had reached a stage where I didn’t want to mess around anymore; if I was going to begin a relationship with someone, I wanted it to be serious, with the potential to grow into something great. There were a lot of things that were important to me, so I wanted to make sure he was on board with those things too. I figured, “If he can handle this tonight, he can handle anything!”

I was impressed. He answered them all. And, to my delight, he was really open to the idea of growing family through something like fostering or adoption.

As someone with experience of the care system in my background, caring for children or teenagers in this way is something I’ve known I wanted to do for a long time. I was one of three children, with an elder brother and a sister three years younger than me. My parents had a complicated relationship, and when I was about two and a half, my birth mum left, and she eventually moved to America.

Things became really difficult for my dad, a West Indian man in the early 80s with three very young children, working the night shift. He went to the local church and told them that he needed some help. That church community really rallied and gathered around us. Every night for the six months that followed, someone from the church would come over and babysit us so my dad could go to work.

It was an incredible effort, and the church community became like a real family to us. But unfortunately, it just wasn’t an arrangement that was sustainable for the long term, and it reached a point where we weren’t able to remain at home with my dad. Three families in the church offered to care for us, and in the end, my brother and I went to live with one family, and my sister with another. It was basically a private fostering arrangement – we would spend the week with this family from church, and we would spend the weekends with my dad.

The family who cared for us were wonderful, and I consider them my own family to this day. But all the kindness and love in the world can’t erase the trauma of some difficult stuff in our home before my mother left, and of being separated from both parents at different points in my young life. My birth dad was the most precious thing to me – things were hard, but he was amazing. So, when he sadly passed away when I was nine, I was obviously absolutely devastated, and alongside my grief, past feelings of abandonment resurfaced too.

My brother and I remained with the family who had been caring for us during the week, and my sister stayed where she was, not far away. Looking back, I can see my foster family really took a lot in their stride. They were a white, middle class family, and they welcomed in two West Indian children from, what I would say, is a pretty rough estate. But I have really vivid memories of my foster dad taking us to the bakery every Saturday and making a fantastic breakfast every Sunday morning. He was really involved as a father, much like my husband Phil is now. We were opposites in terms of background, culture and experiences, but that stability and consistency that he showed us overpowered the things that made us different.

Fast forward, beyond that night in the dodgy pub, and Phil and I are married with two birth children. Our youngest was about two years old when we got a phone call to say my sister had died. She was only 26 years old, and it was completely sudden. It floored us all. Gemma had been my best friend. We always joked that growing up in different homes gave us the best kind of sibling relationship; we had so much fun together, but never had those “Get out of my room” kind of fights – although don’t get me wrong, we were both very fiery and we certainly had our moments!

Gemma had asked us a few times over the years, if anything were to happen to her, would we look after her little boy, Jordan*? At the time, it felt obvious; “Of course we would!” But when you have those hypothetical conversations, you never think that one day you might actually have to hold up your end of the bargain. Yet, here was Jordan, whose dad had been out of the picture for some time, needing somewhere safe to call home.

We had some tricky (and expensive) experiences in court, but Jordan joined our family when he was six, and we eventually became his special guardians. We did have a conversation with him when he was a little older and asked him if he would like us to formally adopt him. That was particularly interesting, because he was around the same age I was when my foster family had asked me that question. Of course, for many children that is what’s best for them. But our answers were the same; no, thank you. We knew we were part of a family – but we also knew who we were. Our surnames were part of our identity, and neither Jordan nor I felt that we had to change that to feel fully part of the family who loved and cared for us.

Jordan found school difficult as a young child and really struggled to put pen to paper. Last year, he graduated university with a first-class degree and with hope and vision for his future. For me, as someone with experience of the care system, that’s what healing looks like; when somebody who has experienced such trauma can see a future for themselves, and is able to say, “You know what, I could do this,” or “I could see myself here,” or “I want to take this further,”. He knows that he has value. He knows that he has importance. We are so proud of him.

I don’t know if Phil knew quite what he was letting himself in for that night in the dodgy North London pub. We really are polar opposites in so many ways; when life for me has been chaotic and changing, he has been solid and strong in his presence and commitment. Those are qualities that I know will have such a world of impact upon the children in our home. It’s just as well he passed my interview.

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