A Foster Mother: Healing Abused Children

The Independent  London, 1986, 855 words; extracts
Versión en español  

This profile was written for the publication of Jeanette Roberts’s biography by Claire Lorrimer. Roberts began fostering abused children several decades before the topic was widely acknowledged, identified or investigated. Today, thirty years later, when the old "walk-on-by" attitude to the problem is being widely questioned in the UK, much of her thinking is still relevant.

Over the last 17 years, Jeanette Roberts has given a home to 41 children with whom the social services could not cope. Most of the children have been victims of physical violence or sexual abuse. Some are physically or mentally handicapped. One, a wolf-child, had been fed only on rice and Coca-Cola, and had spent all four years of his life in his cot.

THE TIP OF AN ICEBERG

Jeanette / ‘We’re at the tip of the iceberg, just scratching the very surface,’ she says quietly, almost flatly, but with matter-of-fact calmness.

Frequently the children Jeanette has adopted have spent years being shunted between their natural parents, foster homes, children's homes and even lock-up institutions, dogged by social service records which have little good to say about them. To the outsider's eye it is Jeanette's commitment in taking on supposedly intractable cases that is most striking.

But in professional circles, it is her success in helping children come to terms with the past that is considered most remarkable. Watching her at home, with the children, she is quietly spoken, but firm with them.

"We're at the tip of the iceberg, just scratching the very surface," she says quietly, almost flatly, but with a matter-of-fact calmness. "Okay, so we're beginning to reach younger children. But there are so many others, and older people too, who haven't opened up and who desperately need to."

Now she herself has done that for the first time - she was raped by her father - for a biography House of Tomorrow, written by the historical novelist Claire Lorrimer. "It was very painful. I knew that as soon as I opened my mouth I'd lose half my family. It's a standard reaction, but it's still hard. I get letters and phone-calls of abuse every day and they’ve told me they're never going to stop."

AT ODDS WITH THE SYSTEM

Jeanette is now looked to for advice and help in training foster parents and, more occasionally, social workers, but she still often finds herself at odds with the system because of her unconventional methods. She remains sceptical about the approaches relied upon by the social services, even those that are regarded as enlightened and innovatory.

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