Authors: Cathy Glass
Also by Cathy Glass
The Saddest Girl in the World
The Girl in the Mirror
I Miss Mummy
Mummy Told Me Not to Tell
My Dad’s a Policeman (a Quick Reads novel)
Run, Mummy, Run
The Night the Angels Came
A Baby’s Cry
Happy Mealtimes For Kids
Another Forgotten Child
A big thank-you to my editor, Anne; my literary agent Andrew; and Carole, Vicky, Laura and all the team at HarperCollins.
England has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in the developed world. Last year nearly 40,000 teenage girls gave birth and nearly 60,000 terminated a pregnancy. These figures are truly shocking. And while some of the girls’ stories have happy endings, many do not.
We’d just sat down to our evening meal when the doorbell rang. I sighed. Why did salespeople always manage to time their calls with dinner? Double glazing, cavity-wall insulation, religion, new driveway, landscape the garden or fresh fish from Grimsby: whatever they were selling, 6.00 p.m. seemed to be the time they called, I supposed because most people are home from work by then and it isn’t so late that people won’t answer their front doors.
‘Aren’t you going to see who it is, Mum?’ Paula, my eight-year-old daughter, asked, as I didn’t immediately leave the table.
‘Yes,’ I said as the bell rang for a second time.
Standing, I swallowed my mouthful of cottage pie and went down the hall to the front door, ready to despatch the salesperson as quickly as possible.
‘And don’t be rude!’ Adrian called after me.
As if I would! Although it was true I usually sent away cold callers efficiently and effectively, which to Adrian, aged twelve, could be seen as rude and certainly embarrassing.
‘Don’t be cheeky,’ I returned, as I arrived at the front door.
It was dark outside at six o’clock in January and, as usual, before answering the door at night, I checked the security spyhole, which allowed me to see who was in the porch. The porch was illuminated by a carriage lamp and gave enough light for me to see a lady in her early thirties, dressed smartly in a light-grey winter coat, and whom I vaguely recognized from seeing in the street. I guessed she was collecting either money for a charity or signatures for a petition on a local issue: traffic calming, crossing patrol, noisy pub in the high road, etc.
‘Hello,’ I said with a smile as I opened the door. The cold night air rushed in.
‘I’m sorry to trouble you,’ she began. ‘You’re Cathy Glass, aren’t you?’ I saw she wasn’t carrying a charity-collection tin or a clipboard with a petition to sign.
‘Yes,’ I said, surprised she knew my name. I certainly didn’t know hers.
‘I’m sorry to disturb you. My name’s Meryl Dennis. I work at Beachcroft School. I’m the games mistress – I teach PE. I expect you’ve seen me around? I live at number 122.’
‘Oh yes,’ I said. Number 122 was at the very bottom of the street.
I smiled politely and wondered why she was telling me who she was and about her school, which was on the other side of the county. Adrian, who’d started secondary school the previous September, attended a local school and Paula was still at our local primary school. I smiled again and waited, aware that the cold air was chilling the house and my half-eaten dinner was on the table going cold.
‘You foster, don’t you?’ Meryl asked a little nervously.
‘Yes. Although I don’t have a child at present.’
‘I thought not. I pass your house in my car on the way to work and I used to see you setting off on your school run. I thought your routine had changed.’
I smiled again and nodded, and continued to look at Meryl, still with no inkling as to why she was here or why she’d taken such an interest in my routine. Donna, the girl whose story I told in
The Saddest Girl in the World
, had left us in November and I’d taken Christmas off and was now waiting for another foster child to arrive. I didn’t yet know who it would be. But what any of that had to do with Meryl I had no idea.
‘Is it possible for me to come in for a few moments?’ Meryl asked. ‘What I have to say is confidential. I’m so sorry to trouble you like this.’
‘Well, yes,’ I said, slightly taken aback but intrigued. ‘Come in.’
Grateful to be able to close the door against the cold night air, I led the way down the hall.
‘Who is it?’ Paula called from the dining table, having heard our footsteps.
‘A lady who lives down our road,’ I said. ‘Finish your dinner, please.’
‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ Meryl said. ‘I’ve interrupted your meal.’
‘Don’t worry. It will save. Let’s go through here to talk.’ I showed her into the sitting room and pushed the door to. Adrian and Paula knew where I was if they needed me.
Meryl had the authoritative air of a teacher. She sat on the sofa, unbuttoned her coat and, slipping it off, folded it on to the sofa next to her. ‘I’m sorry to barge in on you like this,’ she apologized again. ‘But I need to ask you a favour – to help me out.’
It was then I thought she was probably looking for a childminder – hence her comments about me not having a child; possibly someone to look after her child or children before or after school. I’d been approached before by neighbours who knew I fostered and asked if I could mind their children. If this was why Meryl was here I’d have to politely refuse, for as a foster carer I’m not allowed to childmind as well, although I am allowed to help out a friend, for example, by looking after their child for a couple of hours while they go to the dentist or similar.
Meryl now looked at me very seriously as she spoke. ‘As well as teaching PE at Beachcroft I’m mentor for the girls in years twelve and thirteen. You know, what used to be known as the sixth form.’ I nodded. ‘The girls come to me with their problems, usually about studying and exams; or they have boyfriend problems, or they’re not getting on with their parents. I listen to them and do what I can to help. However, I have one girl in year twelve who is pregnant. She telephoned me half an hour ago to say her mother has thrown her out. She’s at a friend’s now but can’t stay there tonight. Can she come here?’
I was completely taken aback by the directness of the question, although the answer was simple: no. But I could see how passionate Meryl was in her desire to help the girl, so I thought she deserved a fuller explanation.
‘I can’t, I’m afraid. Although I’m a foster carer I can’t take any child I choose. The way the system works is that when a social worker at the local authority decides to bring a child into care they first check their lists to see if they have a suitable foster carer free; if they haven’t, they send a referral to the independent fostering agencies in the area to see if they have anyone suitable. The agency I foster for, Homefinders, receives the referral together with other agencies and if they think I’m suitable they contact me. Different foster carers have different expertise and specialities. I don’t foster pregnant teenage girls, but some foster carers do. The social services will be able to find somewhere for this girl. Have you contacted them?’
‘Jade doesn’t want them involved,’ Meryl said.
I paused and thought. ‘I think they need to be involved,’ I said.
‘I think they know about Jade,’ Meryl said. ‘I understand there’s a social worker already working with Jade’s mother on other issues. Jade has younger brothers and sisters. But Jade told the social worker she didn’t want her help – or words to that effect.’ Meryl shrugged.
‘I see. Well, I’m sorry but as a foster carer I can’t take a child unless the referral has come through the proper channels, and they won’t place Jade with me. I take younger children and often those with special needs or challenging behaviour.’
‘Couldn’t we have a private fostering arrangement?’ Meryl asked, clearly having done some research into the matter. ‘It’s not as though Jade is a small child. She can look after herself.’
‘I can’t become involved in a private fostering arrangement,’ I said. ‘Not while I work for a fostering agency. Also the law is clear: if someone who is not a relative of a child looks after a child who is under the age of sixteen for more than twenty-eight days, then they have to be assessed and become a registered foster carer. It’s for the child’s good. Foster carers are trained and regularly monitored.’
‘Jade’s just seventeen.’
‘I’m sorry, it doesn’t make any difference. I still can’t take her. I suggest you telephone the duty social worker now and explain the situation and that Jade has just become homeless. The social services will find her a bed for the night. At seventeen she’s still a minor, so the social services have a legal duty of care towards her. They’ll place her with a teen carer who can best take care of her needs.’
Meryl sighed and looked downcast. I felt sorry for her. She clearly wanted to help Jade and I think she really believed I could offer Jade a home, or at least a bed for the night. But it wasn’t that simple. Even if I’d been registered as a teen carer and had a spare bedroom, the referral would still have had to go through the social services who, if necessary, would pass it on to the independent fostering agencies (which are charitable trusts that came about as a result of the local authorities never having enough foster carers). As I looked at Meryl I thought how nice it was of her to be so conscientious and caring in her role as the girls’ mentor.
‘Do you know anyone else with a spare bedroom who could put Jade up for a few nights?’ Meryl asked. ‘Just until I get something else sorted out?’
‘No. I’m sorry, I don’t,’ I said. Although I knew some of my neighbours had spare bedrooms, I wasn’t going to get them involved in what could have been a difficult and embarrassing situation. I didn’t know Jade and I didn’t know those neighbours that well either. ‘All I can suggest is that you call the duty social worker,’ I said again.
‘Or perhaps I’ll give Jade my bed for tonight,’ Meryl said.
I looked at her, surprised. Clearly it was her decision to take Jade in but I wasn’t sure it was the right one professionally. Meryl was, after all, a teacher at Jade’s school and I wasn’t sure it was a good idea to blur the boundaries between teacher and pupil for either of their sakes.
‘I know I’m becoming too involved,’ Meryl suddenly said, as though reading my thoughts. ‘But you see, I can identify with Jade. I didn’t have the best start in life and when I was Jade’s age I went completely off the rails. It was a teacher at my school who helped me get my life back on track. I’ll always be grateful to her for going that extra mile for me and I’d like to do the same for Jade.’ Which explained a lot.
‘Will she keep the baby?’ I asked, mindful of the huge responsibility she’d be undertaking if she did.
‘She wants to. And I’m trying to help her keep her studies going, although she won’t be attending school for much longer.’
‘Hopefully her parents will give her some support when they get over the shock,’ I offered.
‘Maybe, but I’m not counting on it. Jade’s mother has problems of her own, and her other kids to look after. And as far as I’m aware Jade’s father isn’t around much. Anyway, I’ve taken up enough of your time,’ Meryl said, now standing and putting on her coat. ‘Thanks, and sorry to interrupt your dinner.’
‘That’s all right. I’m just sorry I couldn’t help you.’
I went with Meryl down the hall, wishing I could have done more, but as I’d explained to Meryl I couldn’t just take in any child, apart from which there were reasons I didn’t foster teenagers: they were very hard work. They often went missing and required a great deal of emotional support. I felt I had enough responsibility looking after Adrian, Paula and a foster child, as well as coming to terms with being newly divorced, and I didn’t feel I could offer support to a teenager at present.