Alice vs The System: Lessons from a lifetime of “help” from public services #1

Alice in Wonderland Central lark, New York. License Some rights reserved by -JvL-

Down the Rabbit Hole

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

My sister Alice (not her real name) was brought to us when she was 3 or 4 days old. My parents were foster parents and she had been taken from her birth mother straight from hospital. My mum tells me that she heard me say to Alice that night that it was okay, we were going to look after her and that she was going to be my sister. I was 7, and must admit have no memory of this, although I have always loved her as my sister. That said, for the next 9 or so years until I left home, she would annoy me like any younger sister gets on the nerves of an elder sibling!

As we got used to a new baby in the family, we never expected the difficulties in providing Alice the support she needed and deserved, nor how an assortment of officialdom would be brought into our lives: social workers, child protection officers, family court judges – and in more recent years, drug-dealers, petty criminals, police and mental health workers.

By temperament and inclination, I am a (middle class) liberal; maybe even a little lefty (maybe!). Growing up with Alice has often challenged the assumptions I have about the role of social services, mental health support, education, benefits, and the debate over nature vs nurture.

This series of short articles is to outline my family’s experiences and dealings with various aspects of the state – through my eyes – covering the adoption process, school years and Alice’s life as a young adult.

Alice thinks that it’s very odd that I choose to go to work. As she says, they’ll give her money anyway. At 27, she’s never worked nor done work experience. She has no formal qualifications (or informal ones). A brief year excelling in a B-Tech sadly proved to be a blip and she never finished the course. She dodges fares on buses and trains, dabbles in hard and soft drugs and mixes with dealers; her life is a shopping list of appointments with various care teams and support workers. My mum and I worry, but are resigned to it.

I hope that we gave Alice the best upbringing she could have had, and that we give her as much of the support she needs now that she will accept. I sometimes wonder how things might have turned out for her if we hadn’t taken her in on that evening in the 1980s. But as Lewis Carroll’s Alice said: “I can’t go back to yesterday – because I was a different person then”.


Photo by -JvL-

* The author is known to the Liberal Democrat team and is a party member. They are, however, writing anonymously to protect theirs and Alice's (not her real name) identities.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Jayne Mansfield 7th Jul '14 - 6:30pm

    I look forward to reading the articles, In the 1980’s I was attending meetings for foster parents which were actually self – help groups. Some of these foster parents went on to adopt children and we still meet up as friends to discuss how things have turned out.

    Whatever the problems we will never know how things would have turned out in other circumstances, and we kept, and still keep ourselves, sane by helping each other to accept the range of feelings that we have experienced, some that caused us to feel ashamed and/ or inadequate.

    Will the articles appear daily?

  • Anonymous LD 7th Jul '14 - 7:45pm

    Thanks Jayne – every few days (it’s a hugely busy time at work at the moment).

  • She might have done better with the birth mother.Rebelling against a poor background, she might have developed middle class aspirations.

  • Anonymous LD 8th Jul '14 - 9:45am

    Manfarang – who can tell how Alice’s life would have been with her birth mother (knowing a bit about her birth mother, I have my opinions). That said, your glib comment rather belittles Alice’s and the rest of my family’s experiences.

  • Geoffrey Payne 8th Jul '14 - 1:30pm

    The irony is that it takes a lot of intelligence to make a living in crime and not being caught. No doubt she could have done well for herself had she applied herself more positively.
    It looks like the question you are about to pose is whether the state does more harm than good in trying to help children like Alice? I look forward to finding out your experiences and what you have learnt. Whatever you have learnt, I am wondering whether it is the general experience of families in these situation? It is hard to extrapolate from a sample of one.

  • Anonymous LD 8th Jul '14 - 2:37pm

    Alice is certainly not stupid, that is true. And you’re right to warn that this is just one experience.

  • Does the birth mother have a history of schizophrenia too? In that case no amount of support how ever well meaning will make Alice lead a normal life.

  • Jayne Mansfield 8th Jul '14 - 7:09pm

    @ Manfarang,
    No-one knows how Alice’s life would have unfolded if she had been left with her birth mother, she may not have survived infancy because of neglect or active cruelty. Who knows?

    We don’t even know how our own biological children will turn out. It is not unknown for middle class families to have a child that behaves in the same way as Alice. I have known families where one child has ‘gone of the rails’, ‘got in with the wrong crowd’, in other words behaved in ways that put stress on the whole family including siblings.

    I look forward to learning from Anonymous LD’s account of a family who just wanted to do good by helping a child who was born into less than ideal circumstances. They are clearly a special family.

    I was particularly interested in the way Alice’s behaviour caused Anonymous LD to question so many of her beliefs including where she stood on the nurture / nature debate, something I have found common to many who have had similar experiences.

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