Piecing my broken childhood together, one document at a time

Shane Griffin grew up in residential units and in foster care. Now he’s investigating his own past by seeking access to dozens of official records about his emotional state, his behaviour, his relationships and his family

Shane Griffin grew up in residential units and in foster care. Now he’s investigating his own past by seeking access to dozens of official records about his emotional state, his behaviour, his relationships and his family. Video: Enda O'Dowd

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When the social workers first came to take Shane Griffin into care he ran away. He and his three siblings were living with their mother, who had had a nervous breakdown. “She wasn’t functioning at all,” he says.

Shane went to a nearby lake and lay on a hill looking back at the house. He watched his mother being taken away in an ambulance and waited until the gardaí and social workers had left.

“I barricaded myself in the house and took a bunch of knives up to the bedroom,” he says. “They copped on I was back, and they all came back, but I was threatening to jump out the window if they came near the door. One of my mother’s friends came and tried to talk me down. So I came down and opened the door.”

How old was he? “Nearly seven,” he says, and laughs sadly. Shane ended up staying with his mother’s friend for a couple of days until his mother came out of hospital, and then it all happened again. “But not so horrifically, and without a stand-off.”

That was in 1994. Griffin, now a dryly witty, warm 30-year-old, spent his childhood in care and is now the advocacy manager for the Care Leavers’ Network. Between foster homes and residential units he had 19 placements. He has experienced abuse within the system and has spent several years investigating his past through meetings with Tusla, the State child and family agency, and through Freedom of Information requests.

Griffin has had to make FOI requests just to ask the type of questions about personal history that many of us can simply ask elder relatives. When we meet he comes with a sheaf of documents, some details of which have been redacted by authorities.

These include hundreds of pages about his younger self, some typed, some handwritten, outlining his emotional state, his behaviour, his anxieties, his fraught familial relationships, his relationships with other children, and one particularly “possessive” relationship he had with a care worker as a small boy. (“Ah, she was sound,” he says.)

“Physically Shane presents as a somewhat small and tense child,” reads an early note from a social worker.

What does it feel like to read this stuff?

“It’s bizarre,” he says. “It feels like an invasion of privacy.”

Griffin wants to talk about his time in care because he thinks his experience of multiple placements, assault (on two occasions) and systemic failure is fairly typical. He wants care leavers to be listened to – and he wants their personal testimony and opinions to help drive policy. More specifically, he would like to see a wider remit for the National Review Panel, which investigates serious incidents and death in care.

Document with Shane Griffin article by Patrick FreyneA desperate letter from Shane, aged 8 or 9, to a judge

Neglected and open to abuse

Griffin understands why he was taken into care. His mother was a vulnerable adult who had been on the health board’s radar since a year before his birth – “Something about a phantom pregnancy” – and whose condition left him neglected and open to abuse.

He tells stories about premature responsibilities and household fires. One of the latter was the result of “children performing inappropriate tasks”, according to the files. He was, from a very young age, the hunter-gatherer of the family; his older sister took on the role of housekeeper.

He was a clever kid. “I used to go to Dunnes and find receipts in the car park, find the product on the receipt, go to customer service, say, ‘I got the wrong item. I need the money back.’ I was very entrepreneurial . . . Every morning I used to sneak out the window on to the porch and up to the shop up the road and take two or three of each of the papers. And then there was a cul-de-sac, and I’d knock on the doors, sell a few papers and get a few pounds.

“Then I’d throw some of the papers in a hedge, climb back up on to the porch and hide the money in the room, then wake up as normal. Then we’d have the money to buy sweets, so we wouldn’t be going to school on an empty stomach. I would have been in junior infants then.”

When he was five Griffin was repeatedly sexually abused by a man his mother had met while recovering from a breakdown in a psychiatric facility. The abuse ended only when he told a friend of his mother’s. “It all came out,” he says. “I remember being in the Garda station, speaking with the glass like in the movies. I remember being brought to Dublin to hospital, to get an examination.”

The man was convicted in April 1994, but until then Griffin was terrified. “He said he would kill my family if I said anything . . . I used to sleep with a big kitchen knife under my pillow. I moved my bed into my mother’s bedroom, and I slept at the door.”

Six months after all of this a care order was granted. Around this time a Garda sergeant found Griffin out in the middle of the night and dropped him home. The garda’s report is in his files; it describes bringing Griffin back to a filthy house where he was greeted by another half-naked child.

Fluffy and warm

Being in care wasn’t so bad at first, Griffin says. “I remember the first foster mother was bathing me, and she was lifting me out of the bath with this big towel, and it was so fluffy and warm. It was something new that I didn’t have at home – a lot of people would take it for granted. I remember that sensation of just having that warm, fluffy towel – not this cardboard, air-dried towel. It was kind of my first good memory.”

He didn’t stay in care initially. After each early placement he was returned home to his mother until a full care order was granted. That’s when things started to go even more awry. Griffin was, at least once, sexually abused by a young man who lived in one of the foster homes, something he never reported.

He did report a separate incident, when a placement ended after the foster father attacked him.

What happened? Griffin says he was constantly wetting his bed: “If someone shouted at me I wet myself.” He describes himself as a small boy on a little low bed by a big window, “sitting there drowned wet. And this man was just screaming in my face, and he slapped me twice, and I put my hands up and blood was pumping down from my nose . . .

“The foster mother came in, crying and screaming at him and pulling him away. He went out to calm down, and she was consoling me. And I was just sitting there, sobbing and wet because I’d wet myself.”

According to the documents, Griffin was there for about four months, but he remembers it as being shorter.

“When a placement breaks down the social workers come along with this regurgitated bull. ‘Ideally, where would you like to be?’ The only thing I said was I wanted to be in the countryside and I wanted a family with a dog.” He laughs. “I didn’t ask for much.”

Why a dog? “Maybe that’s just a traumatised child for you. A psychologist might tell you it was because I didn’t trust humans and that I wanted to be in the countryside to be away from everyone. We’ll let the psychologists do their magic on that one.”

There were other, shorter placements. And then there was one that lasted 2½ years.

“That was good until the foster father there assaulted me,” he says. “Some story of something I’d supposedly done got back to him by Chinese whispers. I walked in the door, and he was a giant and I was a small kid – I’m still small; I didn’t start growing until I was 19 – and he came in and dragged me up the hall and picked me up by the scruff of the neck until my head was hitting the light bulb and he put his fist up to my cheek. I was nearly puking on top of him.

“The foster mother was terribly upset, but he had the power in that whole thing.”

Griffin says he reported this, but the placement is recorded as having ended as “his behaviour had deteriorated and he had become increasingly difficult to manage”.

A 1994 Garda report on the Griffin home. Shane was 7.

A case review of Shane's behaviour in care, aged 11

Learnt behaviour

Every placement that breaks down has a huge effect on the child, Griffin says.

“Every time I was moved the system was telling me, ‘You’re a bold child, and you don’t deserve to be loved, you don’t deserve a family and you don’t deserve to be happy, because anytime you f***k up we’re just going to move you along.’ It becomes a learnt behaviour in a way. You just wreck foster placements then, because that’s all you know.”

Griffin admits that he did wreck some placements. This small, wounded child ransacked rooms. He broke a headmaster’s nose. (He feels guilty to this day.) In his first residential placement – they stopped putting him with foster families at a certain point – he held staff hostage with a hurley.

Eventually, towards the end of 1997, he ended up in a high-support secure unit; he lived with three boys and two girls, all from Dublin. “Two of them were there because they were robbing cars and doing drugs, crazy stuff, whereas I was in care because of a bad situation. I was quiet. I was there three months. I worked with the programme. I got along with it.”

He says children in care learn to turn their emotions on and off and to tell officials what they want to hear. He recalls a note in a logbook from one residential unit, which refers to him staring into space for prolonged periods of time. “After you go into care you’re traumatised,” he says.

Four years later he was back in an open residential unit and a mainstream school, although this ended when he and some of the other boys crashed a nearby wedding, stole beers and went on “a drunken trail of destruction. One of them was breaking wipers off cars.”

The Garda was called. Experiencing his first hangover, and terrified by the spectre of incarceration, Griffin ran away. His mother ended up hiding him for a night; eventually, after the intervention of his guardian ad litem – “the only professional who was always totally there for me” – he was released back home for reasons that are still completely mysterious to him. The only conditions were that he join a youth club and go to counselling. (He went to three sessions, then stopped.)

His sisters and brother stayed in care, which he finds even more confusing. “The whole time I was in care,” he says, “I wanted to go home.”

‘Please help us’

He takes out a letter he wrote to a judge when he was eight or nine. “Please help us” is written in big letters in the middle of the page. In the letter he talks about being frightened of being in care and writes that he wants to be with his mother. “She’s the only one that wants me even when I’m good or bad.”

Now that he was home, he says, he wanted to be anywhere else but there. His mother had deteriorated and no longer had any friends.

“Bipolar, split-personality disorder, alcoholic. Chaos,” he recalls. “She slept all day and was up all night. She would come in at three in the morning and ransack the room – pull the mattress off the bed. I’d pull the duvet under the bed and sleep there.”

If he’d had any consistent relationship with a social worker he’d have called him or her, he says. But his social workers were largely just names he saw on forms. So he sought escape.

In 2002 Griffin befriended an older man who abused him, groomed him and encouraged him to prostitute himself. He had many dark days. He would drive the back roads at top speed with no seat belt. He spent a period of time homeless. Yet he worked at school and got his Leaving Certificate. He says that cars ultimately saved his life: “I’m a devil for the cars.” He congregated with other young car enthusiasts, many of whom are still good friends.

Griffin obtained an apprenticeship as a plumber, although this didn’t work out, and met his girlfriend – “another reason I’m still alive”. They now have a daughter, whom he is intent on giving a normal childhood.

Eventually Griffin did a degree in social studies; his lecturers were pleased and often challenged by having someone in the class who had actually lived in the system they were studying.

He has been in therapy and has raked over the coals of his life. He made up with his absent father, became very close to his older sister, visited the mother of the man who sexually abused him, and even met one of the foster fathers who assaulted him. “He said, ‘You gave me a hard time,’ and he was justifying beating me up . . . I said, ‘I suppose that’s how you calm a child down,’ being sarcastic. And he was agreeing, more or less.”

‘Mishandled allegations’

Griffin’s mother died in 2010. Now he is attempting to put together the jigsaw puzzle of his life, one document at a time. He is very critical of the system.

The documents he has received contain several references to his allegations of physical abuse at the foster homes. He believes these were mishandled. In 1997 his mother complained about what she saw as insufficient investigation of these allegations.

An internal report after the complaint refers to the allegations as “fully investigated”. It is signed by the same people who oversaw the initial investigations. The files do not indicate what those investigations concluded.

Some time after Griffin left the system he was called in to answer questions about one of the foster parents who assaulted him, because other assault allegations had been made against the man. Griffin was angered that they hadn’t taken his allegations more seriously before that point.

He is a strong believer in early intervention; he says that the vast amount of money it costs to keep children in care could be better used to support struggling families. He thinks the care system is broken. He decries the lack of proper care plans, consistent social workers and aftercare facilities, as well as the high proportion of placements that break down.

“I’m open to forgive the State for its treatment of me,” he says, “but it’s hard to do that when you see kids today going through the same broken system with the same deplorable outcomes.”

He is also, through the Care Leavers’ Network, connecting with others who have been through the system and encouraging them to tell their stories. He says again that he would like to see the remit of the National Review Panel into deaths in care expanded to include testimony from people who feel the system has failed them.

He stresses the high number of care leavers who are living on the streets. He is tired of tokenistic meetings with politicians but enjoys meeting others who have experienced the care system. He recognises in them a similarly hypervigilant awareness of their surroundings. “Like those two guards who came in earlier,” he says. “I was trying to figure out exactly what they were doing and what they were up to.” (I hadn’t noticed any gardaí.)

‘I knew it should be different’

Shane Griffin’s main wish is that children in care be listened to. They’re not stupid, he says. “I was watching Little House on the Prairie and The Brady Bunch. TV was painting an image of how a family was constructed. I saw how my friends and their families functioned. I knew from a young age that this stuff shouldn’t have been happening. I knew it should be different. I want that for my daughter – a place she can call home. I haven’t had it since I was five years old.”

You can contact Shane Griffin through his blog, at spideronaweb.com; the Care Leavers’ Network is at careleaversnetwork.com

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