This week the club welcomed Mick Pease and his daughter in law Hannah, who are involved in a small charity based in Leeds which has worked in 47 countries around the world for the last 20 years. The charity is called Strengthening Families and Children, with a simple but powerful message ‘children belong in families’.
From its base in Leeds the Charity, Strengthening Families and Children, reaches out across the world, promoting best practice to ensure that so far as possible, children are brought up in families rather than institutions such as orphanages and children’s homes. They advise at grass roots and government levels. As their website [SFAC.org.uk] puts it, ‘Our team of expert social workers, therapists, lawyers and judges train adults all over the world. We work with anyone who cares for, works with, or makes decisions about children with the aim of turning those good intentions into good practice so children can thrive’.
Mick gave us much detail of the work of his charity, and the globe-trotting that it has involved, but the power of his talk lay in the human story which underpins his motivation to spread the word.
Mick was born in 1951 and brought up on a council estate in Knottingley. Amongst his older siblings was a sister, Pamela, who suffered from chronic asthma, exacerbated by the industrial air pollution of the region. His father was a bricklayer, his mother needed to be at home to look after his sister, and the family could not afford to follow the medical advice to move to the coast; nor, pre NHS, could they afford to pay for drug therapies. They therefore agreed to send Mick’s sister to a ‘medical orphanage’ on the Wirral where they thought her health would be protected and her living expenses taken care of. Pamela remained in a Catholic orphanage for four years, visited once a month by her father but otherwise entirely cut off from her family. Mick was too young to question or understand what was happening, but recalls that when Pamela returned to the family, she found it very difficult to settle, and would say nothing about her experiences, until years later she disclosed that she and other residents at the orphanage had been subjected to prolonged abuse.
Meanwhile Mick had left school in 1966 and for the next ten years worked as an engineer at Kellingley Colliery. He married and had two children. His life then completely changed, through what he described without further explanation, as ‘a strange sequence of events’.
As an ‘uneducated coal miner’, Mick found himself working in a children’s home in Sutton Coldfield. There he helped to look after 300 teenagers with challenging behaviour that baffled him. He’d thought that ‘good intentions and a really good heart’ would equip him for the job. He couldn’t understand the teenagers’ suspicion of him when he was there to help them, not harm them.
From the children’s home Mick managed to get to university in Birmingham where he went on to qualify as a social worker. Mick recalled the moment he sat in a lecture ‘listening to the issues kids bring with them through separation, loss of family, abuse they’d had or witnessed’. Thinking back to the teenagers in the institution in Sutton Coldfield, he thought, ‘Now I get it, I know why those kids did what they did. How come I didn’t know about this?’
University was followed by 30 years working in child protection with Leeds City Council involving adoption, kinship care and fostering. After his first 10 years with the Council Mick felt ‘ready for an adventure, to do something different’. He was granted a year’s leave of absence from the Council and by another ‘remarkable sequence of events’ found himself in Sao Paulo, Brazil, working with homeless children who lived on the streets. This was a time when such children were being systematically murdered with the connivance of the authorities because their begging was considered a social nuisance. He observed that those who were not on the streets were confined to orphanages that were little better than prisons.
Another ‘strange sequence of events’ took Mick to Tajikistan, north of Afghanistan. There he visited an orphanage where a conversation with three of the boys became for Mick a ‘lightbulb moment’ which inspired him to start his charity. Asked what had brought them there, the children spoke of family breakdown and other issues. The boys then explained that conditions in the orphanage weren’t too bad, with good food, education, and play with friends. Mick asked them if they could have one wish, what would it be? As they answered, the translator was moved to tears, and explained that they had all said ‘I want to go home’. They understood that was impossible, because home no longer existed, but ‘What they want is to be part of a substitute family so they can feel like everybody else. Children thrive when they feel safe and belong to someone, not to an organisation. Not belonging in a family destroys these kids’
In 2002 Mick brought SFAC into being as a charity. By that time authorities in the UK were winding down orphanages and children’s homes and putting resources into family care programmes involving fostering, adoption, and kinship care. Paradoxically, other countries were building orphanages, often with funding from the developed world. As Mick put it, ‘No one was saying they don’t need orphanages, they need families. There isn’t an orphan global crisis, there’s a family separation crisis’. Just like his sister Pamela in the 1950s, children in other countries are still being put into institutions when they would be better looked after in an extended family.
Mick told us ‘I started getting out there, working bottom up with local organisations, flitting around the globe’. He was invited to a remote village in Cambodia, where they had never heard of foster care. His explanations of what could be achieved formed the foundation for what has become a thriving foster care programme.
Mick then moved on to Myanmar where he spread his message to orphanage home directors with responsibility for thousands of children.
In Uganda, Mick met grass roots organisations and was able to overcome scepticism so that they went on to develop a successful community foster care programme.
He has carried the message to Ethiopia, Kurdistan, Iraq, Paraguay, and, at the urging of Baroness Caroline Cox, he has returned to Brazil where he was able to run a roadshow and address members of the judiciary about the merits of fostering. He’s also taken his message to the Supreme Court in Asuncion. Mick told us that he is currently training an organisation in North Brazil, and next week has a training session with lawyers in Costa Rica advising on how to achieve safe transitioning from institutional to family life
Mick’s charity is run on a shoe string. He works from home. His trips abroad took all his paid holiday entitlement, and he is helped by small regular donations and the occasional grant, eg from UNICEF.
Having seen at close hand the damage that institutional life can do to the emotional development of children, Mick is on a mission to challenge ‘orphanage culture’ in other parts of the world, and to promote the use of fostering and adoption services to support children living in families where possible.
Some of the ‘strange sequences of events’ which have shaped Mick’s life are revealed in his recently published book Children Belong in Families [co written with Philip Williams] which has been published in Burmese, but is also available in an English version.
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