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Lemn Sissay – An Inspiration

Lemn Sissay – an inspiration.

Imagine a child taken illegally from its mother in the late 1960s. This child was given to white devout Christian parents and told he is theirs. The child grows up in this family, is charming and extremely likeable. Like all early teenagers the child breaks a few minor rules – taking biscuits without asking – nothing major. Without warning the Christian parents decide this black child doesn’t fit into their family and is told to leave. The child is forced to leave the only family he has known, the only neighbourhood, friends and school he has known. The child is not found a loving, nurturing foster family but is sent to a series of residential children’s home where the rules are strict and the unwritten rules of bullying and racism from other children and staff alike have to be endured. Imagine how this child would feel faced with assaults, racism and neglect on top of having been torn away from his family. As if this were not enough, whilst in care this child discovers his name was changed by the council.

Would you fight back ? Would you have ended up in trouble ? Would you have seen your life chances as narrowed ? Would you have given up ? I would.

Lemn Sissay didn’t. He somehow found super-human levels of tolerance. He didn’t get into trouble with the law. He “kept his nose clean” and emerged from this ordeal to fashion himself into a writer, poet, performer and broadcaster.

Where did he find his tolerance ? Was it from his religious upbringing ? Was it a desire to rise above personal insults ? Is it from his philosophical take on life ? I’m not sure but he has some mercurial element that made him impervious to stuff that would knock us mere mortals off course.

Lemn has devoted a large part of his substantial creative talents and career to finding out more of his story and trying to make sense of it. Some if his notable publications are his Child of the State TED talk; his desert Island Discs of October 2015; his poetry, his plays; his memoirs My Name is Why; and The Report (Lemn listening for the first time to his psychological report on stage in front of a packed house at the Royal Court Theatre). He is a thoughtful advocate for the rights of children in care. He has set up the Gold from the Stone Foundation to provide Christmas dinners for care leavers. I recommend you search out all these inspiring works.

I had the privilege of helping Lemn explore the legal process. By 2015 he had plucked up the courage to get hold of his social care records from Wigan Council. He has published some of them in his memoirs My Name is Why. Lemn asked me if there was anything he could do. We poured over the records and discovered how, right from the start, the council had taken him from his Mother illegally. Lemn himself set up a unique meeting at Manchester Town Hall attended by the leader of Wigan Council, The head of Children’s services and the Chief Executive. Lemn wanted acknowledgement from the council that :-

  • It was wrong for the council to prevent him from being returned to his Mother when she repeatedly requested this in 1967;
  • That it was wrong for the social worker and foster parents to change his name;
  • That is was wrong for the Council to enter this illegal arrangement with the foster parents, that he was insufficiently supervised; that the issue of race was treated insensitively and that he was treated badly by the foster parents;
  • That it was inappropriate for Mr Sissay to have been placed at Woodend assessment centre;
  • That it was wrong to have provided him with no finances when he was forced to leave care at the age of 18.

Lemn not only got the meeting but was given unreserved acknowledgements and apologies on all these five requests. I hadn’t previously attended such a meeting with high level council personnel present. Rebuttals, blanking and defensive positions are the usual response when I ask for such meetings or apologies from councils.

Lemn took the meeting with dignity and some relief. We chatted about next steps and decided we should press on with seeking financial redress.

Lemn’s career has been successful. He has been well known for many years but has worked very, very hard at his craft. The opportunities open to his Mother’s later children were closed to him. He had been unable to progress through decent education due to the appalling treatment he had to endure from Wigan Council’s social workers. This meant Lemn lost opportunities and its right that he was compensated.

In 2017 I started the legal proceedings for him and on 17th April 2018 after a marathon 10 hour negotiation in London involving solicitors, barristers, and Wigan Council officials we agreed terms. It has been a privilege to work for Lemn. It is a privilege to work for all disadvantaged children. We all deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. Lemn got neither as a child.

I particularly like the line from Lemn when he says : “Children in care should be treated so well that middle class parents are queueing up to get their child in.”

David Greenwood (Solicitor privileged to work for Lemn and other care leavers).

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