I think I’m going to be sick. I know I’m going to cry. I’ve just driven across the Pennines to Chesterfield, the town I was born in and the place that I left at 18. The first stop today on my homecoming trip is the most important. And six minutes away, I notice my hands are shaking.
“Oh my God, oh my God,” I hear myself saying. “There she is.” On the front drive is the woman I last saw three decades ago. Who, when I’ve tried to summon her over the years, has only ever been a psychedelic outline. No features, just a vibe: warm, forthright, maternal. “Can I give you a hug?” I ask. My throat tightens as the tears come. Christ, I’m predictable.
I’d revisited my past before: a few years ago, I wrote a memoir about my childhood and how its effects would land me in a New York psychiatric ward as an adult. But unlike many authors, I’d not taken to the road, learning more about myself from others. I was only interested in what my brain, my body had recorded, the score they both kept and how those memories had been my undoing.
This time was different, though. This time, it wasn’t enough to know only what I remembered, but also what I couldn’t. Because those gaps could hold the answers I needed: not even necessarily for me, but for the kids where I once was.
Home was a concept I never truly understood. It was a house that I lived in. An entity powered by fear
In the summer of 2022, I’d started making a BBC podcast series about vulnerable children missing from school. I was booted into action by shocking figures: almost 100,000 kids were “severely absent” (missing at least half of their classes) after the pandemic. They’d been called Britain’s “ghost children”.
The questions – Why were they out of school? Where were they? Were they being looked after? – acquired more urgency with the murder of six-year-old Arthur Labinjo-Hughes in Solihull. His school had reopened after the first lockdown on 8 June 2020, by which point he’d been abused for months by his dad, Thomas Hughes, and his new partner, Emma Tustin. On 16 June, Arthur was brutally assaulted again by Tustin. He died in the early hours of the next morning. The devastating details of his suffering didn’t emerge until the trial of Tustin and Hughes the following December. Like so many of us, I found it hard to sleep, I cried thinking about what he’d endured. About what could have happened had he not been kept at home.
It transpired that Arthur absolutely loved school.
Home was a concept I never truly understood. It was a house that I lived in. An entity powered by fear. My guts would twist as I walked up the wonky path towards it.
Violence was baked into the foundations of my family before I even existed. I sometimes think I was born with it stuck inside me: a seed planted in soil.
My mum had us young – my brother at 16, me at 18 and my sister at 22 – and throughout her 20s, marriages and men came and went. While their faces changed, their actions were familiar. There was physical violence, against her, against us, for as long as I could remember. There was sexual violence against me. “Physical violence”, “sexual violence”: two sanitised, overarching phrases that hold so many of my life’s degradations.
But luckily, there was a release. Well, two. Days, nights and longer at my nana’s. Brushed wet hair. Three biscuits and a milky coffee for supper. And the second: school. My sanctuary. Where I could become fat on knowledge, free of those degradations. But also, the HQ of those much-needed vibes, and the woman they shot out of – my junior school teacher, Mrs Webley.
As we sit down in her front room, I’m excited. I want to know who I was as a little girl. What she remembers about me. Since my nana died, I’ve had no one to tell me stories of myself as a kid. Was I funny? Sensitive? A pain in the arse?
‘As we sit down in her front room, I’m excited’: Terri White at the home of her teacher, Mrs Webley. Photograph: Courtesy of the BBC
I want to thank her: for caring about me, encouraging me, thinking I was clever and had potential. I hope she’s proud of me. I’m nervous. In my head, young me is anxious, sad and scared. All the time. I have few solid memories of those years aside from the dark events that followed me to New York. I’m scared I’ll find out something I’d rather not know. That new hurt will pile on the old.
Mrs Webley produces a class photo. I’ve only seen a handful of pictures of me as a child, but here I am, aged eight. And there’s Mrs Webley. My memories fill with details and colour, the past restored. The corridor has just been freshly mopped. The steel of the handrail feels cold against my palm. The headmistress is playing the piano in the hall. “When I needed a shelter, were you there, were you there, When I needed a shelter were you there?”
There are questions I need to ask, so I start with the most difficult. “When I joined your class, can you remember what you were told? About what happened to me?”
Over the course of last summer and autumn, I travelled around the country speaking to those working in education about our “ghost children”. The Children’s Commissioner for England, the Ofsted chief inspector, the chair of the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel, and teachers on the frontline. With safeguarding a multi-agency responsibility, it became apparent that education and social care couldn’t be separated.
But this was something I already knew. I’d had contact with social workers, particularly after my abuser was reported, but I couldn’t remember, or didn’t know, the details of it. Requesting my social services records – a “subject access request” – was something I’d considered for years. But the risks felt too high. The new hurt on old. What would I gain? But now, going back home, filling those gaps for myself, couldn’t be done with Mrs Webley alone.
The PDF sat like an unexploded bomb in my downloads folder. Tick, tick, tick. Then I opened it. Boom.
“Yes,” says Mrs Webley, without hesitation. “It was just matter of fact: that you’d been sexually abused. The chap who’d made you do oral sex had done it when your mum was working at the pub.”
I ask: “How did I seem at school?” I don’t say that I remember feeling distressed, being convinced that I was dead already.
“It seemed to me that as soon as you got on those premises, you knew you were in a safe space, so you could just be you. And you were energetic, you were smiling, you were confident… Nobody would have guessed”.
What?! I sound as though I was… happy. The one thing I didn’t expect her to say. We talk about the couple of months me, my mum and siblings spent in a refuge in Wales, fleeing her most violent relationship. During our weeks away, I became obsessed with UFOs and being kidnapped by aliens who’d prod me, make me their specimen.
“Oh, I remember that day,” says Mrs Webley of me returning to classroom. “You just burst in, a smile all over your face, energetic, enthusiastic.”
God, I’m warming to this kid. I was resilient, sure, but up for it. I wasn’t dead already. I was just desperate to live another way, and I already recognised school as the place to make that happen. I ask Mrs Webley if she knew we were involved with social services. “I just knew about the refuge, the fact (the other man) had gone to prison – and then he’d come back. Because you told me he was at home.”
Everything stops. I find my voice in the absence of a stitch of memory: “Did I?”
Page one of the PDF and we were not off to a great start. My name was misspelt. In fact, my name was misspelt in all but two pieces of documentation. “Enquiries with the family doctor had revealed that he had examined Terrie”; “The assaults on Terrie had occurred during the evenings.”
I was furious. Hot, righteous, put-a-window-through furious. This felt like more than carelessness. It felt as if I didn’t matter. Around 75% of the information was redacted, largely on third-party data grounds (“In order to protect the rights and freedoms of others,” including my abuser. More fury), but one section, detailing the assaults, was redacted as “Access to information would be likely to result in serious harm to the requestor or some other person.” It happened to me, to my body, and I couldn’t be told what “it” had entailed.
After I’d pieced everything together, it was clear we’d only had contact with social services twice, even though the violence and chaos went on for years. The first was immediately after the sexual abuse. But the dates threw me: I’d always believed it began at five, but this was when it had been reported. He’d been in our house since I was three years old. The age my son was soon to be.
The notes detailed that I wasn’t spoken to directly. (“In view of the distress Terrie has already been subjected to, I felt it inappropriate to question her further myself.”) Instead, it was concluded I seemed fine. We wouldn’t be put on the register. Case closed.
Until a year later. Report for Case Conference: ‘Terrie was referred by the GP to the Family Therapy Unit. Problem – bed wetting and wetting during the day, particularly when disciplined. Behaviour problems – ‘tantrums’.” I thought of my six-year-old self. Traumatised. Terrified. “Particularly when disciplined” – my stomach lurched. And then: “At the time of writing this report, an anonymous telephone call was received. The caller was very concerned with regard to the standard of care given to the children.” Maybe this was the time we were spotted, and reported, for eating out of the bin behind the chippy. Maybe this was a different time. But still, the file contained no further action. After all, Terrie seemed fine.
“You came in very agitated one morning, your voice all wavy, which was not like you at all,” says Mrs Webley. “You were really upset and I said, ‘I know what he did.’ You rounded on me. ‘Who told you? Do they know at secondary school? Will they all know?’”
My God. The presence of mind takes me aback. That I feared judgment, as a child. Knew what girls like me, especially girls from a council estate, could be called. That I’d already planned to kill off the me who’d been brutalised.
A meeting at school with social services followed. Mrs Webley tells me that I attended the meeting, that when she offered to come in with me, I’d decided, “Yeah, I want you with me.”
I draw a blank, just as I did with what I apparently said in the meeting: that the abuser, released from prison, was back in the house. Even as this revelation devastates me, raising yet more questions – Why? What happened? Why again? – I’m also immediately, unexpectedly comforted. That I trusted Mrs Webley that much. That I felt I had somewhere to turn. That I had someone who would, and did, intervene. That she cared enough to help.
Mrs Webley, you can’t always say no. Sometimes they pick you up and take you
Mrs Webley simply shrugs: “As a teacher, I just tried to make children feel safe, but also to know I was on their side.”
Perhaps the most poignant story is the final one she tells me. About the lesson she gave us in “stranger danger” (hey, it was the 80s), the advice for dealing with someone who pulled up with puppies or sweets: “The answer is, ‘No,’ and you walk away.”
She says I approached her afterwards. I had something to say. “Mrs Webley, you can’t always say no. Sometimes they pick you up and take you.”
The last place I visit on the day of my homecoming is the house that didn’t feel like a home. It’s only the second time I’ve been back since I left for university. Standing on the green I crossed every day, I look up at it: the thing, that used to fill me with so much fear. I can still summon the inside from there on the grass: the Artex I’d disappear into on the ceiling of my mum’s bedroom; the rotary phone by the front door that would stretch to the bottom of the stairs.
From the outside, it’s different now. Posher (it’s no longer council-owned). Neat. Smaller. It looks, well, normal. Like it could actually be a home.
I think about what Mrs Webley says to me before I leave: “You were never the victim, Terri.”
It’s not about me any more, I realise. It’s about today’s kids, who need their own Mrs Webley to ensure that they’ll be OK in the end, too. I’ve always been desperate to reach back and grab little me, pulling her through time to be with me now, in safety. But I’m not so sure that she needs rescuing. She’ll be OK. I know that from the future I now stand in. And while I absolutely feel let down by some of what I’ve learned, I feel utterly moved by much else. My teacher. My school. Of the impact of one person on a life.
Terri White: Finding Britain’s Ghost Children is on BBC Sounds. There will be a live debate on the issues raised on 5 Live Drive on 28 March at 4pm
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