Fiona — the girl who wanted to be a boy

Fiona (not her real name) is a child I will never forget. Her reputation went before her. She was aged 11 when I met her. She was an impossible child to look after — hated her mother and father, would not touch any food her mother prepared , was out of school, said she was a boy not a girl, and was being seen weekly by a psychiatrist at Great Ormond Street Hospital. Someone from our department had to take her every week to the hospital and this was a real endurance test. Initially they went on the tube but this became impossible as she swore constantly and if anyone stared she would let fly and it was more than one person could manage.

She was allocated to me and the first time I met her she wrapped herself in the curtains in her parents living room and would not come out. Her parents who were Italian were not coping and she was painfully thin, but it wasn’t the usual neglectful home — they were caring people and had a younger boy who was thriving. Initially her problems were put down to the fact that she had TB when she was a baby, was in hospital for a long time and then went to a convalescence home too far away for the parents to visit. It was thought she was jealous of her brother who was born when she was away. Whether this theory had any substance who knows. Gender dysphoria was not a much used concept in those days.

She first went to an assessment centre where they really struggled to cope with her and her poor parents used to try to catch a glimpse of her from behind a tree in the garden as she would kick off if she saw them. She didn’t seem to get any relief from not being at home, nor did she want to go home. There was an MP’s enquiry as the other parents and staff complained about her behaviour and the centre could not cope with her. I was tasked with finding her a placement. We had a disastrous appointment at the Maudsley Hospital where she assaulted the psychiatrist.

I had heard that Rudolph Steiner schools were very accommodating of difficult behaviour and so I arranged an appointment with the head of the UK organization at his home in Hampstead. She tolerated me by this time as for some reason she liked my little red car. I remember going into this lovely garden and a lady opened the door and there was a wonderful smell of freshly baked cookies. The kindly looking lady showed us into the living room where there was a grand piano and gave Fiona a cookie which to my amazement she ate. She sat at the piano and banged on the keys . A silver haired man came into the room, totally ignored me — he must have sensed that she hated being talked about. He sat with her and played the piano for a bit and very calmly asked her to go with him and off she trotted. He said nothing to me when they came back a good hour later and we left. She would not tell me what they talked about but she seemed much calmer than usual. She had a total melt down when we got back to the centre.

They agreed to take her but the only suitable place was at the Camphill Community which was in Aberdeen. However the council was so desperate about what to do with her that the fees were agreed instantly. She could not go until the following January and the centre said they could not keep her for Christmas and we could not find an appropriate place for her. The only possible place was a sub-normality hospital where disabled children were living very institutionalized lives . I remember taking her there and feeling terrible about leaving her in this enormous room with disabled children most of whom did not speak and some just rocked back and forth. I was so tempted just to take her home. When I went back for her after Christmas (having not enjoyed Christmas much myself being haunted about where I had left her). To my complete surprise she said she had liked it there. ‘No one thinks I am weird’ she said.

The department agreed she could be flown to Aberdeen as a train journey would be a nightmare. I was leaving the department at this time and she was furious with me and shouted and screamed. It is the worst thing about being a social worker with children in care — you become yet another person who abandons them . I agreed to see her after I had left and it was the only time I have ever done this as we were always being reminded about boundaries……..difficult with some of these children who have been cast adrift in the world. I promised to take her out when she came home for the holidays which would no doubt mean a series of placements which would breakdown. The department manager did not object as they would agree to almost anything for peace. My colleague had to accompany her to Scotland and she felt she should warn the airline, but as they called them both onto the plane before everyone else that was enough to set her off and she kicked and screamed most of the way .

I did take her out in my little red car many months later when I was living in Hampshire and we went to Windsor Safari Park. She was much improved but still unpredictable. Sods law — I had a puncture and was struggling to change the tyre when an old boy passing by offered to help. She kept swearing at him and he said ‘watch your language sonny’. I could not explain my relationship with her and he was clearly very puzzled, so it was with some relief we set off again and I delivered her back to the centre.

I never saw her again but often thought about her. Many years later I heard that she had done well at the Steiner school but as was the custom then, when care ended at 18. all support for care leavers stopped. She was given a place in a hostel which she set fire to. I have no idea where she is now and I googled her recently as she had quite an unusual name and the report said there was someone of that name living in north London. I hope it is her and that she or maybe he is now happy.



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