‘DO you know Neil?” Jade asks with a broad smile. “He keeps in touch you know, since he came. I text him sometimes and he does get back to me... but I don’t do it a lot, I mean he’s dead busy.”
The 16-year-old’s face is beaming with excitement. The Neil she’s talking about is star of Men Behaving Badly and Waterloo Road, Neil Morrissey – although she laughingly admits she only knew of him from his Bob the Builder voice-overs and pop hit. At least, that was before Morrissey made a two-part BBC documentary about his life as a care home kid in the 1970s.
The actor was just ten when he was sent into a home and believes his seven years there affected him deeply. But during his filming he visited Musselburgh’s Lothian Villa – Jade’s home and a place which is blazing a trail in an attempt to change the public perception of care units as being dumping grounds for troubled teenagers.
The “Villa” is at the cutting edge of care. Not that the old stone house, a horseshoe’s throw from the East Lothian town’s racecourse, is packed with state-of-the-art technology and equipment to keep its six resident teens amused.
Rather, it’s a care home where staff are not afraid to talk about loving the children who stay there, who dish out hugs as well as discipline, and who ensure the children know there are boundaries and consequences to their actions – all the while striving to make sure that no child who arrives on the doorstep is passed on somewhere else... yet again.
“It’s our grounding philosophy,” says manager Andy Thorpe, below, in his broad East End accent. “We decided that, no matter what, the kids who came to us would not go on to other units. The first group of kids we had, well, they’d already been at between ten to 15 different places... other units, foster carers and so on. We wanted them to know that this was their home, that we would work with them no matter what,” he says.
“Most kids’ homes are about care and control. Holding onto them so that they are safe and secure and not being a bother to society in general and, if they are, then they get passed on for someone else to deal with. Instead, here we tell them all, ‘you never leave the Villa’,” he grins. “And it works for us, and for them.”
It’s certainly working for Jade. She’s been at the Villa for two years but prior to her arrival she was a living a “chaotic” life with her dad and younger sister, while her mother was not involved in her life at all.
“Dad was too soft on me, he’d let me do what I wanted,” she says. “School was rubbish. I’ve got dyslexia and I found it hard and would get frustrated or truant and then get into trouble, and I got excluded.
“But I was also just getting drunk and getting into fights,” she says. “I would run away from my dad’s a lot, and when I was put into foster care first for eight months I ran away from there as well.”
It was at that point that the Children’s Panel told her she would likely end up in a secure unit in Perth. “I was out of control. No-one could control me, least of all my dad. They told me there was a room waiting for me at the secure unit, but you’re locked up there. I really didn’t want to go, so I was lucky because they sent me here instead.”
Lothian Villa, which is run by East Lothian Council, takes six teenagers at any one time and they stay, according to Andy, for as long as they need to.
The home is just that – a home. The living room has comfy brown sofas and a widescreen satellite TV. There’s a dining room where they eat together, and a large kitchen. The walls are covered with photographs of past and present residents, on holidays together, playing football, having a laugh – generally the kinds of snapshots found on the walls of any family home.
“The first night I came here I just cried,” says Jade, who refuses to let us see her room because of the mess. “But I soon found that the staff were really sound and I started to enjoy it because I was doing things here I would never have done at home – like go on holiday.
“And you do get to know what’s acceptable and what isn’t. There are lots of boundaries, which I didn’t have at home. You are told the consequences of what will happen if you break the rules... I am allowed to be out three nights a week now, which I spend at my dad’s or my boyfriend’s but that’s ok as long as I tell them where I am. If I don’t do that, then I don’t get to go.”
Jade now looks upon the Villa’s assistant residential services manager Carly McLennan as her “mum”.
“She is like my mum really,” she laughs. “She’s the one who tells me ‘no’. I can have an argument with her and she won’t walk away, it’s me who stomps off in a huff... with my own mum it would be the other way round. The thing about being here is, well, I know I’m safe.”
She adds: “I’m not at school now but I’m doing voluntary work with kids with special needs. I want to go to college to get some qualifications so I can work in the care sector. I’m also looking to get my own house soon as well, to start my own life.” Not that her connection with the Villa will end when she leaves. For again, unlike most children’s homes, the staff keep in touch. “That’s how it should be,” says Carly. “It’s what happens with your own family, so it’s what happens here. We’ve got people who are now in their 30s who still come to us for support.”
It was because of that ethos that Morrissey chose to visit the Villa. The researchers for his documentary, which was screened in March, had looked at many homes – but it was the photos of the kids on the walls at the Musselburgh home, which sealed it for the actor.
“The photos are important,” says Andy. “Many looked-after kids don’t have any record of their time in a home, so we take loads of pictures. It’s also important because it shows them our commitment to them throughout their lives. There’s not one kid here who has gone on to another children’s home in the last 14 years. We’re about continuity and consistency, about being here for the long haul.
“The kids here are usually towards the end of their ‘care career’. And they’re here because they are damaged in some way, from some kind of abuse – emotional, physical, sexual. They’re with us because they need help and support, so why would we ever stop giving it to them? Families don’t do that do they? We have a couple of former residents who now have their own kids, and they come here with them to visit, and if they have any issues we try to help.
“One young girl who had left us was pregnant and in a bad relationship, so myself and another staff member just went and got her and kept her safe. Carly ended up being her birth partner. She’s now in New Zealand and living a great life and is still in touch on our Facebook page.
“We also have football every Monday and our after-care kids can come along and play and keep in touch that way. Altogether, we’re probably still working with about 50 kids.”
He adds: “My parents said to me when I was a child that, if I fell, they would be there to pick me up. That’s what we do here. They live their lives, we help them to try and choose the correct paths by letting them know the consequences to their actions.
“We’re not about punishment – most of these kids have been punished enough, and if it worked they’d be the best behaved kids in the world.
“We love the kids. People get anxious about that word, but if I can love my football team, why not these children? What are we saying about them if we can’t say that? We do feel like we’re part of one big family.”