The Life of an Orphan

Some children do not grow up with the stability of family life. Although orphanages no longer exist in the UK in the way they used to (children would now tend to be fostered, adopted or placed in children’s homes) there are still orphanages elsewhere in the world.

In an article by JK Rowling (, she highlights that “The shocking truth is that the vast majority of these children have parents that could care for them. They are not orphans. Most are placed in institutions by families who are too poor to provide for them, or because of a lack of local education and health facilities, especially for children with special needs.”

When I was around 7 years old, my sister (who would then have been around 11 years old) was taken into care.

She has severe special needs after she was brain damaged from birth. She also has epilepsy and started to have seizures from a young age. The seizures were quite scary to witness and those coupled with her challenging behaviour, meant that there was a lot of social worker interaction in my family.

My mum was a single parent, and it became apparent that she was no longer coping with my sisters complex needs, so a decision was made to take her into care.

Initially she moved into a children’s home not too far from where we lived, but we didn’t have a car and the walk seemed to take a very long time when I went to visit her on the weekends, when I wasn’t at my dads house. A few years later, she was moved to a boarding school in North Wales as the children’s home could no longer meet her needs.

Whilst I have not lived the life of an orphan and nor has my sister, it did give me an insight into what that world would be like. I met people my age, those younger and older who had lost parents due to abandonment, death or because the parents had their own challenges in their lives and could no longer cope – sometimes because their child’s behaviour had gone out of control.

I remember thinking that when she was nearby, she was so lucky to have her family visit her so regularly. Some children didn’t have that and it must have affected them in so many ways. I found the children’s home difficult to be in though. It seemed like there was no privacy and things could become chaotic quite quickly. Though on the flip side I’m sure that a warm building with food, care and a structured routine was a great comfort to many of them.

When she moved to Wales we saw her much less regularly. It was reduced to once or twice a year as we relied on the social worker to drive us there. As she saw me less frequently and I was growing up fast, she eventually stopped recognising me, though luckily she has always remembered my mum.

She still recognises ‘little Gemma’ in photos, she just cannot correlate those photos to the grown up me that I am now!

Four years ago, the adult care home that she was by that time living in, was inspected and the standards were found to be too low for the place to remain open. She was moved back to Hertfordshire and now lives in a home about 2 miles away from my mum.

This has been really important for them both to have this time together in her later years, particularly as we have never really known what her life expectancy would be.

I’ve never forgotten some of the characters I met at the children’s home that we used to visit every other weekend. I often wonder whether those young people would have gone on to become stronger for their experiences, such that they were able to go on and thrive despite the rejections, or if they would have found life.

By Gemma Bailey

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