Camilla Simson - 31st October 2023
“Children can not only survive but thrive” – Fatima Whitbread speaks to Eastern Fostering Services about how fostering can make a lasting impact on children
It’s not every day you get to meet a world champion javelin thrower. Not to mention seeing the cockroach that was once stuck up her nose!
Fatima Whitbread MBE was a World and European gold medal winner in the 1980’s and won countless other medals, as well as being awarded BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 1987 and appearing in “I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here” in 2011 (hence the cockroach.) But a fact that was little known about her at the time, was that she was brought up in the care system, living in children’s homes for the first 14 years of her life, and she is now devoting her time to speaking out for and supporting children in care.
Fatima very kindly paid us a visit at the EFS offices and showed us a few of her medals and her MBE, as well as the infamous cockroach preserved in a paperweight. It’s immediately striking how much smaller she is than one imagines, given how strong and powerful she is as an athlete. But that is symbolic of the inner strength and resilience she has had to have to overcome such a difficult and traumatic childhood and to have achieved so much in her life.
“I’ve got a passion for sport because it was my saviour and my sense of freedom as a child,” says Fatima, when I ask her about the qualities it takes to be a record-breaking athlete. “And living in the children’s homes gave me a steely strength. I had to survive, to swim or sink.”
She says she had to learn to understand what it takes in terms of the amount of training, discipline and strength of mind that was required.
As a newborn, Fatima was rescued by concerned neighbours who had heard a baby crying in the flat next door for a couple of days but hadn’t seen any adults coming or going. ‘The biological mother’ as Fatima refers to her, had abandoned her; “some might say, to die,” says Fatima. Social services took her to hospital where she stayed for six months, recovering from malnutrition, and she then was to become a ward of Hackney Borough Council.
Until she was five, she was in a children’s home in Hertfordshire and wasn’t told anything about where she’d come from, nor did she ever receive any birthday cards, Christmas cards or get any visits.
“I did feel that my childhood was really tough, because I couldn’t make sense of any of it, and I wondered why I was there.” Other young children at school didn’t understand and would ask, why are you living at the Childrens Home? Have you been naughty? Does nobody love you? Where’s your Mummy, has she died?
Suddenly one morning, she was told to be downstairs at nine o’clock because her ‘mother’ was coming to collect her and take her to a children’s home in Ockenden where she would join two half-siblings. The lady who Fatima was told was her mother was a Turkish-Cypriot lady who didn’t speak much English, and Fatima reflects that at the meeting and during the car journey, this lady didn’t once look at her or talk to her.
The years that followed were traumatic and damaging, on top of what she’d already suffered, involving intermittent contact with her Greek-Cypriot biological father, and weekends with ‘the biological mother’ where Fatima suffered not only physical and emotional abuse, but also sexual abuse by her mother’s boyfriend.
This experience is all too heart-breakingly common for children in the care system. These days, we have a much better understanding of the extent to which trauma affects all aspects of a child’s development, and that they therefore can find learning difficult, but in the 70’s, teachers wouldn’t have had that knowledge, so school wasn’t a happy place for Fatima.
She remembers, “I could never rise above the emotional turmoil that was always stirred within me.” And every time a new child joined the home, these feelings would be re-triggered, because “you know you’re all going through the same thing”. She says, for a lot of kids, they isolate themselves and don’t really process it all properly because emotionally, it’s too much. So they shut themselves off and protect themselves.
Despite Fatima feeling like she was in survival mode for most of her childhood and building a brick wall around herself, she said she was fortunate to have met certain individuals on her journey. One of them was Auntie Rae, who was one of the care staff in the home. She was kind and empathetic, and taught a young Fatima that in giving, you receive. This inspired Fatima to become the guardian and protector for the young children in the home, from those that weren’t so kind and empathetic – of which there were unfortunately quite a few. This also meant that Fatima never felt victimised.
However, she soon became known as a troublemaker and was easy prey, in particular with the head mistress at her school who Fatima recalls as being angry and unkind.
She found it very hard to focus at school and friendships weren’t easy. But she soon discovered sport and decided it was to be her “light.”
“Sport gave me a sense of freedom, enabled me to feel good about myself and gain respect from my peers.” She describes a steeliness that she developed once she realised she had a gift for sport. For a young girl who struggled in lessons, discovering this talent changed her life and improved the teachers’ attitude to her; “they looked at me differently and of course, they wanted the school to do well.”
Sport became her saviour, and around the age of 11, she was sitting in the children’s home watching Mary Peters win at the Munich Olympics, “and I thought, that’s what I could do. That’s me. I can get myself out from under this rock. I’ll be okay.”
Having taken on the role of big sister and brave spokesperson for all the younger children in the home, she was naturally developing her leadership and organisational skills, and these skills were further recognised by the school who soon made her Team Captain for various team sports. Fatima excelled in all sports, including netball and golf, and she went on to play hockey for the county.
One day, her netball coach encouraged her to take up the javelin which is when she met Margaret Whitbread, Margaret nurtured her talent and not only became her coach, but, when Fatima was 14, she fostered her. Margaret later adopted her, and Fatima finally felt part of a family. And the rest is history.
In the following years when she gained success and notoriety as a javelin thrower, ‘the biological mother’ came forward and the press suddenly exposed the whole story which knocked Fatima hugely off balance just before a major competition, and she took a while to recover. And when she was asked by the press if she wanted a relationship with her, Fatima said that she didn’t wish her any bad feeling, but she reserved the right to not have any contact. Plus, she had her family now and didn’t want to upset them or introduce any trouble into that world.
Fatima had been on such a remarkable journey up until this point, but she says the most valuable years of her life were being a mother to her son. “He’s my friend and my greatest inspiration.” I asked if having this experience helped to heal some of her childhood traumas and she agreed, saying you can put to bed all those things that you lost out on. “But because, as kids in care, we didn’t have the love of a secure family, we dream big as to what we think it should be like. Most families have their problems, but we don’t see it like that as kids, it’s not until you get older and have a family of your own, you realise that.”
Fatima says that she feels that so much of her life is what God had planned in terms of making her who she is and being strong enough to break the mould of the parenting that she experienced; being the mum she should have had.
The philosophy of life she tries to live by is that whatever happens in life is fine with her because it’s all meant to be, she feels strongly that you can’t go through life feeling angry and resentful about things that happened. “I try not to get too attached to stuff and I never put too much expectation on things.” She was lucky enough to find someone who listened to her and who was there for her, and she feels incredibly strongly that every child deserves that. It’s that feeling of safety, that someone takes the time to care and to give love. She feels that an angry child is a child who has not been shown love.
I ask Fatima what she would say to anyone who is considering fostering. She responds that it is a very rewarding and important job. “It can be tough but embrace it. Once these kids feel secure, loved and happy, you’ll find they’ll settle down and not only survive, but thrive.”
Having been adopted at 14 years old, Fatima goes on to express a particular concern for older children needing homes, because there is a harsh reality that as children get older, their chances of being fostered or adopted get less and less. This is due to a common perception that older children can’t be helped or that they’ll be too ‘difficult’, but in fact, the brain of a teenager is still forming and going through massive changes – and continues to do so up until the age of 25. So actually, there’s a golden opportunity to help older children, “and I’m living proof of that” affirms Fatima.
She firmly believes that each child is special and has a unique ability if they look within themselves to find the strength, to survive and to look to move forward in a positive way and leave their younger selves behind. “But they’ll always be within you, so before you leave them behind, talk to them within you and say, look, I know I’ve got you. I’m going to look after this.”
She continues, “try to have resilience and get comfortable with the unknown because none of us know what’s going to happen in life, none of us know what’s around the corner. And if you can meet that with a smile on your face and accept it, then you’re halfway there.”
Whenever she talks to children, she also talks about reframing failure, because failure is part of winning. “You have to train in failure all the time to perfect something.” She talks about studying hard for exams until you can hopefully be successful, but in the meantime, embrace failure and accept it.
She encourages questioning things too, in the right way, even questioning authority, because she believes that’s a way to achieve change.
This is certainly being put into practise now as Fatima puts all her energy these days into campaigning and speaking up for children in care.
“And when I look back now, I do believe that it’s my turn to understand the power of what I can do to help others in care. And that’s why I think God has had a reason for me to be in the care system.”
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