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Working Professionally with Children and Youth in Care
CYC-Online Issue 132 FEBRUARY 2010 / BACK
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Contrary Mary

Carina Lewis

There comes a point in most relationships between looked after children and their carers when there’s a “testing” period. The children need to know that their carers truly care for them and won’t reject them, even if they misbehave. Care workers sometimes refer to “the honeymoon period” when youth first come into residential or foster care and may behave unexpectedly well. Of course this is merely a time of assessment on the part of the youth, as well as for the care workers, before everyone builds a relationship.

Young people like Mary have usually been severely let down by their parents and sometimes a succession of other family members who were supposed to love them unconditionally. It becomes a problem for them to trust that relationships will last, so they reach a point where they will test a new relationship to see if this person will leave them too.

I have been reminded of this over my time mentoring Mary. I had been seeing her at least once a week for about five months and I suppose it had been a bit of a “honeymoon period”. Everything went remarkably smoothly on the whole. She was sometimes a little manipulative and tried to wheedle gifts from me, but was generally eager to please and well-behaved. Initially I was told that she “occasionally takes something that doesn’t belong to her” but I hadn’t seen any signs of this. She was always meticulous about returning any books or CDs I lent her, but then a couple of interesting things happened.

One day when Mary went home after visiting my house, my friend could not find her pen anywhere. It was one of those pretty ballpoint pens decorated with beads and so on. The friend was quick to suggest that Mary must have taken it and I was a bit defensive at first, saying that she had no reason to take a pen and I was certain she wouldn’t have borrowed it without asking. However, I began to think about it.

The next week while Mary and I were driving somewhere I managed to turn the conversation around to the missing pen and talk generally about taking other people's belongings. I told her the story of one of my sons, who once brought home from school somebody else's collection of soccer stickers. He told me he had only borrowed it to have a look through it, but of course the owner was distraught when he found it missing from his schoolbag. My son learned a valuable lesson that day about how upsetting it is for other people if you take their things without asking and he was extremely embarrassed when he had to return the sticker book in person, with an apology. Mary in turn told me about one of the girls at the home who had run away several times and each time had taken with her some items that belonged to other girls in the house. We agreed that it could be very distressing to lose things that were precious to you.

A few days later, when I was cleaning out my car, I found the pen lying behind the passenger seat where Mary had been sitting.

The next time I saw her I mentioned that it had turned up in the car and wondered aloud how it could have ended up there, but said nothing more on the subject. It was clear I knew she had taken it and she knew I was disappointed in her, but that it didn't mean I would stop caring about her.

Soon after this incident Mary told me she had some news. Apparently she was going to be leaving Cape Town in a few months to go to live in Johannesburg with her aunt and uncle. I asked her if she wanted to go. She said she thought it was probably for the best to be with family, although she would miss her schoolfriends. I was a bit bewildered since this came completely out of the blue and I wondered if I should have a chat with the case manager. I went rather quiet while I was thinking about this.

A few minutes later Mary asked, “Will you be sad and miss me when I’m gone?”
“Of course I will!” I exclaimed, “I’m a bit shocked. I love getting together with you and being your friend. Johannesburg is so far away. I wouldn’t be able to afford to visit you.” There were a few more minutes of silence.
Suddenly she grinned at me, “I’m not really going to Johannesburg. I just wanted to see if it made you sad.”
“Well, now you know,” I retorted, “Fancy worrying me like that. What a relief!” She looked out of the side window smiling to herself.

I know taking a ballpoint pen isn’t an enormous wrongdoing, but it was a small way of checking what I would do if she misbehaved. Concocting a story about moving away was obviously to see how I would react too. I have a feeling those kinds of things won’t happen again. Mary seems more herself nowadays. If she feels sad or sulky she tells me and then we talk about it. She also confides in me about some of the naughty things her friends get up to, and we discuss the rights and wrongs. She isn’t on her best behaviour all the time and is even occasionally cheeky.

In other words, our relationship feels more “normal”!


Big Brothers Big Sisters is a youth mentoring non-profit organization. It was founded in the USA in 1904 and became international in 1998. The program matches youth in need with adult volunteers in one to one relationships which have a direct and lasting positive impact on the lives of the young people. For further information go to

Registered Public Benefit Organisation in the Republic of South Africa (PBO 930015296)
Incorporated as a Not-for-Profit Corporation in Canada: Corporation Number 1284643-8

P.O. Box 23199, Claremont 7735, Cape Town, South Africa

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