For about 15 years, from the early 1980’s to the late 1990’s, I used to do sessions on the Social Services Standby Team. You would cover nights and weekends, as well as doing your fulltime day job.
It always seemed to be that the oddest and most perplexing cases turned up outside normal working hours. Nigel was certainly one of those.
One Saturday afternoon, I received a call from the Charwood Samaritans. They needed the help of a social worker. However, it was not the sort of problem that the Samaritans usually dealt with.
Nigel had turned up at their offices out of the blue in some distress. It had taken them a while to coax the story out of him. They eventually gathered that Nigel had been living in some sort of residential facility in a county about 150 miles from Charwood. They thought he probably had learning difficulties. He told them that one of the staff had shouted at him, so he had decided to leave. He had packed a few belongings in a bag and had left.
He had then gone to the local coach station and had got on a random coach, which had eventually dropped him off at Charwood bus station. Lost and upset, he had found the first place that seemed to offer help.
My first step was to try and find out more about him. If he had left a residential care home, then he would have been reported as missing. I rang the standby social worker for the area he had apparently come from to see if they had an alert out on him. Unfortunately, he was unable to tell me one way or the other.
I decided I would have to see Nigel, and make an assessment of the situation. If he appeared to be a vulnerable person, I would then need either to arrange bed and breakfast for him through the local housing authority, or if necessary, try and find an emergency residential placement for him until we could return him to his home area.
When I arrived, one of the Samaritan volunteers took me through to a side room where Nigel was ensconced with a cup of tea, three sugars, and a sandwich.
Nigel appeared to be in his forties. He was wearing an anorak zipped up to his neck and had a round face and rosy cheeks.
“Hello,” I said to him gently, and told him my name. He peered up at me through the thick lenses of his glasses. “I Nigel, thank you” he replied.
I attempted to find out from him his full name, his address, and a contact phone number. He told me the place he had come from, but was unable to give me names of carers or a phone number.
“The bad man shouted at me,” he said. “I didn’t like it. So I wanted to leave. So I got a coach. I got off here. Here I am, thank you.”
I asked him if he had any sort of identification. He shook his head. I asked him if he had any medication with him. He took a bottle of pills out of his duffel bag and showed them to me. They were anticonvulsant tablets. They came from a pharmacy in the town where he said he had run away from.
It was apparent to me that Social Services would have to look after him until he could be returned to his home county. He seemed far too vulnerable just to arrange bed and breakfast.
Being many years before cheap mobile phones were available, I was reliant on the Samaritans to let me use their phone. They were kind and accommodating. One of them showed me into a small cubicle which contained a small desk, a phone, and a chair. It was one of the cubicles the volunteers used when they were manning the Samaritans’ helpline.
I started to make calls to the social services residential homes that specialised in learning difficulties. I then had to wait while staff talked to managers and managers talked to staff.
After a wait, one of the care homes rang me to confirm that they could accommodate Nigel on an emergency basis over the weekend, until further enquiries could be made.
I went to see Nigel and explained to him what was happening. He seemed a bit apprehensive.
“They won’t hurt me? They won’t hurt me? I don’t like it when they hurt me!”
He suddenly stood up and picked up his duffel bag.
“I go to the bus station. I get a bus, thank you.”
“It’s OK, Nigel, nothing’s going to happen. You’ll be safe.”
He eventually calmed down and allowed me to take him to the care home.
The next day being Sunday, I rang the next social worker on duty and explained the situation to them. They would chase up the local authority where he came from and get some more information, and hopefully arrange for his safe return. And that was the end of my involvement.
I happened to see my standby colleague a week or two later.
“Remember Nigel?” he said. “I got through to his local authority. I managed to speak to someone who knew him. They knew him all right. He’s not from any of their care homes – but they did accommodate him in one a few weeks ago when he turned up on their patch one weekend saying that he’d run off from somewhere in another county a long way away. That is, until they made their own enquiries – and got the same story. Then they sent him on his way! Once we found this out, we confronted him with it and he left, rather quickly. I wonder where he is now?”
There is a postscript to this story.
I was speaking to a social worker in a neighbouring county a couple of years later. I told him the story of Nigel. He immediately recognised him.
“We put Nigel up in one of our mental health care homes for about 6 months,” he said. “Then we had a full psychological assessment done, and it turned out that he had a completely normal IQ and everything. Then he mysteriously disappeared.”
From time to time I think of Nigel, traveling the country, turning up in distress, like a lost person with learning difficulties, in need of care and shelter, being taken in and looked after, at least until the truth about him was found out, then moving on again. What drives someone to live their life like that?
He’s not the only one who does it. I knew of another case which happened in our county, of a young girl, apparently in her early teens, who presented herself one day, wearing a nightie and clutching a teddy bear, claiming to have been abandoned. She was placed with foster carers for several months, until it was discovered that she was actually 25 and had the tenancy of a flat in another part of the country.
Does it constitute a mental disorder, or is it simply a means to an end, a way of being looked after without any responsibilities? How many are there like Nigel and the “little lost girl”? And how many are so successful that they’re never found out?