Last summer my wife and I celebrated our silver wedding anniversary by treating ourselves to tickets for the hit Broadway musical Hamilton. This sensational retelling of the story of one of America’s founding fathers had sung, rapped and hip-hopped its way into multiple prized awards and was finally coming to a theatre near us.
It was a rare night out together as our evenings together mostly consist of providing intensive foster care for traumatised or abandoned babies and toddlers. With months of forward planning and help from friends and family, we finally got on the train to London, and made it to our seats on time. Drinks in hand we sat back ready to enjoy an evening that didn’t involve thinking about how to help another child begin to thrive despite their difficult start in life.
The curtains raised and the performance opened with a question that had us immediately fighting back tears:
How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore
And a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot
In the Caribbean by providence impoverished
In squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?
Recently the streaming service Disney Plus has brought the Hamilton musical to the masses enabling this question to be heard by a wider audience. How can children with challenging backgrounds, born into environments of toxic stress and suffering significant loss and trauma end up having a successful and impactful life?
Alexander Hamilton was born in the Caribbean on the island of Nevis. His mother died when he was twelve years old, long after his Scottish father had abandoned the family. After his mother’s legal husband successfully sued for all of her estate, he and his brother were left destitute.Alexander was taken in first by a cousin who died shortly afterwards and then by his best friend’s family.
He may have been penniless and family-less, but someone saw potential in him nevertheless and enabled him to move to New York to study in 1772. He quickly went from being an immigrant student, to a decorated soldier and then onward and upward becoming a successful banker, lawyer and politician. When George Washington became first President of the United States, Hamilton forged international liaisons, opposed slavery, and created the first national bank, earning his place in our history books and on our stages.
The individuals who adopted Hamilton are all but forgotten but their decision to take in and raise a destitute orphan helped to shape the America we know today.
Hamilton’s wife Eliza married him when he was still anonymous and penniless and saw his transformation close-up. It inspired her to establish the first private orphanage in New York in his memory, and the musical ends as it began: with a question about whether children who cannot live with their families are getting the help they need to make their mark in the world.
I help to raise hundreds of children
I get to see them growing up
In their eyes I see you, Alexander
I see you every time
And when my time is up
Have I done enough?
Will they tell my story?
Nowadays we don’t have ‘orphanages’ in the West and there is a worldwide movement transitioning children from institutions into family-based care. Nevertheless Eliza’s motivation and challenge is powerful – are we doing enough for vulnerable children? Can we see the hero in them?
It is not just the Hamilton blockbuster that is raising these sorts of questions. Lockdown is also bringing them into sharp focus for several reasons. In my role as Founder of an adoption and fostering charity I have been asked to help in tragic situations where COVID-19 has taken the life of single mothers.
Who should take care of the children left behind? And how can they best be supported through their grief? I am also aware of local authorities who have so many carers shielding that there are not enough families ready to take in children.
With lockdown taking its toll on families already under pressure, there has simultaneously been a marked increase in domestic abuse, unexplained injuries and calls to child safety helplines. In the next few months as children return to schools and nurseries, it is expected that more cases of neglect and abuse will be uncovered resulting in potentially system-breaking numbers of child protection referrals.
Recently I spoke to a young single woman whose time in lockdown has given her space to consider how she could make a difference in the world. She was already highly committed to volunteering and runs a major part of her company’s corporate and social responsibility work and has now decided to adopt a child who needs a family. She is not the only one thinking along these lines. My charity saw an 88 per cent increase in enquiries in June this year compared to last June. In one city alone we have had over eighty families enquire to become emergency foster carers during lockdown.
It seems that many of us are rethinking our life values and priorities and working out what really matters during these lockdown days. Hamilton’s bookend questions could not be more timely. How will our own story be framed? Can we see potential in those in forgotten corners of our own society? Can we offer a place where vulnerable children can flourish?