Somerset foster mum Louise Allen encourages sexually abused children in her care to express themselves through art. Some of the scenes they draw are heartbreaking
Bright canvases fill the walls, paint pots and crayons scatter the tables and a cat called Pablo Picasso is curled up sleeping in a corner. Louise Allen’s colourful, bohemian home is an homage to all things artistic.
The 52-year-old is an illustrator, artist and author, her husband Lloyd, 56, is a graphic designer, and their two sons aged 15 and 12 are named Jackson (after Pollock) and Vincent (after van Gogh).
Surprisingly, however, Louise’s passion for beautiful things came about because of her exposure to ugly abuse as a child. And now, as a foster parent, she uses the healing power of art to benefit the vulnerable children in her care.
‘Art was the one thing that saved me throughout a very difficult childhood,’ explains Louise, who lives in Somerset.
‘When I had no words to express myself, I found real comfort in drawing and creating things. Often shame and trauma are hard to vocalise. But pictures can be a powerful way to help children communicate.’
Louise – whose real mum was an unmarried teenager – was adopted in 1968 and grew up in Oxford. But her adoptive mother was cruel. Louise was starved, forced to scavenge for food and eat dirt, punished with ice baths, and frequently hit. The only respite in her otherwise miserable childhood and adolescence was art.
‘At school we were asked to make a family tree for a project,’ recalls Louise.
‘Well, I knew I was adopted and mine would not be the neat chart on a piece of A4 paper that my peers would produce. So instead I painted a huge 5ft tree with branches and leaves for the teacher. Amazingly, I was told my efforts had earned me a trip to the Tate in London.
‘Being in that gallery, seeing all these beautiful pictures, was an eye-opening, life-changing experience. Standing next to them gave me a sense of value. They were important and admired, and being in that environment made me have more self worth by proximity.’
After that, Louise – who suffers from dyslexia and dyscalculia, and constantly felt ‘thick’ – began bunking off school. Not to hang out at McDonald’s like other kids her age, but to educate herself about art with trips at her local Ashmolean Museum.
Eventually, at 15, unable to cope with her cruel adoptive mother’s bullying, Louise ran away to the coast with a boyfriend. She worked as a waitress and barmaid saving every penny until she won a place at Portsmouth School of Art.
‘Life changed completely from then,’ smiles Louise, who ended up teaching and lecturing at the art school for more than 20 years. It was also where she met her future husband, Lloyd. As students in the 1980s they were just mates, but re-met and fell in love in 2000 and married three years later.
It was seven years ago, in 2013, when the family decided to start fostering children. ‘It was time to give something back to society. I knew I could relate to vulnerable children after my own experience of trauma, neglect and abuse.’
Louise, who is currently fostering two girls of 13 and nine, has now looked after 13 children in total, some of whom have stayed with her for five years and are very much part of the family. Louise’s calm, caring presence and natural warmth help youngsters feel comfortable coming into the family home.
‘I give all the children who come here a proper sketchbook and pens and pencils. Often they can communicate much better with pictures and images. Children who have suffered abuse will say whatever they think an adult wants to hear, that’s a survival instinct.
‘It’s what I used to do. But they can draw things that they may not have the words for, the images they produce can be so insightful.’
One of the first girls Louise cared for, Stella, was helped to communicate through art.
‘Stella came to me aged five, a tiny bird-like little thing. Her wild, teenage mum Shannon had named her after a can of lager. Her dad was a low-level drug dealer. She bounced between them all and then, with the misguided support of a social worker, Stella ended up back in Shannon’s care.’
Stella’s school teacher noticed she behaved inappropriately when getting undressed for PE, and had bruises. They alerted the authorities and the little girl was found abandoned in a deserted house with no
food, water, clothes or warmth.
With the security and love of Louise’s family, Stella made good progress. One of the first times the foster mum encouraged Stella to express herself with crayons and paper, her simple drawings were heartbreaking.
‘I could quite easily tell there was her mum, and then there was a group of men with spiky hair and sharp teeth,’ describes Louise. ‘Stella had drawn them all with these big penises.
‘Shannon had pimped out her daughter for drug money. I crouched down next to her and said, “Thank you for showing me”.
Stella didn’t have the language at that time but she wanted to share that information with me.’
But there were more shocking insights of Stella’s abuse to come.
‘One day I lined up the kids in the garden to have their picture taken, I said, “Say cheese!” and Stella’s immediate response was to throw herself to the floor, take her knickers off and open her legs.’
Sickeningly, poor Stella had been frequently coerced into performing sex acts for the camera.
‘It shocked me to the core, I felt like screaming inside,’ admits Louise. ‘But when things like this happen, you have to stay calm, put the child’s feelings first, don’t make a big deal. Then try to make sure they don’t do it again.
‘I generally put Stella in trousers after that, and when I took her to the beach I dressed her in a one-piece to eliminate her taking her pants off, which she had been taught to do. You have to be pragmatic as a carer.’
Another time, Stella had a violent reaction to a Lion bar Louise had provided for a garden picnic. Unbeknown to the foster mum, it was the same brand of chocolate the little girl had always been awarded by Shannon as a ‘treat’ after she had been subjected to vile sexual abuse.
‘She began shaking and ran off and hid behind the shrubs,’ says Louise. ‘Sadly child abuse victims commonly get treated with sweets.’
Another time, Stella was happily playing when – as if she had been taken over by an alien – she began screaming a stream of graphic sexual swear words, replaying some of the terrible things that had happened to her.
‘I gently shooed the other children away so they couldn’t hear and then I stayed with Stella, made her feel safe and loved while she calmed down.’
Stella’s tragic abuse and exploitation could not simply be solved by colouring or crayons, of course. Louise explains that a wonderfully sympathetic policewoman, and other healthcare professionals all became involved.
But there is no doubt the hours spent quietly painting and drawing in Louise’s calm, non-judgemental company, organically opened up conversations. And became an important part of the healing process.
Happily, Stella’s story ends well. Aged six, she was adopted by Danny, who was already a loving dad to three other adopted children.
‘When a single middle-aged man said he would adopt Stella I was full of suspicion and concern,’ admits Louise. ‘But Danny is delightful, he set up an engineering company when he was much younger and made a lot of money, and wanted to do something worthwhile with his life.
Louise and Danny stay in touch so the foster mum can hear how Stella is doing.
‘Every Christmas Stella makes our family a handmade card, it’s always done with real love and it means the world to me. I keep them all and treasure them – just as I keep a space in my heart for every child.’