A licence to have children, as proposed by a professor last week, would be an extreme way of weeding out inadequate parents. But it is widely agreed that education for parenthood is overdue. So where do you turn if you know your parents made a rotten job of it and you don't want to repeat their mistakes?

Joy Ogden visits Family Service Units (FSU), a voluntary social work organisation which offers refuge for families in danger of breaking up. Three parents tell her how they are being helped to bring up their own children with love


Lisa is 26 and lives in Birmingham with her partner, John, and their four children.

My dad - well, he's really my stepfather - is an electrical engineer. We lived in a three-bed semi and I remember life as fairly pleasant until I was about 11, when he started sexually abusing me.

Then one day my mum found out. My dad said it would never happen again. But it did. She kicked him out the second time she caught him, but he moved back in because he swore blind it had stopped. It hadn't: it went on till I was 16, right till I met my boyfriend, John.

I don't think Mum agreed with the amount of violence Dad used. He used big sticks on me and I remember going to the school medical with a big bruise, where he'd kicked my leg, and a black eye.

I was still at school when Annie was born, and I was lucky that John and I got a council flat. After a year, Belinda was born and things went well. Then Ian came along by accident and that's when my problems started.

I got postnatal depression, then Annie had a medical at school and they found 13 or more bruises on her. Social services thought I'd hit her, which I hadn't.

I actually had John prosecuted because he slapped Annie round the face once just after Ian was born. I saw the hand mark the next morning. And yes, I think I was right to protect her. I was put in a hostel for battered wives after that, but in the end we got together again.

The children were put into care in July 1989. It was supposed to be for six weeks, over the summer holiday, but the two girls went into foster care and never saw one another for six months. It took 13 months to get them home: even their foster parents couldn't understand why. They had care orders on them which were reduced to supervision orders. Now they are deciding whether the orders can be removed altogether.

I've got another child now, but social services fund a child minder in the holiday and the FSU gives me practical support. I still give the children the occasional smack, but I tend not to because the FSU has taught me various ways to discipline them. They get sent to their bedroom and lose privileges, like sweets and television. I don't think a smack across the backside hurts them really but I wouldn't use a cane like my dad did.

I get on with my mum all right, but she should have been there to protect me - I mean, I can protect my kids, so why couldn't she have done it for me?

All names have been changed.

Family Service Units, 207 Old Marylebone Road, London NW1 5QP (071-402 5175/6).


Sylvia is 20. She and her partner live in Birmingham with their two children, aged two and four months. Her mother had a succession of boyfriends and Sylvia was in and out of hostels for battered women, foster care and children's homes throughout her childhood.

I was five or six when I first went into care. I set my sister's clothes on fire because she'd got pretty dresses, and my mum sent me away soon after because she thought I was a danger to her. I was hitting her, biting her, breaking her toys and calling her names. Our mum had just had enough. But the way I saw it, Estelle was getting spoilt and I was getting pushed out.

The day I went into care I couldn't understand what I'd done wrong and why my mum had done it to me. My mum didn't really say anything; she said goodbye to me, kissed me on the cheek and went away with Estelle. I was there for about 28 days.

Later I was sent to a children's home. I got picked on there and you got boys coming into your bed and trying to do things to you. There was nobody to give you love and attention when you needed it; they were just too official.

I was too unhappy to make friends. I was just a person that sat alone and tried to keep out of people's way. One night I took an overdose because I wanted to get out of the home and into the hospital, even for one night.

I moved in with my boyfriend, Dave, when I was 17, and four months later I got pregnant. It scared me at first, but in a way I was happy because it was somebody to love who wouldn't stab you in the back or turn against you.

But Evan was a crying baby and he was hard to cope with. Then I had Lily. One night, when she was about three months old, Dave had a migraine and he squeezed Lily when I was at a neighbour's. There was what looked like a bruise on her bum, so I phoned the police and the children went to the hospital to be examined and X-rayed. There was nothing wrong but they put the children in a foster home and took out a 72-hour protection order.

FSU has helped me with cots, electricity, food. They've given me time away from the kids so I've got some peace and quiet. Dave has stress counselling and the kids go to the nursery.

The things I find hardest are the loneliness and coping with Evan's tantrums, because he's jealous of his sister. At first I used to smack him, then I spoke to FSU about it and they said to distract him with toys. I started doing that and he's a lot happier. I can understand him - I'm not pushing him out like I was pushed out.


Frank, who is 29, referred himself to the south London FSU. His ex-girlfriend has custody of their seven-year-old son and Frank sees him twice a week.

What's a good father? I don't know, I never had it. I've been in care most of my life. All I knew about a family was getting beaten up, being sexually abused and my old man popping tablets all the time - that was it. I would like to have loved my mum and dad, but you can't - not when your dad's going 15 rounds in bed with your 13-year-old sister. I used to hear my sister scream and cry.

My dad died when I was 10. I just laughed. I didn't give a toss and I've never cried over him since. Five or six years ago I went to his grave and started stamping all over it. I hated him.

Social services didn't know my dad had sexually assaulted me because I didn't tell anybody till recently, but I used to go to school with black eyes and fat lips all the time. And my mum didn't give a shit.

I first went into care when I was about five. It was so exciting - I thought I was going to have a better life. But it turned out to be a nightmare.

It was no better when I came home a year later. My mum couldn't be bothered to do any cooking or cleaning. We used to drink out of baked beans cans and she'd send us out to steal food and clothes or we just wouldn't eat or have anything to wear.

I've always blamed social services: all they care about is putting people up in care homes and forgetting about them. But this place is a lifeline. They talk to you and help you. My rages scare even me, but I've calmed down. Every day it's getting easier and me and my little boy are right friendly now.

I reckon a dad should be a person that will sit and listen and help if a son or daughter wants to talk.

I'm taking it one step at a time with my little lad. When he went to nursery he started swearing and I didn't know how to handle it. I thought, 'How did my mum do it to me?' - and I put a bar of soap down his mouth. Now I know that was the wrong thing to do, but if you've been treated like that, then that's all you know. You see, I don't want my son to grow up like I did; I want him to have a better future.

It's like being born again, learning how to be a father. It's all to do with talking to children instead of beating, because beating just makes them more aggressive. My son means a lot to me. I want to be a good dad.

(Photograph omitted)