How Norbury’s Chicken and Chat challenges domestic abuse

By - Wednesday 18th November, 2015

Liberty Martin reports on a local domestic abuse charity that grew from a double tragedy

Providing a safe place for young women. Left to right: Catherine, Veronica, Jennifer and Verna.
Photo author’s own.

It’s not often that people marry together the idea of free jerk chicken and providing a safe place for young women, but fortunately the Cassandra Learning Centre (CLC) has done just that. The Croydon-based charity, which raises awareness about domestic abuse, holds ‘Chicken and Chat’ on Wednesdays, where girls aged between thirteen and nineteen can drop in from 5:30 pm to 8:00pm to talk, relax and enjoy some jerk chicken at the CLC centre in Norbury.

The rather ingenious idea was conceived by an ex- head teacher from St. Martin-in-the-Fields High School for Girls, who organised Chicken and Chat evenings, inviting disengaged parents into the school to casually meet teachers and talk about their children’s education. The events proved to be successful, as parents were far more receptive to an informal gathering rather than to an official parents’ evening, and it even improved the academic standards and outcomes of the students. After retiring, the head teacher offered a Chicken and Chat night to ex-students to talk about their experiences and how their lives had progressed since leaving school, which also had a great turnout.

Jennifer McDermott founded CLC after her daughter Cassandra was killed just before her twentieth birthday

Having seen the success of Chicken and Chat in an educational setting, Verna Casey, the head of a team of social workers which works with adoptive parents, decided to propose the idea to Jennifer McDermott, the founder and CEO of CLC. “It was a way to think outside of the box… Jennifer and I have got a connection from personal experiences. I said to her that I saw how this worked within the school, [so] why not use it as a way to engage young people within the community?” Jennifer agreed, and Chicken and Chat was born in the winter of 2014.

Jennifer McDermott founded CLC after her daughter Cassandra was killed just before her twentieth birthday by her abusive boyfriend, Mario Celaire, in 2001. Cassandra’s family and friends had been shocked and disappointed when Celaire was acquitted for the murder on the basis of an absence of evidence. It was only when Celaire was charged for the attempted murder of a later girlfriend, Kara Hoyte, in 2007 that the case was re-opened due to Hoyte’s bravery and resilience, and her drive for justice. When Celaire admitted to the manslaughter of Cassandra and the attempted murder of Hoyte, the case became the first Metropolitan Police prosecution under new double jeopardy laws. Celaire is currently serving eight years for Cassandra’s manslaughter and twenty-three years for Hoyte’s attempted murder.

I think that if Cassandra had something like Chicken and Chat, she might be still here today

CLC was set up in loving memory of Cassandra, to educate young people about domestic and sexual abuse, sexual health and relationships, in order to prevent similar devastating cases happening. In addition to running Chicken and Chat, CLC works with young men and parents as well as young women, and provides one-to-one sessions and drop-in sessions in schools. “I think that if Cassandra had something like Chicken and Chat, she might be still here today”, Jennifer says.

The purpose of Chicken and Chat is to give young people their own hub. “The aim for us is for young people to have a safe place where they can talk about any issues that they’re having at school and in their personal life”, Jennifer tells me, adding that “empowerment is important as well, because we are not one to just have the young people coming in and not inspiring them. There’s an aim to inspire them to achieve excellence”.

Speaking to Jennifer and the other women of CLC, it is clear that the needs of young people lie at the heart of the foundation. “I feel very grateful for having this place so we can develop it to be where it’s their centre. There are [other] centres out there, but not many that will give them the opportunity to be here any time. It’s [mostly] nine to five. I’m hoping that we can extend the time to the evenings”, says Jennifer.

The charity is currently developing a centre in Portland, Jamaica

The charity also hopes to spread its mission of empowerment and education internationally, and is currently developing a centre in Portland, Jamaica. As with the London branch, the young people’s voices will be paramount and CLC intends to stretch to the wider community through schools, churches and the local government. “The ultimate aim is improving people’s lives and expectations, as a number of young people in the rural areas of Jamaica suffer sexual exploitation. The abuse and the poverty are much more prominent in those areas. It’s [about] inspiring them to develop skills that will move them from those settings”.

Back in England, Chicken and Chat and other CLC schemes continue to grow as girls enjoy coming in to relax and do their homework. Whether teenage girls are coming for the chicken and staying for the chat, or coming for the chat and staying for the chicken, it’s a great way for them to feel listened to and empowered, especially after seeing role models from their area actively making a difference in the community.

Liberty Martin

Liberty Martin

Born and raised in Croydon with a rich Jamaican heritage, Liberty Martin is a keen aspiring journalist and writer. After winning the Guardian’s Young Reporter of the Year for Years 10 and 11 in 2014, she’s hungry for a good story and wants to travel and learn about the world around her. Always interested in a topical debate, Liberty’s constantly reading online blogs and news websites to keep up-to-date with the latest news. She’s obsessed with chips slathered in vinegar, elephants, Frank Ocean and wants an extensive library of books in her future home. At school Liberty is studying English Literature, Spanish and History at A Level and sings in her school choir.

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