MARK SMITH FROM SCOTLAND
What do you know?
Frances Ricks and Gerrard Bellevuille in their chapter in Thom Garfat’s book A Child and Youth Care Approach to Working with Families tell the story of a man driving down a country road. A car comes swerving towards him in the opposite direction. He manages to avoid it and as they pass the woman driving the other car shouts at him ‘Pig!’ Angered by her rudeness, he puts his foot on the pedal and speeds off – only to crash into a pig as he turns the next corner.
The story is told to illustrate the dangers of thinking we know what’s going on around us. The man understandably thought he was being called a pig where in actual fact the woman was warning him of the danger ahead. The consequences of getting this wrong can be catastrophic.
I was reminded of this story about the dangers of knowing, by some of my current interests here in Scotland and the UK. I was speaking this month at a conference on false allegations made against carers and teachers. It’s an issue that’s particularly pertinent here in Scotland just now, as one of the largest residential schools has been shut down on the back of allegations of historical abuse which has resulted in the conviction of two members of staff with dozens of others implicated.
We all know the received wisdom on abuse in care; it goes something like this:
Individuals harbouring ill-intent towards children infiltrated residential care homes. They could do so easily because recruitment policies were lax. Once in employment they were free to identify and groom vulnerable children. Sexual abuse could remain undetected because abusers were so manipulative and deceitful that they were able to cover up their activities. Because of the trauma and stigma abuse involves, children invariably do not disclose until adulthood. Management structures were so loose or corrupt that they either failed to address or covered up reports of abuse.
Rather than relying on individual staff members to speak out against abuse, the official discourse valorizes the role of the whistleblower, an individual of exceptional moral substance who, despite being subject to ridicule and harassment stands out against corrupt and closed systems in order to bring justice to abused children. A final thread in this discourse, which sees cases brought into the criminal courts is the idea that experiences in care are responsible for subsequent difficulties in the lives of those alleging abuse. ‘Victims’ seek ‘closure’ and that the conviction of their abuser is central to that process.
An industry has grown up around this account, with peddlers of all sorts of recruitment tools, allegedly safe caring practices and support for victims.
But how much of this is actually warranted? Not much I would argue. Firstly it relies on an assumption that those of us who worked in residential care were either so stupid that we didn’t see what was going on around us or else we were complicit in abuse. Most of us were neither.
Of course there were individual episodes of abuse in residential child care but there is no evidence to suggest it was any more prominent in such settings than in any other where adults have contact with children. Professor Jean La Fontaine who was responsible for dismissing satanic ritual abuse controversies which swept the UK in the 1990s asserts that we can safely say that there was no systematic abuse and little individual abuse of children in care. A similar conclusion has been reached in Nova Scotia where a massive abuse scandal has been exposed as a hoax and residential staff are now being compensated for being wrongfully accused.
Another thing many people profess to know is that kids don’t make up allegations of abuse. (By and large I’d agree that left to their own devices they don’t, although they can be susceptible to adult suggestion). However, cases of historical abuse are not instigated by children but by adults, often adults whose life experiences have not been good and too often in a climate where the prospect of financial reward is held out. In the Nova Scotia case 20% of those awarded compensation for being abused had not even been in residential child care, far less been abused there. Similarly, a best-selling book in the UK and across Europe, ‘Kathy’s Story’ purports to tell one woman’s account of horrendous abuse at the hands of nuns and priests in the Magdalene Laundries in Dublin; one of the many flaws in her ‘true’ story is that there are no records of her ever having been in the Magdalene Laundries. Irrespective of how flawed Kathy’s story may be, it feeds into the general demonisation of residential child care. People want to believe what is now a genre in its own right — mislit, where the mis stands for miserable.
We know too that children are so traumatised by abusive experiences that they suffer mental health problems and may even be driven to suicide. Part of their ‘healing’ is the ‘closure’ that conviction of their abuser brings. The suicide of a number of alleged victims of abuse in North Wales is blithely put down to the trauma of their experiences in care. Richard Webster, whose book, The Secret of Bryn Estyn, I have mentioned before, presents a case that at least some of those who committed suicide there did so due to the pressures of maintaining a false narrative around allegations they had made. Thinking we ‘know’ what happens in such cases can have some catastrophic consequences – just as for the man who thought he was being called a pig.
The propensity of people, the press, politicians and indeed many academic commentators to believe some of the sensational stories around residential child care actually comes from not knowing. Not having worked in such places it is easy to construct fantasies around what they must have been like. Those of us who did work in residential schools recall a far more mundane reality; some of it with the benefit of hindsight was a bit ropy, but most of what went on was actually pretty good.
I had that opinion validated a few weeks ago. I was invited to the wedding of a lad, now in his mid-thirties, with whom I had worked over 20 years ago. I sat beside another guest I didn’t know but who, it transpired, had been in a residential school I went on to work in. He spoke fondly of his time there and said a number of very insightful things, one of which was that looking back he felt sorry for some of what he had put the staff through, but that there had been no malice intended on his part – it was just what you did growing up. In all of this he had no doubts that the staff had done their best by him. That, I suspect, was the experience of most kids.
Ricks, F and Bellefeuille, G (2003) Knowing: Critical Errors of Ethics in Family Work in Garfat, T. (ed.) A Child and Youth Care Approach to Working with Families New York Haworth Press
Webster, R (2005) The Secret of Bryn Estyn. Oxford: Orwell Press