Touching thoughts (Part 1)

(You can read Part 2 here)

Laura Steckley

Over the last few months, I have been writing about touch “its importance to development and the recent moral panic about touch between adults and children. I’ve been reflecting on my own related experiences in practice, and this month I share some of my thoughts. (As ever, I have used pseudonyms when recounting individuals out of respect for their privacy.)

My first experiences of residential child care were in an 18-bedded unit that worked from a model of Positive Peer Culture. While the relationships between the staff and young people were considered important, particularly with respect to role modelling, our focus was more centred on facilitating group processes and enabling young people to help each other. I saw some powerful growth and quickly came to know the depth of young people’s own wisdom.

I don’t ever remember talking with anyone about touch, specifically, or really having any particular worries about it related to my own practice. However, the boundaries between a fellow member of staff, Linda, and a young person, Bernard, did cause me concern. The strange thing was, no one else seemed to notice. It culminated, for me, when I stumbled upon the two of them in the darkened lounge, with his head in her lap and her stroking his hair. This felt much more tangible than some of the more subtle dynamics I was trying to make sense of, and it gave me the courage to approach a more senior colleague to begin to speak through some of my concerns. This kicked off a process of more of the team (and then the manager) beginning to be aware of and question Linda’s boundaries. Linda was eventually challenged about it in a team meeting. She resigned shortly thereafter. I–ll never know whether Linda and Bernard were having an explicitly sexual relationship or whether the boundaries between them were simply more subtly skewed in that direction. Looking back, if that had happened in any of the more recent practice cultures I’ve known, there would have been suspension and a full scale investigation.

In terms of my own experiences of touch, I remember letting the girls do my hair (this was at a time when the look was to have your bangs/fringe gelled straight up from your forehead “can you imagine?). I was more uncomfortable with how ridiculous I looked than any worries about the physical closeness of doing each others” hair. I remember hugging Maryjoe as she was leaving on her last day, and how she cried and clutched onto me for what seemed like ages. I remember having to do some physical restraints, and how they left me feeling sick and shaken. I also remember being trained to do restraints, and how uncomfortable it felt to have people holding me in that way. My unanticipated reaction was to laugh uncontrollably for the duration of the hold “every time.

The next place I worked, a residential treatment centre a few hundred miles west, was much more explicit and proscriptive in relation to touch. This was a few years on from my first practice experience. Only side hugs were allowed, and horseplay was strictly forbidden. These were the first manifestations I remember of the aforementioned moral panic related to the touching of children. There were also semi-explicit rules about having the door open when speaking to a young person in her bedroom, and making sure there were other people present (preferably other adults) when we touched the kids in any way. The focus of these rules was clearly about protecting ourselves from false allegation (or misinterpretation), though I also remember having the strong belief that having “good boundaries” with kids was the most important (and possibly the only necessary) prevention of false allegation.

Again, touch was not a topic of reflective discussion in team meetings. Within a year, I found myself promoted and in the uncomfortable position of enforcing these rules and proscriptions. Richard T. Johnson (2000) writes of the impact of this moral panic about touch on his early professional development:

As a preschool teacher in the early 1980s I came to know and define myself based on moral panic“What a stifling effect [it] held over a young male teacher who until this time worried mostly about establishing warm, trusting relationships with all the children in his care. Suddenly many of my once typical daily teacher-child interactions took on a new dimension. I began to perceive myself in a much different way, a way defined and guided by someone/something else much more powerful than any one individual. As a teacher I started to worry and second-guess myself when I went about my once taken-for-granted routines of changing diapers, wiping runny noses, unbuttoning and buttoning a two-year-old's “Button Down 501” jeans–I wondered about holding and attempting to calm an out-of-control three-year-old in a “football hold,” as I was skilfully instructed to do during my master’s practica.

Suddenly, the sense of touch, which has always been such an integral part of my relationship with children (my own or any other I care for) was being called into question. What I did with those questions is what haunts me now and what led me to focus my work on this project. At the time, I accepted the fact that a larger force (again, this overwhelming sense of moral panic) was changing the way I interacted with children. I mostly gave in and did little to fight it.

I too did little to fight it. What’s worse, I perpetuated it. Thank goodness I never invoked formal disciplinary procedures for horseplay, for example, but I did “have to” try and curb what was deemed “inappropriate touch” between staff and kids. This usually manifested in horseplay, or the occasional shoulder massage. Related conversations did begin to develop a more reflective tone, both in individual supervision sessions and in team meetings. At the same time, the proscriptions remained in place. Male staff, in particular, had difficulty with being stripped of their primary medium for expressing affection to the kids. I remember having misgivings about this, and yet there were some staff who did not demonstrate the reflection or insight to manage such a powerful medium as touch in a child centred way. Looking back, the rules about touch were aimed at the lowest common denominator, and while the kids missed out on an important dimension of their relationships with us (and us with them), I think I accepted that this was the sacrifice necessary to keep everyone safe. At best, this was laziness.

The ironic thing is, of the three places I worked, I think everyone was the least “safe” here. I remember a lot more restraints occurring in this unit, and I experienced the most violent and violative behaviour from the kids. I was stabbed, badly bitten, had violent hair-pulls (before finally getting it cropped very short) and even had one kid cop a feel of my breast (during a side hug, no less) at the local grocery store. Given my diminutive endowment, her aim was impressive and she clamped on as if clinging to the safety bar of a roller coaster.

More disturbingly, the most damaging and transgressive touch of my career (that I’m aware of) occurred while I worked in that unit. One of the male staff developed sexual relationships with two of the girls who were resident there. He managed to keep this secret for a period of weeks, and when the first girl began to speak about how Robert was her boyfriend, we thought she was fantasizing. Child protection procedures were invoked anyway, and very quickly into the investigation another young person came forward. Robert made a full confession, sparing the girls having to testify, and because of this he only received two years in prison. Instead of us questioning the efficacy of our “rules” around touching, we instead became more prescriptive and proscriptive. What happened was so horrible that we were willing to spare great cost in our efforts to prevent it from happening again. We didn’t stop to consider whether there was evidence to support this approach and in the anguish of our failure to protect these girls from further abuse, we hardly considered the costs as costs. (Out of fairness, we did establish a more rigorous and, I think, effective screening and selection process that was based, in part, on some research evidence. I wonder, though, if Robert would have still been hired, having gone through the new process).

What did make me question more strongly our efforts to sterilise the unit by aiming for the lowest common denominator was when I turned up, unexpected and unannounced, on my day off (for the simple reason of collecting something I’d forgotten from the office). I entered a common area and witnessed Denton, a very capable and reflective member of staff, interacting with Nicholas in a way that was undeniably horseplay. Denton had Nicholas” polo top pulled up just enough to have the neck-opening scrunched closed in his fist, directly on top of Nicholas” head. Nicholas was wriggling and swinging his arms, trying to get free. In trying to paint a picture for you in words, I’m aware how certain phrases make me pause in fear of misinterpretation or distortion. What was unmistakeable was the absolute joy in Nathan's laughter, and the warmth that was being shared between the two. Denton was (paradoxically) bringing Nicholas out of his shell, and deep in my guts I knew I was witnessing something good. While I wasn’t so na–ve to think that staff practiced exactly the same in my presence as in my absence, I always hoped that the difference wouldn’t be too significant. What was significant about this occasion was that the difference was a result of poor management. I still hadn’t developed far enough in my understanding or confidence for my practice to acknowledge that people are at different places developmentally and therefore our expectations of and support for them will be different. We were only beginning to realise and apply this approach to kids; applying it to staff was pretty much a bridge too far. I suspect this is still the case in a lot of places, particularly given the ubiquitous fear of litigation that lurks in the backgrounds of our decision making.

How some of these issues played out once I moved to Scotland will be the focus of my column next month.


Johnson, R. T. (2000) Hands Off! The Disappearance of Touch in the Care of Children. Peter Lang. New York.

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