There are some articles in the Webmag which hit on a nerve, arousing strong responses reflecting real depth of feeling. One of these was the piece published in March 2011 referring to secure accommodation for girls, asking, “Where are you now?” There have been a lot of replies, and the descriptions of the experiences of these women show that they had a miserable time in ‘care’ and that their memories are still painful, even after thirty or forty years.For some the experience was neutral and for some there were brighter aspects such as the way they were treated by individual staff members, but for others the experience was demeaning, humiliating and at worst seriously abusive. ‘Care’ was not meant to be like that.
For some of the contributors we are looking back to the 1970s or 1980s. Their memories may have been buried or locked away in the back of their minds as something they would rather forget. But then something comes up which prompts a memory – the thought of a friend from those days or the horror of the Jimmy Savile stories perhaps – and it comes flooding back, and maybe it is the time to think about the residential care experiences, face the demons, and hopefully, finish them off.
The purpose of this editorial is to ask what we can, or should, do about all these memories. Obviously the past cannot be undone; the experiences and memories are real. For some people they may have been life-changing, and it may not be possible to escape their effect, even many years afterwards. But there are others who have managed to face their memories and refuse to be overwhelmed by them. This is true for everyone, whether we have been in care or not; whatever our childhood experiences, we can be shaped and limited by them, or we can learn from them and build the sort of life we want to lead.
Listed below are some of the sorts of things we can do now about these problems from the past. What do you think of them? Or do you have additional suggestions?
The starting point for many people who are post-care adults is to ask to see the records of their time in care, in the hope of learning the facts about why they went into care, how their parents viewed their removal from home, how decisions were made, why they were moved to other placements, and so on. Records can be a treasure trove of detailed information. People who spent their childhood in care often have it much more fully documented than people who didn’t, who may only have a few school reports and photos.
There are problems, though. It can take a long while to get hold of the records – more than the forty days which local authorities and voluntary bodies are allowed by the Data Protection Act. Sometimes the records have been lost or damaged by fires or flooding.
Then, depending on the authority, one may find that the records have been redacted – that parts have been wiped out because they relate to other people, even if they were brothers, sisters or parents – so that the records do not tell the full story. Even if the full records are made available they may be difficult to understand, and it may need someone experienced in using social work files such as a social worker to pick out the key facts. Indeed, if the case was not handled properly, it may be the things which are missing which are more important than what is there, to understand what went wrong.
Most important of all, the contents of case files may be difficult to accept. It is not just that they have been written by professionals who have their own view of the situation, but they may trigger painful memories or describe things which have been forgotten, perhaps changing perceptions of other people. A person with a glowing image of their mother, for example, may have their myth shattered.
The process of going through the records can be painful and even damaging. Fear of these possibilities means that some people choose not to see their records. Others like to take the information in bit by bit. The local authority or voluntary body may provide a social worker to help people looking at their records; Barnardo’s have a particularly good track record in this respect. The Care Leaver’s Association can also help, and they may be especially helpful as they have contacts in many authorities, and they know what it’s like to go through the care system (www.careleavers.com).
Coming to terms with their experiences is perhaps the most important outcome which post-care adults seek. They may do this on their own, or with the support of a partner, family or friends. Or they may seek the help of a trained counsellor who understands the problems of interpreting and coming to understand painful memories.
This process may be slow. It may be a long while before people want to face discussing their experiences, or they may feel comfortable only in talking about some of the less damaging experiences at first. It may be necessary to go over and over the events time and again, recalling different details, until the ghosts are laid to rest. Often, people who have been abused think that it was their fault and feel guilty, and it may take time to accept that the responsibility rested squarely with the abuser.
We published a good example of how this sort of process affected one person in December 2009 under the heading Resilience in Action, which emphasised the importance of relationships in helping survivors come to terms with their experiences, and overcome them.
Some people may need practical help. Talking about experiences can trigger other problems, putting stress on relationships, for example, or causing mental health problems, or making work difficult. Depending on individual circumstances, people may need help with getting employment, obtaining housing, getting onto training courses to compensate for unsatisfactory schooling in childhood, or being helped in relationships with partners and other family members.
In Germany, for example, they have set up a system of local centres where people who were abused as children in care can go for practical help – advice on benefits, job-seeking and housing as well as counselling and support.
A problem shared is a problem halved, it is said. If post-care adults make contact with others who faced similar problems, for example having been abused in a particular children’s home, bonds can be created which provide support through a shared understanding of what went on – something about which other people may express sympathy, but which they cannot fully grasp.
Whether through Facebook or Friends Reunited or dedicated websites, links can be made with others who went through the same experiences. Again, the Care Leavers’ Association can be of help, and it is setting up support groups in some parts of the country.
Under the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme people who have been abused may be able to claim damages, paid directly by the government. Evidence of criminal action is required and the crime should have been reported to the police, but the process is not adversarial, as it is when seeking damages through the courts, and claims are decided on balance of probabilities, so the process may prove to be less threatening than court action.
To state the obvious, there are many survivors who suffered emotional abuse or neglect who are not in a position to demonstrate that their abusers committed crimes, and so this avenue is not open to them.
If there has been negligence by a local authority or voluntary body it is possible to take a civil action and seek damages. If there has been abuse by a carer, the agency is responsible as the carer was acting as their agent. Taking action of this sort can help, not only by obtaining monetary compensation, but also in providing the opportunity to go over events time and again with solicitors, barristers and expert witnesses, so that the picture of what happened is as clear as possible.
There are drawbacks with taking legal action. If records have been lost, it may be difficult to find evidence. The process can be very lengthy, and it may be necessary to go over personal experiences with a number of different people. Because the defendants’ insurers do not wish to pay damages, they may argue their case by trying to undermine the claimant, for example in cross-examination in court, though nearly all cases are settled before they reach court.
If successful, people making claims may feel that they have been justified, that the abuse they suffered has been recognised by society, and that others have paid the price for their abuse or failure to protect the claimant. There is always the risk, though, that this satisfaction may not be achieved, for example if the evidence is insufficient or if the defendant is found to have behaved reasonably, even if the claimant had a miserable childhood.
Anyone following up this approach needs the help of a solicitor, and the specialists in this field are the Association of Child Abuse Lawyers (www.childabuselawyers.com).
Some survivors are keen that their abusers should be held personally accountable and prosecuted, possibly for their own satisfaction but also possibly to ensure that no-one else is abused. After all, a person who abused as a young member of staff may still have access to children in retirement as a volunteer.
If an abuser is identified, the police need to be informed, so that they can investigate, and take action if the evidence is strong enough to stand up in court. The victim of the abuse may then need to appear as a witness. This process may give the victim the opportunity for their day in court and the satisfaction of seeing the abuser punished, but it can be a testing experience, facing cross-examination in public on very personal matters of which one may feel ashamed. Furthermore, guilt will only be found if the case is proved beyond reasonable doubt, and some prosecutions are not taken forward because the abuser is too ill.
If an abuser is still working in child care, there is clearly the risk that children are still being subject to abuse, and it is for the employer to take disciplinary action. Again, evidence is needed, but the employer’s responsibility is to ensure the safety of the children in their care, and even if a case cannot be fully proved, they may need to allocate the worker to a job where children are no longer put at risk. They will also need to inform the Disclosure and Barring Service to ensure that the abuser does not simply move to another area to carry on abusing.
Where there have been a lot of allegations of abuse, inquiries may be set up by local authorities or the government. Inquiries offer an opportunity to bring everything out into the open, and to identify what went wrong – not only any abuse that took place, but also why children were not protected better, what was done (or not done) about complaints and allegations of abuse.
The problem with inquiries is that they can take a long time as they have to be thorough, and they can be very expensive, so that there is a reluctance to set them up unless there are major systemic problems, as there were in North Wales, leading to the Waterhouse Report, or in the Republic of Ireland, leading to the Ryan Report.
In January we published an article asking if it would help for survivors to be able to make sworn statements, stating their grievances and explaining what happened. If so, such statements could become public documents, open to challenge if the potential defendant or another party were to feel that there were inaccuracies. Indeed, the person making the statement could be liable to accusations of perjury or libel, depending upon the nature of the inaccuracies. Making such sworn statements would therefore not be taken lightly and care would need to be taken in their wording. However, this process would give the survivors the opportunity to make matters public.
Some people who have been abused want an apology. Abusers are not likely to apologise, partly because they have spent a lifetime rationalising their offences. The social workers and residential care workers around at the time of the abuse may well have retired. Typically apologies are made by politicians on behalf of the country as a whole or on behalf of organisations by senior managers who were not personally involved at the time of the abuse.
Nonetheless, a genuine apology on behalf of the services or the community as a whole can still be appreciated by former victims as a vindication of their complaints. A good example is the recent fulsome apology by Enda Kenny, the Taoiseach in the Republic of Ireland, in relation to the women who had been working virtually as slave labourers in the Magdalene laundries in Ireland.
This may seem a strange option to end with, but many of the children’s establishments where abuse took place have now been closed, and in some cases demolished. Should the experiences of abuse be written off as a piece of history best forgotten? In Germany it was suggested that there should be plaques where children’s homes once stood. Or should the plaques be sited in town halls to remind politicians and senior managers of their responsibilities as corporate parents to protect the children in their care? Or would a monument or a statue of children be better, akin to a war memorial, to remind the community at large of those who have suffered?
There are many things that can be done to put things right. We have tried to give a balanced view of what can be done, and the advantages and disadvantages of each line of action. Different people may find satisfaction in different lines of action. The important thing is for victims of abuse to come to see themselves as survivors and winners, no longer trapped by their experiences and memories. It is not an easy process. Is there more that should be done? What do you think?