In the course of my eight years’ work in residential child care during the late 1960s and early 1970s there must have been about 1,200 children in the units for which I was directly responsible. I worked as a Senior Housemaster at Aycliffe Classifying School in County Durham, and then as Superintendent at Olands Assessment Centre in Somerset. Both units were designed to assess children’s needs.
Most of the boys at Aycliffe stayed for only a few weeks while their needs were assessed and they then moved on to their long-term placements in training schools. The girls and boys at Olands stayed for varying lengths of time. Quite a number returned for short visits, perhaps to maintain contact, perhaps to look back on their time with us and to close the assessment episode in their lives, and a few because they were unhappy in their new placements and ran back to us in the hope of an alternative.
But I have heard very little of what happened to them subsequently. I saw one on television in a programme about Strangeways Prison and I have heard of another one or two who may have been at Aycliffe with me. Otherwise, I have no idea whether our brief encounter was of help, a turning point in their lives, or was another unhappy episode in a difficult childhood.
Recently two or three correspondents with Children Webmag have got in touch to say what an awful time they had had at Middlesex Lodge. They had been there at a time when, as Assistant Director for Residential and Day Services, I carried responsibility for the quality of care which they received. I probably did not meet them, as I was two stages removed from their direct care, but I am still concerned that they found their experiences so unhappy.
Leaving my personal reactions and feelings on one side, there is the more general question about what can be learnt from the experience of former children in care in order to improve current practice. Clearly, things are very different today from the 1960s and 70s; the scale of sexual abuse was not understood then, for example, and drug abuse presented fewer problems. But human nature has not changed and many of the problems faced then may still be current.
There is of course the danger that, in trying to have a dialogue in order to understand what happened then with a view to improving practice, we end up with one group of former children in care being critical and another group of former staff being defensive. That is a risk, but in writing this article it is a risk which I felt is worth taking.
One of the problems with assessment, for example, was that, in trying to match children to placements, we were undertaking an act of faith. We had some, but limited, knowledge of the placements to which we were sending children. Some of the criteria were very clear-cut such as the type, size and location of the home, but others were more nebulous and hard to identify. The matching of individual children, for example, should have been able take account of the atmosphere then current in the group of the children already in the placement, staff personalities, staff changes and so on. Some of those factors changed week by week.
Nor did we have much knowledge of the success of previous placements. In one sense the long-term success can only be known decades later when the former children in care have been adults for some time, for example in work, having got married or having had families – or less happily, having been in prison or suffered mental health problems. We only really knew of the extent to which other children recently placed had settled and were getting on. It would be interesting to know whether the people who experienced care as children felt that the assessment process had helped them.
Middlesex Lodge was an unusual establishment in the 1970s-80s, in that it and Cumberlow Lodge were the only two residential homes in London for girls presenting exceptional problems. There were a few who were serious offenders but the majority had a range of problems including difficult family backgrounds and abuse, such that they had reacted with uncontrolled behaviour, tensions at home, running away and truancy. These behaviours often put them at risk, and made them difficult to live with or teach. Mixing these two groups was, of course, in accordance with the Children and Young Persons Act 1969 and the thinking in Care and Treatment in a Planned Environment.
How were social workers to deal with them? There were two main options. The first was to go along with their wishes, hoping that they would settle down in a placement in the open community without causing too many antisocial problems or suffering seriously themselves. The second was to constrain and control their behaviour by locking them up in places such as Middlesex Lodge. Although this is a simplified description of the dilemma concerning thousands of different individuals, there was often no in-between option, as many girls would not accept the lesser limits which children’s homes or foster carers tried to apply to their behaviour.
With greater attention being paid to children’s rights and wishes, some girls in this predicament have been given free rein, particularly in recent years, with the outcome being a sustained period of chaotic behaviour, involving varying combinations of frequent changes of address and partner, sexual exploitation, the start of a criminal record, drug abuse, heavy drinking, risky behaviour and ill health. It is hard to see that this is preferable to a period of constraint in a secure unit, or that authorities could condone the girls’ anti-social and sometimes criminal behaviour.
Of course, care in a secure unit should be of a high standard, and the cruel treatment described in some of the correspondence should not be condoned. However, in my experience the work of units such as Middlesex Lodge was probably the most difficult anywhere in the Social Services and it was easy to get it wrong.
In managing establishments of this sort it was necessary to be in control while remaining humane and avoiding unacceptable punishments. This was more easily said than done. Male staff in particular always had to be careful that they did not lay themselves open to allegations, and there was apprehension among the staff around this time when a decision was made that under-16-year-olds could no longer be placed in Holloway. However serious their problems, girls had to be at Middlesex Lodge or Cumberlow Lodge.
It was also around this time that legislation introduced the requirement for Courts to authorise secure unit placements and for secure units to be built. One was attached to Middlesex Lodge, and a corollary was that the existing unit was no longer secure and technically staff could not force girls to remain. This withdrawal of security also left some of the staff feeling insecure.
Physical standards needed to be good. The girls often had experienced – or presented – massive problems as individuals, but they had also to be managed as a group. They were often physically mature and sophisticated in terms of their life experience while still being technically schoolgirls and often being emotionally immature or damaged.
Looking after them as a group sometimes entailed the introduction of institutional measures which were not suited to individualistic adolescent girls. When I arrived in Hillingdon in 1975, Middlesex Lodge would have been described as ‘traditional’ in its approach. The couple in charge had been there many years and had developed ways of running the establishment efficiently, but in a more institutional manner than was by then acceptable. (I recall that one of the minor but symptomatic changes introduced in my time was the use of soft toilet paper.)
In the end the couple was persuaded to take early retirement and a new Principal was appointed, but I am reluctant to be overcritical, as they had given many years of service, and when appointed their practice would no doubt have been at the cutting edge.
So there are many questions which I would pose. Should there have been places like Middlesex Lodge where children were contained? Many more are locked up now than was the case then. Or should girls have been allowed to do as they wished and learn from their experiences – even if that entailed potentially damaging predicaments such as exploitation by pimps and older ‘boyfriends’? Should offenders have been kept separate from the others? From experience I would say that the offenders were often less disturbed. Were there girls who found that their period in secure accommodation provided a thinking space in which they were able to re-appraise their lives? Did assessment offer a turning point in children’s lives? Did their time in assessment centres give them an opportunity to come to understand their predicament, or to gain the confidence to disclose abuse? If these services were bad, what should have been done to put them right? What are the lessons to tell today’s planners, managers and residential child care workers?
Did any of this affect you? If so, would you like to join the dialogue?