I’ve used the past couple of columns to offer a few ideas on the nature of expertise and of professionalism. This month I want to ask a few questions around what knowledge is but to do so in the very specific context of historical abuse in residential child care.
Received knowledge would have us believe that abuse in residential homes and residential schools in particular was endemic over the course of the last century. Assertions to this effect trip off the tongues of lawyers, journalists, the police and child care professionals. For a while I was prepared to believe it and shared the sadness that such revelations cast over the whole sector. There must have been some awful places, I thought. But I had been lucky. Most of my experiences had been positive ones, with the odd instance of staff, including myself, getting things wrong, but not a sniff of systematic or institutionalised abuse. Or so I thought. Then the spectre of abuse got closer to home.
Every year, throughout the 1980s, the school I worked in played football against an English residential school, St George’s near Liverpool. I was always impressed with how friendly and well-run the place appeared. Then, in the late 1990s, dozens of staff from St George’s were questioned or arrested; a number were convicted and jailed. I was disappointed, but prepared to accept the worst and that awful things had been going on beneath a seemingly benign surface.
Things then reached still closer. I worked for the De La Salle Brothers. For the past four years their name has been dragged through the mud in the courts and in the tabloid press here in Scotland. The allegations have been bizarre, laced with images of men in black robes indulging in ritualistic torture. None of this fitted with my knowledge of the schools. The school I worked in, like any human institution, was imperfect, but essentially kindly, tolerant and above all good fun. It was staffed by people who occasionally fell out over how best to work with kids but whose commitment to them I rarely questioned.
So here we have two accounts of knowledge, two versions of reality; the dominant account as reported in the press and accepted by the child care establishment, and the experiential accounts of myself and my colleagues and indeed of the many kids from our pasts that we encounter along the way, who knew a different reality. It’s not a comfortable position to be in. Dominant accounts of historic abuse rest on an assumption that those of us who worked in these institutions were at best naive and stupid or at worst complicit in these awful events. We were neither. Another angle tells of abusers so devious and conniving that they managed to pull the wool over all our eyes. And of course those who are that devious require special measures to root them out and bring them to justice ... I'll develop that point later.
To assert my version of reality isn’t an easy thing to do. It challenges the conformism that surrounds child abuse and child protection. I'll be accused of providing a cover for abusers. I know that. But I know too that unless people who know residential child care start to tell it as it was and is, then we risk being complicit in what a House of Commons report on the question calls a new genre of miscarriages of justice.
I’m prompted to write this column at this point in time by the publication this month of a new book, The Secret of Bryn Estyn: The making of a modern witch hunt by Richard Webster. As Webster says, this is the story of the story of Britain's biggest child abuse case, relating to events in residential homes in North Wales. It was the subject of a major tribunal of inquiry, published as the Waterhouse Report, earlier this decade. Many of the policies introduced into residential child care over the past few years stem from the findings of this report. Waterhouse concluded his inquiry by finding evidence for the existence of wide-scale abuse in Welsh children's homes and residential schools. So here we have it – evidence collected through a multi-million pound judicial process which proves that abuse in care was endemic. Or does it? Webster suggests otherwise. He locates the whole North Wales business in the complex web of connections between particular individuals, the press, politicians, the police and the judiciary.
Webster doesn’t deny that there were individual instances of abuse in residential care, (although definitions of abuse are themselves subject to historical and cultural interpretation). What he does challenge is the assumption that it was systematic, institutionalised and endemic. And he does so forensically. He locates the hysteria that surrounds investigations into historical abuse within a more primitive human urge to expunge demons, a dynamic made all the more paradoxical for taking place in a context of modernity and supposed rationality. In this shiny happy modern world we don’t believe in demons and witches any more – or do we...? Those who believed in witches in early modern times cast them as so cunning that they required measures outside the normal legal process to bring them to justice. Witchcraft was labelled as crimen exceptum, a crime so out of the ordinary that it demanded exceptional measures to counter it. Anyone who has followed the conduct of inquiries into abuse in residential child care might draw the conclusion that normal rules of investigation and evidence have been dispensed with or at very least twisted to fit with the assumptions of the investigators.
The more one looks into this whole area, the more assumptions of rationality are called into question. Child abuse is a phenomenon rooted at a far deeper level within the human psyche; it confronts us with our primitive ambivalence and fears around children. When it comes to locating discussion in the realms of the psyche, Webster speaks with some credibility. He’s an acclaimed biographer of Freud. His thesis can’t be dismissed.
So to bring the discussion back round to knowledge, we have to ask; whose knowledge; whose interests are suited by particular forms of knowledge; what knowledge is suppressed when a particular form of knowledge is deemed the “official” one, and what other claims to knowledge exist? In respect of the latter question, I would suggest we need to listen to the submerged voices; the voices of the staff who worked in residential child care and who know it warts and all; and the voices of those like the lad I met after a colleague, his keyworker, had been convicted of historical abuse. He was distraught and had phoned a number of newspapers intent on giving his side of the story – they didn’t want to know. Thus a particularly one-side version of knowledge is perpetuated.
It is understandable that the popular press perpetuate a particular form of knowledge. Stories of abuse in care sell papers. They also assuage a wider ambivalence towards children. They allow the public to project that ambivalence onto those charged with the direct care of the kids who touch the bits of ourselves and of the world we live in that we’d rather not be reminded of. Those of us who know a different reality need to assert a more critical stance. Sound bites about protecting children are the easy way out in this climate. What is really needed is to look beneath the sound bite and to come to a more reflective and rounded view of what’s going on in the swamplands of public care. We might find that by listening to and according some agency to the submerged voices in this debate that residential care actually wasn’t such a bad place after all.
Webster, R (2005) The secret of Bryn Estyn: The
making of a modern witch hunt. Oxford: The Orwell Press