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CYC-Online Issue 114 AUGUST 2008 / BACK

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The other side of the story

Mark Smith

I read an article recently by a prominent social work academic, who stated that it was beyond question that the entire industrial and reformatory school system was abusive and cruel. Elsewhere we are regaled with tales of poor outcomes from residential care to the extent that a recent advert for foster carers in Glasgow, Scotland's largest city, sought to justify the push for more family carers on account of outcomes for children in residential care being so poor. As one who worked for years in residential schools, much of that time for a religious order whose name has been well and truly tainted in recent years, I have gone through stages of almost internalizing such blithe assertions, engaging in soul searching about whether what I did for years had any worth at all. This tendency towards breast-beating is dissonant with experience though. The regimes in the schools I worked in were far from abusive and cruel and the Brothers I worked with, who were not unrepresentative, were humane and gentle men. This received view is generally contradicted, too, when we meet those we once cared for. I may have mentioned Brendan in this column before. He was a lad I had my ups and downs with, although if the truth be told there were more ups that downs. Brendan became one of the statistics proclaiming poor outcomes of the care system, serving a series of jail sentences. However a few years ago I met him in the street. In this day and age it risks opening a can of worms to ask how former pupils experienced their past care. But Brendan was unequivocal; his days in St Josephs had been the best of his life and he wished he could turn the clock back... Statistics need to be interpreted.

Brendan's is not an unusual story; it’s just one that rarely gets heard in a climate where journalists, advocacy groups, policy makers and indeed social work academics, too eager to be seen to be “right-on” rather than right in their analysis of residential care, fall over themselves to proclaim bad luck tales. Of course these exist but they should not be totalized, as they so often are, into some universal picture of the sector. For a long while now I’ve been concerned that a more rounded picture of life in residential care needs to emerge and that voices previously silenced, those of the Brendans of this world and indeed of the staff who worked in residential care, need to be heard. Thankfully that story is beginning to be told and at least two schools I know are endeavouring to collect the stories of former pupils and staff.

One of these establishments is Harmeny, a residential school for primary school pupils just outside Edinburgh. Last month they held a 50th Anniversary Reunion for former pupils, their parents and staff. During the day current staff took the opportunity to record the recollections of their guests. Now of course those who did attend are likely to be those who recall happy times and their experiences cannot be thought of as representative of the wider experiences of former residents any more than should accounts of abuse and cruelty be extrapolated to some universal experience of care. Nonetheless, the stories recorded offer a powerful antidote to dominant accounts and assumptions.

One former pupil echoed Brendan's sentiments stating:

I loved my time here at Harmeny. If I could turn the clock back I would come back here to learn. I miss both staff and pupils.

Several attributed their subsequent success in life to their time spent at Harmeny:

I can put my hand on my heart and say, without a single untruth passing my lips, that I would not have made it this far down the path of life had it not been for my hope and Harmeny.

Another believed that:

.... my time spent at Harmeny, which was through a very turbulent family period, was a phase in my life that has given me the growing foundation trust that I enjoy today.

Another, more profoundly, attested that Harmeny had offered him:

Shelter from the storm of violence meted out from an unloving mother.
Family – the children and staff who shared my life, trials and tribulations.
Becoming a team player rather than inward looking. At Harmeny the “shell” finally opened.
Building blocks for life: the freedom to roam in a wonderful environment and to find one’s limitations amongst them.

This former pupil also identified the enduring importance of a particular member of staff:

The skills taught on Mr Hill’s work parties stay with me to this day. Every time I drop a tree or split a log, his voice guides my hand.

Interestingly, at a time when it is unfashionable to think of residential care as being able to replicate family experience, this individual felt that, through the presence of staff and children who shared his life, it had done so.

Parents gave similarly positive accounts, expressing their thanks to the school:

... for giving us hope, you answered all my prayers and gave me back my son to my husband and myself.

Former staff members also picked up on the idea of family or community:

Thirteen of the most memorable years of my life – one big family, giving and receiving love and learning. The team spirit was amazing.

They also identified how being part of a community of residential care can become far more than a job; rather it is a way of life which often involved wider family members:

I lived here with my parents (Teacher and Houseparent) and younger sister.
Very special memories – adventures, midnight walks on midsummer night, army camp. Generally having fun in a happy family environment.

Another said that:

Harmeny, kids and staff, the good bits the hard bits, became a very important part of my family’s life. We learned a lot about life in general – about helping and being more understanding of all.

Dominant professional lore would have us believe that having “live-in” staff or indeed even staff who present a rounded picture of themselves as part of a family, is somehow “unprofessional”. Yet for these staff it was a measure of their wider commitment to residential care and to the children in it that their boundaries between the personal and professional became blurred. The resultant presence and commitment must surely pay dividends not available in your average shift system with all that that entails.

One of the things that strikes me from the comments of former staff members is how strong the emotional attachment to residential care can be. One had always been and am proud of being part of what Harmeny can achieve. Feeling part of something that you and other people consider to be worthwhile makes it likely that you will invest more in your work. This level of pride and commitment, however, can be sorely tested by the increasing bureaucratisation and regulation of care and by the incessant harping of those who tell us that procedures aren’t good enough or that outcomes aren’t what they might be. The likely outcome of this is that care becomes conceptualised as a technical and instrumental task, undertaken through reference to procedures manuals. When this happens the powerful human and emotional elements, telling of connection, relationship, fun and even of love, which shine through in these accounts from former residents and staff become sapped and marginalised. And care suffers.

Whatever might be said about residential schooling over the years it certainly wasn’t all cruel and abusive.


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