CYC-Online 116 OCTOBER 2008
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Children as scapegoats

Pauline Shapiro

Observations of problem families have thrown up the phenomenon of one child in the family taking on the role of a “scapegoat”. Many of the family difficulties are projected on to and into the behaviour of this child and his actions become explainable in relation to this state of affairs only. Such a phenomenon, when recognized, must have an important effect on any social action envisaged to help the child and the family.

(Note: At this time, child and youth care workers in the U.K. were commonly referred to as social workers or more specifically as residential social workers “as against field or agency social workers.)

Looking through child service students' reports of their visits to “problem” families, I have noticed how often the parents, in referring to their families of origin, have described themselves as “the black sheep of the family”. The phrase has been used in several ways – as a contrast to more successful siblings who now have good jobs, pleasant homes and fewer children, or as an excuse for deteriorated or severed relations with their family, or as a description of the manner in which they felt themselves treated when they were children. But whatever the context there always seem to be undertones leading back to certain feelings in their own childhood “a sense of isolation and not belonging, of inadequacy and dejection. The black sheep is very dirty and bad, and the flock, though possibly of varying hues, is so much whiter and better.

Retrospective studies of personal history may, of course, be misleading, though the frequency of such feelings about childhood is interesting. It is worthwhile, therefore, to observe in detail some such black sheep in the making, to focus on children and their family interaction while it is taking place. For this purpose I wish to describe two families, both with a number of children (and family size still increasing), both deeply submerged. The information is taken from the Child Service students' narrative accounts of weekly, or more frequent, visits to these families during the university session. The Clancys were visited in this way for one session, the Samson-Smiths for two. All names are fictitious but the situations that follow have been accurately described.

The Clancy's are already well known to most social agencies and hospitals in the city as a typical problem family. After lodgings, one eviction, a brief visit to Ireland and a return to Part III accommodation, their present home is a three room back-to-back in a twilight area. Its “facilities” are running cold water and, in the yard, a wash house and three lavatories for eight families. The rental is small but paid so seldom that eviction is again being threatened. Mr. Clancy says he is not worried by such threats, for it will cost the State so much more to look after all his children. He is proved right and the family is assessed to pay off arrears at the rate of 11s. 1 d. per week. Any cooking Mrs. Clancy attempts has to be done on the kitchen fire. Their cooker was removed because instalments were not paid. Above their small, tattered living room is the parents” bedroom where the baby of the moment also sleeps when not in hospital; above that an even more desolate attic where all the other children sleep in two single beds.

Mr. Clancy is 30 years old, in bad repute with his family of origin, who refuse to help and are said to have turned the family out of doors when they went back to Ireland. He is in poor health, blind in one eye and has recurrent ulcers in the groin. Social agencies dub him workshy. Maternity benefits for the coming confinement have been disallowed because his weekly insurance contributions are so few. He is in and mostly out of various unskilled jobs because his timekeeping is so poor, and his absences frequent and unnotified. Sometimes he is ill, more often he says he is too tired to go to work because the baby has disturbed his night’s rest. His typical reaction is one of avoidance. He is seldom at home, takes his meals and his drinks out and is said to go around with other women, on one occasion leaving his family for some weeks. When the student offered to babysit so that husband and wife could go out together, he said he was too ashamed of his wife to take her out. At best he grumbles at her, at worst he attacks her physically.

Mrs. Clancy is 29, pregnant with her ninth child, and looks extremely shabby and much older than her years. She seems to be of poor intelligence, is quite unable to manage money, of which she has too little, or children, of whom she has too many. She says it makes no difference to her when her husband is on national assistance, as she gets the same few pounds in any case, and it all goes on food, chiefly bread and potatoes. Her method of discipline for the children is at one time to ignore difficulties and disobedience, at another to shout and clout. Before marriage she had an illegitimate child who was privately adopted. Since her marriage ten years ago she has had seven children, first four girls and then three boys, whose ages range from 9 years to 11 months.

Dora the black sheep
Nearly all her children have had long periods in hospital. When the student first visited, the baby was in hospital, isolated for weeks with whooping cough. Dora, 4 years old and the black sheep in the making, had been in hospital with gastro-enteritis for nine months in her first year. When she came home her mother was already near term with the next baby. Mrs. Clancy recalled how very difficult she was to handle, how she herself was so repulsed by the sight of Dora, with her thin body and large head that she could not look after her, and her husband had to dress and change her. By now the only person Dora will “mind” is her father; for him she will even try to be clean at times.

Most of the Clancy family’s discontents and hostilities, the disturbed marital relations, the dirt and disorder, in fact, all the badness of their situation are projected on to the frail, undersized, pot-bellied form of little Dora. It is she who is dirty, wet and messy (though Mrs. Clancy admits she has not trained any of her children and nearly all still wet the bed) ; it is she who is greedy and “steals” food (though the other little ones are poking their fingers into the open pot for jam while the mother denounces Dora). Dora is “lazy”, she was late in walking, she still hardly speaks and can’t be understood when she does. Both parents say they would like to be rid of this child, frequently and in front of her.

The scapegoating process is taken up by the other children, who are actively encouraged to be spiteful towards Dora. On one occasion, in order to demonstrate Dora’s tiresomeness, Mrs. Clancy called her in from the yard, turned to her eldest daughter, Joan, and said, “Make Dora cry, Joan.” Joan had only to say, “Cry, Dora”, for Dora to burst promptly into tears. Later, when the student took Dora to the welfare centre, where she had a happy time with the toys and was pleased with a paper crown the superintendent gave her, the student commented that she has never seen this child smile. This is her account of a subsequent visit to a hospital clinic to examine Dora’s speech defect:

When Dora had finished her dinner, which was just one apple today, we set off for the clinic. This time Dora said a few words to me, and replied to my remarks. I found it hard to understand her and her speech sounded as if she had a cleft palate. We had not gone far when we began to have difficulty with her shoes which were so broken that they fell off her feet as she walked. I had no string so we went into a shop and bought some safety pins. The assistant behind the counter said to Dora, “What happened here?” She had noticed a sinister black mark near Dora’s eye. “Mummy hit me”, said Dora. The assistant gave me a very disgusted glance. We had to wait some time at the clinic and as we waited I noticed several of the mothers staring at Dora’s very ragged and dirty appearance. “Isn’t it a shame”, I heard one of them say. Dora also became the centre of attention when I undressed her to be weighed “for her socks, which were thick with black grease, were very difficult to get off, and her vest and knickers were very black with dirt, and smelly. When the doctor examined her he found nothing organically wrong with her mouth.

Barely speaks never smiles
Nothing organically wrong, but how much emotionally? What is the developing self-image of this child, whose first year has been spent in hospital and who has returned to stranger-parents, to a mother so repulsed she could not handle her, to a father who gave the minimal care necessary for survival, to a family where by the time she is four it is always Dora who is bad, dirty, greedy, lazy, a thief? Small wonder that she barely speaks and never smiles, that she stands alone in the yard while the other children play together.

Dora’s maternal grandmother has told her daughter that this child in all her difficulties is a replica of herself when she was a child. This repetition of the generations has long been suspected in the history of problem families, though corroborative details are sometimes unavailable. One thing is certain “that the important question to be asked is by what means can this vicious circle be broken?

A first reaction may well be that a child as victimized as Dora should be at once removed and received into the care of the local authority. But first let us consider the situation of the Samson-Smiths.

This family lives in a house and area exactly the same as the Clancy's, the interior being equally cramped and dingy. The relationship with neighbours, however, is quite different. Mrs. Clancy is always to be found at home and keeps aloof from her neighbours. “I don’t bother with them”, she says, “if you are nice to them they only slit your throat behind your back.” At the Samson-Smiths, on the other hand, there is a constant flow of callers, sometimes to gossip, sometimes to help if Mrs. Samson is ill at home, or to see how the children fare if she is better and out. There is much “throat slitting” of the kind that Mrs. Clancy fears, but Mrs. Samson is impervious with an insouciance and disregard of reality so habitual that at 40, after thirteen confinements, an unspecified number of miscarriages and chronic ill-health, she looks younger than her years. Pale and thin, she somehow keeps going on tea, cigarettes and beer. The four surviving children of her marriage are elsewhere, two committed to the care of a local authority, two living with relatives.

Mr. Smith, the man with whom she now cohabits, has left a wife and two children abroad, a situation unknown to Mrs. Samson until recently and causing her considerable indignation. In spite of much bickering, Mr. Smith is of more support to Mrs. Samson than Mr. Clancy is to his wife. He is in work more often, gives her a larger proportion of his earnings, helps occasionally with the home and children and takes her out to the pub for beer and darts. When our visits first began there were five children of this cohabitation (a girl of 5 years and four boys aged 6, 4, 2 and 8 months). Another baby boy was born the following summer.

It is Billy, the diminutive eldest boy of this group, who is the same object of projection as Dora. The complaints are remarkably similar – he is dirty, disobedient, lazy, a thief (mainly of food) and a liar. In addition he refuses to go to school and when sent he plays truant. Jane, his younger sister, is held up to him as a model, encouraged to show off all she can do that Billy cannot, and to join in victimizing him. She is also encouraged to lie on her mother’s behalf and can say quite brazenly that her mother is out when unwanted callers are at the door. She claims by right a lion's share of the cheap biscuits and sweets that abound. Billy, badly undernourished and left out of any sharing, is the thief and the liar. He craves for his mother’s affection, but gets only blows and angry denunciation. All fight has gone out of him. He cringes and cries even if the eight-month-old baby hits out at him. Most of his time at home is spent in bed upstairs, banished by his irate mother.

On account of his truancy and backwardness at school, appointments have been made for Billy to attend the Education Department for assessment but no one has taken him there until the visiting student became aware of the situation and arranged to do so. His I.Q. is assessed at barely 60. After a brief waiting period in a local special school (with many objections to the “silly school” to be worked through with his father, himself described by his brother as a “slow developer”) a vacancy is found for Billy at a residential junior school for subnormal boys. There he quickly begins to grow and to put on weight and to change his attitude to pleasure and pride.

There is now a marked shift in the direction of hostile feelings in the Samson-Smith household. While Billy is away during term, he is thought of much more kindly and it is the turn of the next two older children, Jane, and four year-old Andrew, to become the objects of their mother’s anger and denigration. The need for a scapegoat remains. Billy fulfills the role when he comes home on holiday, but when he returns to boarding-school the next two children again take his place.

Visiting this family during term time and vacation provides a remarkably clear picture of such family interaction. The parents in a sense are cornered by life, cornered in dismal, overcrowded surroundings, with a large number of children for whom they cannot provide. In their frustration and many difficulties they need some outlet for their aggressive feelings, some scapegoat who cannot retaliate or, in other words, a child who resembles most closely their own inadequacy and sense of “badness”, dirt and disorder. Thus the backward inadequate children, the Dora's and Billy's, bear through projection the failures of their parents. When Billy is removed, another child almost automatically takes his place, since the need for projection is still acutely felt by the parents.

It could be argued, and I think correctly, that it was right to remove Billy, not only in more narrowly educational terms, but in the wider ones of his social and emotional welfare. But it is clear that the removal of such a victimized child, whether it is for part of the time in a boarding school or for the whole time in local authority care, ultimately solves few problems. First, there is still a family in difficulties, with parents so disorganized by their problems that they are liable to project their anger on to yet another failing child. Secondly, there is still a child who has been removed and is suffering from acute feelings of rejection.

Let us imagine Dora has been removed to the care of a local authority. She would be clean, well clothed, well fed, cared for in happier fashion. But her removal from her family would be for her the ultimate rejection, her nightmare anxiety about her parents' talk of getting rid of her come true, and all because of her own badness, dirtiness, worthlessness. It is the child care officers' task to attempt to help the Doras in care with their mixed feelings of guilt, rejection and poor self-esteem and, at the same time, to work towards rehabilitation of their families. Such work with families is essential both to prevent the creation of additional Doras and, at the same time, to work towards a stability sufficient to make the return of Doras to their own families a possibility.

Emphasis on prevention
Social workers have long been concerned with such problems and have been questioning their attempts to cope with them. This concern provides the rationale for Part I of the 1963 Children and Young Persons Act with its emphasis on prevention, that is the diagnosis and help offered to families at risk. The hope is that by patient work the children may never be received into care or, if this becomes inevitable, that they may later be restored to families fit to have them back. It shows, also, the realization that such an aim may require the concerted action of several social work agencies in the locality. Since the passing of the 1963 Act, Children's Departments have been sadly lacking in sufficient trained personnel to implement its recommendations. And family service units, equipped to work intensively with problem families, have a similarly depleted staff. This is understandable, though regrettable. One has only to imagine what is asked of such workers, the daily round in dreary surroundings among depressed, inadequate clients, with progress sometimes nil and always slow, to appreciate the difficulties.

Social workers ought not to have to cope with this burden alone. Problem families impinge on social policy in many ways. Housing is an obvious example. Many back-to-backs have been pulled down but single cold taps and shared lavatories are still the lot of families in depressed areas. Rent rebates for larger families may or may not be operative to varying degrees in different localities and, in any event, affect only families in Local Authority housing. Health, or the lack of it, is a major issue, particularly mental health. But this is a fringe topic for psychiatrists who, more often than not, refer such matters back to social workers.

A major difficulty, where physical ill-health is closely associated with mental ill-health, is the present habit of sending the infants of disorganized families to hospital for protracted periods during their first year of life. Bronchitis and gastro-enteritis, for obvious reasons, abound among the infant Doras and Billys of our society. Rushing them into hospital has improved the infant mortality rate, but may greatly increase the mental health problems of later life. Cannot some better domiciliary method be found, perhaps through the co-operation of health visitors and case workers, for saving these infants” lives? Family planning policy is more controversial. But oral contraceptives administered through a domiciliary service undoubtedly help large, disorganized families.

Perhaps, too, some knowledge about the Doras and Billys in the depressed families of our society today may help the public to become more tolerant of problem families, of the dirt, disease and disorder they create, and of the care they need, though may not seem to merit, from society. Breaking this vicious circle of the generations is an urgent task. The Doras and Billys of this generation have to be helped towards a stabler and more contented future, so that they, in their turn, can become happier and better parents.

This feature: Shapiro, P. (1966). Children as scapegoats. The Anti-Social Child in Care: Annual review of the Residential Child Care Association, 14. pp. 15-20

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