Reflections of a Has-Been:Child Protection in Caring for Children

This year I decided to retire completely from residential child care, and was hoping to slip quietly away into new activities after a final few commitments. At one of these, I was telling the Editor of Children Webmag of my plans, and he immediately envisaged an article or two on changes over the years. I have picked a few themes to reflect on, not in an ordered academic way, but completely personal reflections, with a hint of Grumpy Old Man from time to time. I am sure there are those who would reflect on me with a different complexion. I start with child protection.

Why was there abuse in homes?

This has been a significant issue, with the recognition of the need to protect children in residential care being rather belated and far too recent. The shock at the various scandals should have been more predictable. Many people have argued that the problems arose because we did not appreciate the issues in those days, but I do not think this was always the case; rather people chose to avoid rocking the boat. If you look at the current situation in Jersey, I think we have the opportunity to see what the UK was like a few decades ago.

The brief descriptions of examples below are not hearsay, but events of which I had first hand knowledge and involvement:

  • As a 21-year-old teaching in an approved school, I saw a senior member of staff squeeze a young boy’s genitals in the playful way pubescent boys sometimes do to each other. I went to see the head teacher who stopped me abruptly by saying that “If this is an allegation against Mr X, then Mr X needs to be present”. I drew the conclusion that I would get nowhere, so I kept quiet and left the school as soon as possible. I have mixed feelings about my inaction, but whistle-blowers had a raw deal in the 1960s.
  • In my first post as head of an establishment my manager came to me with a proposition; the department had a man working part-time at a day centre for adults with learning difficulties, who also ran his own taxi business. The authority contracted him in the latter capacity to transport service users to the same day centre. There had been allegations from parents that he had been stopping along the rural route to have sex with some of the clients. The authority could not prove it, but they felt they should redeploy him anyway. As I was about to open a new establishment which had a vacancy for a handyperson/driver, perhaps I could absorb this person in my mixed establishment for 10 to 16 year olds. I managed to persuade the manager this might not be a good thing, but the inappropriateness of the initial request appeared to be missed.
  • In another establishment I managed, a young woman resident returned after being missing overnight. She said she had stayed with a male member of staff in an on-site flat, and, when questioned, the member of staff agreed this was the case. The fact that they said they did not have sex seemed to convince the authority they could not dismiss the member of staff. I had to declare quite forcibly that I was not prepared to have the member of staff back in order to get him redeployed – fortunately well away from clients. I was astounded that the fact he harboured one of the young people we had reported missing to the police was not a sackable offence.
  • Another time, I personally witnessed from a window a six-foot-plus, Rugby-playing PE teacher lift a fifteen year old female resident by the lapels and bang her against the wall. I was still new, and there were rumours that this man was liable to respond violently to young people. I immediately interviewed him, and assuming this was a very serious matter, sent him home before discussing the matter with a personnel officer.

At the time, separate departments in the local authority managed teachers and residential child care staff, so I had to consult with the education department. I was stunned when told that it was normal practice for teachers to receive an informal warning for such behaviour and no amount of protest could change the view. A couple of years later, after he threw a chair at a young person in his classroom, there was a pay-off with a compromise agreement. He carried on trying for posts with children, and I continued to provide honest references; whether he eventually got a job or gave up I do not know, but the reference requests stopped coming.

There were a number of other incidents like this, but these four illustrate that senior managerial staff seemed unable to focus on the protection of young people as the key factor. It appeared that so long as solutions were administratively tidy they were happy, and putting children at risk was preferable to risking losing an employment tribunal or confronting the trade union.

Also worthy of mention is the pressure managers often received from higher management, inexperienced in residential child care, and how this could lead to abusive practice. I was in charge of an establishment that took its admissions from other establishments that had not been able to manage the behaviour of the young person.

My staff team was very skilled at helping these young people settle down and prepare more positively for their futures. However, when first admitted, these young people were often in turmoil, and there were difficult incidents that sometimes spilt over into the local community. I was frequently instructed to “stop incidents” from happening. The pressure of having repeatedly to explain the time needed for appropriate strategies to work to an inappropriately experienced manager was quite difficult.

After a while, the scandal of Pindown in another authority became public, and that pressure disappeared – probably with an element of relief on the part of the authority that I had not quietly agreed to “stop incidents”. It also paved the way for a constructive approach involving the local community.

Is what we put in place adequate?

The arrival of dedicated child protection teams, and the legal requirement to investigate all allegations came along, and all should then have been better. However, this was not always the case.

As awareness increased, it appeared that all young people who had in the past alleged abuse had been telling the truth. This led to the belief that in future children would only allege abuse if it had actually happened. It is hardly surprising that there had been no false allegations when the authorities ignored genuine ones; false allegation is a weapon which needs a reaction to be effective. New procedures reacted with suspensions and high profile investigations.

I remember being in a meeting where new child protection guidance was being discussed, and under the possible outcomes for an investigation there were a number of choices, which excluded the possibility that the allegation was untrue. I wonder how many innocent people were victims of this sincerely held, but erroneous belief.

Despite the fact that a false allegation against a teacher or care worker can have dire consequences for them and their families (which makes false allegations to seek revenge or attention very attractive), consequences of this belief linger on. I remember a young woman in a secure unit I managed who made a series of allegations against a male member of staff, having kept a diary of everything that happened. The investigation revealed that many alleged events were on days and times when the member of staff was not in the building.

Despite the evident fabrication, the child protection social worker reassured the complainant at the end that she had done the right thing, and should always raise her concerns. Whilst we would not wish to return to the days when young people were frightened to make allegations, it is questionable that there is such a powerful weapon vindictive people can use with impunity.

On the other hand, there have been cases where a young person withdraws an allegation and the case ends, despite the fact that the original allegation could have been true. This is often because the boundary between child protection legislation and employment legislation becomes blurred; without the allegation, people believe the case cannot proceed. Young people withdraw allegations for a variety of reasons, not only because they are untrue. Employers need to be as certain as possible that their staff members are appropriate.

This makes the investigation of allegations against members of staff very difficult, and I believe there is still quite a lot of room for improvement; after all, an investigation making the wrong decision can leave children unprotected, or needlessly ruin a career.

Are there negative consequences of actions against abuse?

I think there are negative consequences. The recommendations coming out of investigations and enquiries are not always sound, because actions to resolve one problem often create others that may be as bad or worse.

There is a lot of concern about violence in children’s homes, either between residents or between residents and staff. I believe that some of this arises from well-intentioned actions. It seemed to me that, because of a few incidents where older children bullied or abused younger children, the narrowing or eliminating of age gaps became very much the vogue.

I suspect this came from an investigator with little understanding of residential child care. Those of us who managed mixed-age homes will remember how much easier it was to protect residents in these. There was certainly less inhibition in reporting bullying when it was clearly unfair. The consequence of the removal of mixed-age groupings meant that the groups were more competitive, and bullying easily became “fighting” or “squabbling”. It would be interesting to know whether there has been more or less suffering because of this narrowing of the ages; I suspect more.

There is a fine line between squabbles, and what we now call peer on peer abuse; the term “abuse” has come to mean a number of things that we used to see as part of growing up. There is a danger, especially in our risk-averse culture, that the label “abuser” is too easily attached to individuals. I know of quite a lot of young people placed on the sex offender register for actions committed when pre- or early-pubescent which we called “experimentation” a generation earlier. The wrong decision here either lets off abusive people early in their career, or gives young people an appallingly unfair label for a significant part of their lives.

Are we going in the right direction?

To be fair, I think we are awakening to the unintended consequences of our corrective actions. Perhaps we need to see more emphasis on properly assessing the possible and likely consequences of recommended actions from investigations and enquiries. The events unfolding in Jersey should be a clear warning that this is an area that needs constant vigilance, and that child protection can be rather low down the list of priorities of people who would like to hang on to power.

People who set performance targets might well reflect on Pindown being a consequence of making control a priority over relationship-building; the former is easily measured, and the latter is not.

Like so many things, good practice is a journey not a destination.

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