Lessons from History

Seven years ago, following the death of Barbara Kahan, I was approached to complete some reports which she had commenced as an expert witness on residential child care. They related to instances of groups of people who, as children in care, had been sexually and/or physically abused by the staff of children’s homes or foster carers. As adults they were now seeking damages from the local authorities and voluntary agencies responsible for their care for the negligence which they suffered.

The reports which I produced must have proved adequate, as there has been a steady flow of requests for similar reports ever since. Some concerned with residential care have been group cases, involving over seventy claimants in one instance, but many of those who have been dissatisfied with the social work support received have been individuals or groups of siblings.

None of the cases with which I have dealt will be identifiable in the series of articles, and the local authorities, voluntary agencies and former children in care will be nameless. It is the general issues which are important as the learning points, to ensure that we achieve best practice in the future.

Putting these reports together has entailed reading a lot of files – individual case records and all the types of documentation needed in the running of residential schools and homes. In the most complex there have been well over thirty bulging files of records, and frequently there are a couple of thousand pages of evidence.


Sifting through these files has given a fascinating picture of the social work and social care services provided to children and young people over recent decades. The earliest cases with which I have dealt went back as far as the 1950s, but typically they relate to people who were in care ten, twenty or thirty years ago. Frequently, the records cover two or more decades as a large family moves through from babyhood to adulthood.

During such a period there may be changes in legislation, in the organisation of services or in working systems and methods. Children’s Departments gave way to Social Services Departments in 1971, and recently the wheel has turned full circle with the re-establishments of specialist children’s services once more. While the baseline was the 1933 and 1948 Acts, other major Acts have followed in 1963, 1969 and 1989, together with other more modest changes in the legislation. The United Nations Convention on the rights of the Child and Human Rights Act 1998 has also rightly placed an emphasis on the need to take into account the views of children and young people and influenced policy initiatives such as Quality Protects. In parallel, there have been changes in guidance, with successive Regulations for Approved Schools, Remand Homes, Children’s Homes and Community Homes. The child abuse scandals (for example, Maria Colwell, Cleveland, and Victoria Climbie) have in turn also affected the residential landscape.

And there have been the changes in local government organisation, with major changes in 1965 and 1974, and more recently, the introduction of unitary authorities, that has also affected the role of the ‘corporate parent’.

Every time an Act has been passed, or Regulations have been revised, or local authorities have been restructured, it has been with the best of intentions, correcting, restructuring, improving and expanding guidance, policy, finance and provision. There should have been real improvements, with each change built on the gains made in the previous development.

As I have read the files, however, it has seemed to me that sometimes we have not learnt from the past, we have not advanced, we may have simply gone in a circle or at worst, the services we provide may not be as good as those available some decades ago.

The purpose of this article is to suggest that we have much to learn from the past. In some professions there are groups of workers (such as medical historians) who quite explicitly study past practice to see what can be learnt from it. As far as I am aware, we tend to move forward in child care, unworried by any messages from the past. We risk repeating old mistakes and failing to learn from our predecessors.

This article is the first of a series. In the next half dozen articles, we shall look at specific lessons from the past. I shall be describing what I have learnt from my study of past case files, and Chris Durkin of the University of Northampton will be adding a commentary on current practice and teaching.


The cases with which I have dealt do not constitute a research sample, and I make no claim for the validity of the opinions in these articles beyond them being impressions built up in my experience as expert witness. Nonetheless, the impressions may be pointers for some more systematic research and indicators of what could be learnt.

The one common factor in all the cases is that the claimants felt sufficiently aggrieved to be seeking damages. Closely linked with this, there are elements which are common to many cases, such as the complexity of the social work problems, the horrendous experiences of abuse and memories of childhood suffered by the claimants, and their ongoing problems into adulthood.

In view of the complaints made in the claims, one might expect that a common element in the cases would be poor professional practice, and indeed in some there was appalling practice, but frequently there was good or even excellent practice. Very often the files show that there was consistent good practice for many years, but maybe a brief spell during which standards lapsed.

It is one of the features of social work and social care that good practice does not guarantee success from the clients’ viewpoint. The clients may have lost their childhood and their consequent experiences as adults may be truly awful, but this does not necessarily mean that the people who worked with them were performing badly. Success depends on a variety of factors, including the attitudes of the people using the service, the way they did (or did not) get on with key figures such as social workers or foster carers, and maybe even pure chance, since some people do seem to have more than their share of misfortune.


It will be appreciated that none of the cases with which I have dealt will be identifiable in the series of articles, and the local authorities, voluntary agencies and former children in care will be nameless. It is the general issues which are important as the learning points, to ensure that we achieve best practice in the future.

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