In the wake of what seems like never-ending news items exposing prolific abuse in care homes and on our streets, it’s a question I’ve been thinking about for the last few days. I also thought long and hard about the headline for this piece and knew that it would be met with curiosity and derision in equal measure. But that is the conclusion I’ve come to, and these are the reasons why.
The recent spate of child abuse claims currently rocking the nation – from Rotherham, to Westminster, back to Cleveland and beyond, are not new: they are part of a historical epidemic, which began when the first ‘care homes’ for children were created.
The homes, at various stages throughout history, catered for different types of ‘unwanted children’ – those that roamed the streets, those that were born out of wedlock and those whose families simply could not afford to clothe and feed them. And after the war, those children who had lost their parents to the good fight.
When those homes began to overflow with children, fostering became the next budget-friendly solution for the government. Children were farmed out to men and women, initially with very little scrutiny or discrimination. And as time wore on, the care homes too, continued to grow, often with very few checks and balances in place. Care home managers were free to do as they wished with these children. And they often did.
As these children were intended to be hidden from polite society, and society at large, government officials viewed them largely with contempt, and as a drain on the economy. They were the Untouchables, the second class citizens of Britain. And as such, no one minded much what happened to them in the State’s care. Initially, work houses stored children as young as three, forcing them to toil away for hours on end, with no regard to their health, safety or welfare. Children were simply viewed as extra hands greasing the cogs of enterprise.
Baby farms too were rife in the eighteenth century. Typically a woman who could not keep her child would hand him or her over to a ‘baby farming house’ for a fee, whereupon the ‘carers’ promised to look after that child. These children, inevitably, were often neglected and many simply starved to death. Most of these children died.
After what felt like an age (from Industrial Revolution to the next phase), the British government began to realise that maltreatment of children in this way wasn’t going down too well with the general public. New types of homes sprang up, which put themselves forward as the saviours of little lost souls, but in practice spent most of their time training small children so that they could go out into the workplace and earn their keep. It would take several centuries before the government understood that employing children to work long hours was not in their best interests.
The nineteenth century saw much debate in this area, much arguing between various State departments over the width and breadth of child welfare reforms, often viewed by some at the time as a struggle between the protection of children, and the State’s control over them, so lucrative had they been in the workhouses for the State.
The overriding thought that must intersect each period, each phase of the evolution of child welfare in this country is simply this: what kind of people would allow children to be so savagely treated? And the answer must be: very dysfunctional, unwell ones.
Today, we see how the setting up of organisations and heads of State departments have so badly affected our present. Corrupt individuals are highly unlikely to hire honest, balanced people to do their bidding – they would simply refuse. Remnants of that order can be seen in recent reviews of historical child abuse allegations as unscrupulous managers hire yet more unscrupulous people to work for them. That is how we can come to the conclusion that child abuse within government institutions is rife, and the proof is in the many cases we are seeing come to light now.
Do I think everyone who works inside the welfare system is unwell, or an abuser? No. I believe there are good people inside the system, I speak with them every day. But most are not at the top of the pecking order, and many leave the sector after a few months, feeling despondent and powerless to fight the bureaucracy and bad practice.
But the problems run deeper than just a chain of bad choices, made by very bad people.
On one occasion when I organised a debate in the House of Commons on child welfare issues, I had the opportunity to sit on a panel next to a man who is now perhaps the most high-profile member of the family justice system. We were talking about children. At some point during the conversation, he casually turned to me and said, “I don’t understand children at all. I don’t even have a relationship with my own.” It was then that I understood the second fundamental problem. Those right at the top believe they are untouchable – and espouse a God given right to be there (regardless of whether they are right for the job, or not).
From the care home managers who sexually abuse and physically hurt children, to the government officials at Westminster summoning boys to their bedrooms, the question of what should be done about these atrocities is a complex one. But it is perhaps not an overstatement to suggest that many of the people entrusted with caring for our most vulnerable are deeply vulnerable, themselves.