21 May 2009

On training child abusers

OK. The heading is a little dramatic, and I have no direct involvement with the Irish situation. Nor have I read the whole report. But I was involved in training "residential child care officers" in the '70s.

From 1975 to 79 I was the tutor-in-charge of the largest Certificate in the Residential Care of Children and Young People (CRCCYP) course in England. It was based in a College of Technology (up-market college of further education which in this case eventually became part of a university) and validated--very loosely by present standards--by the then Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work, predecessor of...who cares?
  • Incidentally, I had no direct experience at all of practice in residential child care or any kind of residential social work, or indeed of any kind of social work beyond some volunteering at university.
  • but I did have a first degree in European Studies and a Master's in Religious Studies
  • and a sociological interest in "total institutions"...
  • and a year's introduction to the psychoanalytic approach to group relations
  • and I and the team of tutors, were really proud of the intensive educational and vocational programme we offered
Why mention all this? Because of what it suggests about the disconnection between the training--and probably the inspection--and the practice of care.
  • Some of the people I trained---and licensed to practise---were later prosecuted for abusing children in their care. (I find myself seeking to exculpate the course by claiming, "merely" physically, not sexually. As if that mitigated anything.)
  • Some of the practice placements we used were later shown to be the settings of abuse. The details are not always public (nor I admit are all the allegations tested), but it appears that in some cases "therapeutic" was a cover for "abusive" activity. (I am being scrupulous here. In the absence of evidence, both descriptors go in quotes. But New Barns, one of the establishments identified in the linked article below, was regarded as one of our very best student placements.)
  • One of the external examiners for the course was later convicted of child sexual abuse. (See here.) I became a friend of his; he stayed with me rather than go to a hotel when he came up for examiners' meetings (even that would be frowned upon now). We discussed how unjustly he had been treated in various ways for admitting to being gay. Above all I remember to my shame commiserating with him over the abuse he had received (including excrement through his letter-box, he said) over an item he wrote for his column in Social Work Today entitled "Sex and the Residential Social Worker" in which he argued for an end to the absolute prohibition of sexual relations between staff and residents--spinning it to imply that he was referring to establishments for morally and mentally competent adults with physical disabilities...
This is 30-year-old history. I am not trying to re-open old wounds. (That may indeed be a just and worthwhile project, but it is a different one.)

But I am not surprised that the Irish authorities in those day were so easily deceived by the abusers. I was certainly even more naive than other people in my position. I cringe now to think that only once, out of more than 300 students with whom I worked, did it even occur to me that he or she might be a premeditating abuser. (I did confront that person over his failure to obtain parental consent for a planned "expedition" with children. I never saw him again... but there was no evidence to pursue it further.)

Later, in 1979, trying to set up a crisis intervention project for young people at odds with their families, using volunteers, I was challenged by a Director of Social Services; "How are you going to guarantee that your volunteers do not abuse the young people?" Strange question. Well, they want to help, not hurt, don't they? And besides, this is a Christian project... How can you be so negative and suspicious? Pathetic response.

Ireland in the '70s was quite different from the rather-frayed Celtic Tiger of just yesterday. If we failed to see what was beneath our noses in secular social services in England, how much more likely was that in an Irish Republic in thrall to the Catholic church?

Now, of course, much is different. Fear of abuse has unsurprisingly become an obsession, to the detriment of some of the best practice of thirty years ago. Sadly, those abusive practitioners not only destroyed directly many young lives, but they also destroyed any notion of trust within the system. So that the possibility of rebuilding hope for those children who have already been abused is severely limited; for every school or children's home which dares physically to touch them, there are many which do not.

About fifteen years ago, I was peripherally involved in giving evidence to an enquiry into the peremptory closure in the middle of the night of Oxendon House in Leighton Buzzard. (The link is about the only useful one I can find on the web, interestingly.) The reason for the action was claimed to be that members of staff had been giving young people massages to help them relax before bed, under the supervision of a fully-trained masseuse. The parliamentary written answer states;
the acting principal of the home has been arrested by the police and that four other members of staff have been suspended. Following advice from the social services inspectorate, the county council is conducting an investigation into allegations of inappropriate therapies and restraint techniques and the general culture of the home. Meanwhile the home has been closed, the children relocated and 45 members of staff have been given leave of absence.The social services inspectorate is continuing to monitor the situation.
All criminal charges were dropped. A subsequent inquiry (costing, I was told, 250,000) found no abuse or wrong-doing, although some practices were "capable of being misconstrued". But there was nothing to merit the precipitate closure, nothing to justify the relocation of children who were just in some cases finding the firsrt safe place in their lives, or blighting the careers of the staff. The Director of Social Services was the one who resigned.

I'm rambling. That's what happens. It is very difficult to retain focus or perspective. There's a deep desire for some simple angle. Sometimes the most difficult part of reflection is to acknowledge that there isn't one.

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02 December 2008

On Yorick

The news story today concerns the use (or not) of a genuine skull in the graveyard scene opening the final act of Hamlet (Shakespeare c.1600). The skull was bequeathed by a concert pianist, Andre Tchaikowsky.

I knew him, Horatio! No, actually I didn't; but one day in October 1972 I was visiting a student on placement at one of the world's most amazing therapeutic establishments for young men, Finchden Manor. Do read this site. I was not quite 28 years old; two years older than the oldest resident in the establishment at the time.

I was ushered into the presence of George Lyward, the charismatic founder and Chief of the place. No, it was not a "therapeutic community" as now understood and discussed in the literature. It was far too autocratic. I could go on and on about Finchden Manor on the basis of my limited acquaintance in Mr Lyward's final years, but you can get first-hand testimony from the website.

Mr Lyward was indeed charismatic (in the Weberian sense). But his charismatic quality was one I had never before (or since) encountered. He made me feel that he was privileged to meet me. I was a callow 28! An upstart tutor on a social work course who had never done any social work in his life. A fraud, basically (although not deliberately so; I was so naive then that I did even know that there were some things a degree in European Studies did not equip you for). And Mr Lyward was honoured to meet me. It was not an act.

This of course was even more disorienting than being interrogated and put down. However, from the room next door came wonderful piano music. Trying to make conversation in my blundering way (nowadays of course, I should not have to "make conversation". We would immediately have got down to the forms and reports and checklists), I asked about the hi-fi, as I thought it must be. "No," said Mr Lyward, "that's not a recording. That's Andre Tchaikowsky practising for his concert at the Festival Hall. He's an old boy of Finchden, you know, and he comes back here to practise when he has something big coming up." Tchaikowsky had come to Finchden to overcome some of his trauma from growing up in Warsaw in WW2 and the loss of most of his family.

(An aside; when I ventured to get down to the material for the placement report, I asked Mr Lyward what he had asked the student [Steve Williams--I remember you, and it's an episode for you to be proud of, too] to do. "DO?" he replied. "I don't want him to do anything. I want him to be." He would have stood no chance as a "practice teacher" nowadays.)

That's as close as I got to Yorick, and to some other things, too.

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