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How reliable are allegations of child abuse 30 years ago?

Fay Wertheimer on why her years working in care homes make her question today's name-shame-blame culture.

Guardian, Wednesday November 29, 2006

Original article
Timeline: questions over justice

Earlier this month, Anver Sheikh, a residential children's home carer in the 1980s, was for the second time acquitted of abuse crimes he never committed but for which he was jailed for eight years in 2002. Falsely Accused Carers and Teachers (Fact), set up in 1999 to clear the names of two convicted care workers, is still working on behalf of more than 120 similarly imprisoned men, and the Historical Abuse Appeal Panel - a group of lawyers with expertise in appealing and defending allegations of abuse against carers and teachers, stretching back 30 years - says that some 50 cases should be making their way to the Court of Appeal.

However, more than 100 former Merseyside care home residents are bringing civil cases against two defunct establishments and former staff to compensate for alleged trauma incurred by past sexual and physical abuse. Of the 150 instances of abuse that they cite, I reckon that probably only a small number will be genuine, but proving this is even more difficult in today's climate of "name-shame-blame, whatever the truth".

I taught at residential children's homes from 1974 to 1981 and, without denigrating the genuine instances of sexual abuse, of which I was totally unaware, I consider certain imputations flawed and 30-year-old evidence to have been collated under highly controlled and subliminally coercive conditions.

The witch-hunt mentality of those seeking justice for past victims of child abuse is crusading and compelling. Questioners must be persuasive and tenacious, if not suggestive and manipulative, to trawl anyone through three hazy decades of memories. With ostensibly little to lose and apparently much to gain, disadvantaged people could well be suggestible. Only the more discerning understand that rewards for spilling the real or unreal beans are minimal, and that repercussions on actual victims are often devastating. Financial compensation cannot guarantee happiness, nor bring back a lost youth.

The 1970s residential children's homes are now vilified, but they supplied shelter and affection for many children whose dire circumstances, families' crises, breakdowns or individual recidivist behaviours prompted their entry into care. The schools were cosy, two-classroom affairs where each morning and afternoon social services' house parents handed over the children to us education staff. We joined forces in what would now be called a multi-agency approach.

Unlike our pupils, aged four to 16, we young professionals were carefree, idealistic and determined to show our charges - traumatised by their enforced removal from home - that life was not all doom and gloom. We attempted to offer them hope and simple distractions from their burdens with outings, parties, shows, swimming trips - and understanding. We wanted them to regain a smattering of self-confidence.

Our fluid professional roles were open to interpretation. We at the school were not only teachers, and the house parents across the yard in the home were not merely social workers. Our job descriptions required us to be able to cross "professional boundaries" and react instinctively "in loco parentis" if need be. For me, these were the most rewarding, demanding and illuminating teaching posts in a 30-year career at the chalkface.

Lessons vacillated between basics, sport, art and music - whatever seemed appropriate. There was no national curriculum then. Had it existed, it's doubtful if any of our pupils would have been emotionally equipped to focus on academic work. Their problems were far more fundamental. Many had witnessed real-life scenes normally restricted to adult horror movies. Some had been recently orphaned. Others, unwanted by their parents or placed into "care" at birth, awaited fostering placements. Some luckier pupils were housed there just until mum got her act together again. And most of the children were given to emotional outbursts and tears, ongoing tantrums and histrionics - with good reason. They missed their homes, communities and parents. T here was no mum to kiss goodnight; amazingly, even a rotten parent was preferable to none at all.

Delinquency was common among the upper age range of children. Absconding, known in the vernacular as "bunking it", was the older ones' favourite and most attention-seeking pastime. The buzz of the police chase, the pilfering en route, and the undeniable relief on being caught were addictive. A joke. Fun. For us, the professionals and neighbouring householders, these escapades were exhausting and nerve-wracking.

The children, as prone to telling tall stories as to proffering fearful, intimate disclosures, were tragically worldly-wise and strong. Undaunted by endless court hearings, they faced intrusive case conferences with stoicism. Such experiences, outside the remit of most kids, were run-of-the-mill here. These were worlds separated from the outside by the homes' 8ft-high brick walls.

The children's outlet for their frustrations, unhappiness and anti-authoritarian behaviours was to vent all upon their teachers and house parents. So they did.

Handling these angry and hurt kids required swift reactions, deep compassion and firmness. Above all, they needed reassurance and safety. We offered this freely, for we worked in an atmosphere of trust, not blame. Unafraid to show our juvenile charges we cared, if appropriate we gave them cuddles.

I was singled out as eight-year-old Stewart's unofficial "tantrum-duty officer". I was regularly summoned to the junior class next door by his blood-curdling scream - my signal to run in, scoop him up into my arms and hold him very tight. In practical terms, this stopped him kicking over every table and chair in sight, upturning the blackboard and television, and soundly pummelling my teaching colleagues.

In emotional terms, the routine held more significance. After the screeching came the calm. He permitted me to return to my own class and, within five minutes, it was apparent that Stewart recalled not a jot of this charade. But then again, if you had been dumped in a polythene bin-bag at 18 hours old and left for dead for three days, perhaps you would have done the same thing.

Yes, I cuddled him - and, as a mother of four, gave the matter little thought, until recently. Nowadays, my innocuous actions would have me branded a pervert, whether or not the child's need to be held was being met, and whether or not my responses occurred in full view of pupils and other teachers.

Sadly, the unnatural juxtaposition of the weak and strong, the innocent and streetwise, the teenage and very young made bullying inevitable, and places could be turned into a human jungle in a trice. But what alternatives were there?

How should or could one deal fairly with the 12-year-old lout who, for a lark, had strung up a four-year-old to a tree by his braces? How could one pretend that education mattered to the child survivor of the fire that killed his entire family? How effective was rationale when one pupil ate mice, another munched bricks, and her brother deliberately broke his leg to delay leaving the home. And children whose foster placements took time to arrange stayed on and on - and became attached.

Yes, it will have been easy for offences of an abusive nature to have been perpetrated in such intimate surroundings with such unique, if not bizarre, individuals. And no doubt many incidences took place. Teenagers, keen to experiment, easily confused sex with love, for they had little or no memory of the latter.

But alongside the justified claims of abuse, I am convinced - by the very nature of the homes' juvenile populations, by discussions with former professionals and residents, and 37 years' involvement with ex-offenders - that innocent people will have been, and may still be, incriminated for crimes that never took place. Proving one's innocence of a crime committed is hard enough. Proving one's innocence of something that never actually happened becomes virtually impossible. Time passes, perspectives blur and messages are mixed.

Opening up the past may simply perpetuate an adult's past pain and prove destabilising rather than healing. Delving into yesterday does not suit everyone. Conversation with Roger, a 36-year-old former resident "made good", highlighted for me the duplicitous character of retrospective interrogation and its negative impact both on the accuser and the accused. Roger was disturbed by police contact about abuse in the home where he and his three wild, uncontrollable brothers spent three months in the 1970s. Loud-mouthed and merciless, these bully boys' own desensitisation had enabled them to survive.

When Roger reiterated his worries, I questioned him further about the nature of the word "abuse". "What exactly do you mean by abuse, Roger?" I asked. "Were you sworn at, beaten, threatened, shagged or buggered?"

His clarification came spontaneously. "Er, well, I got thumped," he replied. "I was a real sod. Come to think of it, I'd belt any kid who clouted people or swore like me and my brothers did. To be honest, I want none of this questioning business. I'm 36, my life's coming together. Just talking about being in care winds me up, does my head in. I've told the police to bog off, leave me out of it. It's in the past."

Lure of lucre

Avoiding mind-bending interrogations, untempted by the lure of lucre and with his equilibrium intact, Roger walked away from his memories into the future.

Those genuinely wronged can no more be recompensed for their suffering than can those falsely accused or convicted of non-existent crimes. Letting go may not offer a solution, but it does prevent further miscarriages of justice.

Perhaps more ex-care adults should be allowed to forget and focus upon what lies ahead. No more mistakes could be made, and the past - whether actual or virtual - would take its rightful place in our minds. It's history.

SocietyGuardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2006

 
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