I was intrigued by an article I read recently written by a residential care worker talking about Cumberlow Lodge, a home I was in for a short period. Underneath the article was the usual crop of comments.
Those who had been there in the 70s and 80s were remarkable for their vehemence. The passion rang out in their comments. ‘Held down’, ‘repeatedly raped’, ‘daily drugged’, ‘assaulted by staff’ – and the inevitable – ‘it has ruined my whole life’, ‘been in and out of Holloway’, and of course…..’I want to sue’.
Now Cumberlow Lodge was no picnic; it was a locked facility which took children from many diverse backgrounds. Some of them were physically, if not emotionally, mature and had had ‘life experiences’ as it is euphemistically referred to, which had left them profoundly damaged, both mentally and physically. In short, some of the girls were totally terrifying in terms of their likely response to situations they found challenging – like being told to do something they didn’t want to do. I was scared stiff of a lot of them.
The curious thing about these comments, though, is there is little mention of the antics of some of the more challenged girls – it is all about the alleged brutality of the staff. Brutality that I had no memory of, either to myself or indeed to any other girl. Pretty much the same staff, in pretty much the same buildings; had they all morphed into monsters as the clock struck 12 on the eve of December 31st 1969……?
Nobody had ever tried to forcibly drug me, or held me down, nor, God forbid, repeatedly raped me. Nor had I ever witnessed or heard of any such thing occurring.
Just like the Duncroft saga; those who had been there in the 60s seem to have dusted themselves down, said ‘thank God that’s over’ and got on with the rest of their lives. None of us enjoyed it, we may even have moaned to family and friends about how unfair it all was – but I don’t see the lurid accusations of ‘padded cells’ and deprivation that would grace an account of life in the Maze; I don’t see the bitterness nor the claims that it has ‘ruined us for life’.
What could have occurred as the 1960s closed that changed? What could have happened to those middle aged men and women that turned them into cruel tyrants in the minds of the children they cared for? What turned a room with a divan bed and nothing else in it, into something that could truthfully be described as a ‘padded cell’.
OR could it be that it wasn’t so much the staff or the buildings that had changed, but the children themselves, the range of problems that the system was being asked to care for, and their perception of how they should be treated?
There is a clue in the article. 1969 was the year of the Children and Young Persons Act. It was also the year that the social work template ‘Care and Treatment in a Planned Environment’ came into effect. Both had a marked effect, on those who had criminally offended, and those who were psychiatrically damaged as a result of their previous life or perhaps just ‘chance’.
No longer could you be sent to Holloway if you were under 16, no matter how serious the crime. You were a child, and Care and Treatment in a Planned Environment said you should be provided with ‘parenting’ – the essential characteristics of which are described as ‘care, comfort, control, and nurturing’. Laudable aims, with the best of intentions – but something of a mixed message to be sending to a strapping 15 year old who is quite old enough to understand that stabbing one’s step-father is something which brings consequences with it – and then finds that those consequences are billed as something akin to a mother figure clasping you to their bosom.
Little wonder they reacted so violently and bitterly to finding Bridie Keenan standing there with her bunch of keys – at least we were forewarned that we had ‘done wrong’ and however unfair we thought it might have been, didn’t have any expectations of Bridie or any of the other staff ‘parenting’ us.
Another group of children were affected by these changes – those who were clinically mentally ill. The Children’s Act said that since 16 was now the school leaving age, a full time education must be provided. If you were not prepared to accept treatment voluntarily in the freer atmosphere of children’s home or foster care, the local mental hospital was no longer an option – no education! Which was how many 70s girl’s found themselves apparently being ‘punished’ for their ill health by being incarcerated in Duncroft. Little wonder that they took a different view of their ‘jailers’ than the 60s girls. Little wonder that their resentment has taken a more derogatory view – their illness alone would predetermine their downbeat view of the same staff and the same buildings; even the same events.
So what should have happened? Has the ‘enlightenment’ of the Children’s Act actually caused more anguish than it sought to cure?
That argument is still not resolved. BBC Radio 4 has been running an article headlined ‘Hundreds of children ‘detained in police cells”. It seems that the police used one of their police cells as a secure ‘place of safety’ under the Mental Health Act for 317 ‘under-18s’, now officially designated as ‘children’.
Sarah Brennan, chief executive of charity Young Minds, described the situation as “really shocking”. “[Children and young people] need to have appropriate care in the appropriate setting and that should never be a police cell when they have mental health problems.”
A fine sentiment, Ms Brennan, but do you think the country should maintain an extra 317 empty beds in a ‘parenting atmosphere’ on the off chance that a policeman should come across a ‘child’ with immediate mental health problems’? Or perhaps you feel that the child should be given free rein, allowed to abuse drugs, alcohol, perhaps self harm, or entertain numerous sexual partners in the middle of the high street whilst obviously mentally ill – until such time as a suitable home with cozy parent can be provided?
The dawning of ‘Children’s Rights’ and Social Work theory have sent so many mixed messages over the past 40 years, I can’t help feeling that a lot of the moral paroxysms we are currently enduring are as a result of the perception of what ‘care’ should mean being misunderstood by an entire generation.
They may well have got the same treatment we did – they just saw it differently. Their glass was half empty.
What think you?