Book of the week

8th December 2000 at 00:00
FORGOTTEN CHILDREN: the secret abuse scandal in children's homes By Christian Wolmar. Vision Pounds. 9.99.

In 1993, in Widnes, Cheshire, a man called Jim spotted someone he knew walking along the street with his arm around a small boy. It was Alan Langshaw, who, 20 years earlier, had been Jim's housemaster in a children's home. Jim did not rush up to Langshaw and shake his hand. Instead he went to the police, stirred by the sighting into reporting, at last, the three years of buggery and oral sex Langshaw had forced upon him, beginning when he was a lonely child of 12.

Jim's story opens Forgotten Children, an important book on institutionalised child abuse. "As a result of Jim's testimony," Wolmar reports, "and that of several other children's home residents, Langshaw was sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment."

The Langshaw case sparked one of many large-scale police investigations into child abuse in care homes throughout the Nineties. Many are continuing, and involve thousands of complaints against hundreds of care workers.

Wolmar's account is chilling and compelling. It is, though, more than a litany of horrors. It reminds all who work with children in school or any other institution just how easy it can be to fail them by giving their safety and well-being a lower priority than the rights and preferences of adults.

Too often, for example, we have allowed earnest attempts at workplace and social justice for our fellow adults to cloud our judgment of what is good for children. Wolmar reminds us how in the Seventies paedophile groups made determined attempts to define themselves as an oppressed minority, entitled to line up with gays in the "rainbow coalition".

Then, in north London in the early Nineties, the (ultimately failed) prosecution of a former worker at Highbury New Park children's home led to an expose by the Evening Standard of bizarre and horrific circumstances in a dozen or so homes across the borough. Wolmar writes of "armed pimps bringing girls back to children's homes with clients; sexually assaulting other staff; encouraging residents to be rent boys; staff involvement in sex and paedophile rings; abduction of a child to France", and reports that younger staff who expressed concern were told that young people had "a right to sexual self-expression".

He attributes the Islington scandal directly to employment policies that put the rights of adults ahead of the safety of children. "Islington became wide open for sexual predators to move in," he writes. He quotes Ian White, now Hertfordshire social services director, who reported on the Islington revelations. "Nobody was thinking of the effect on childrenI personnel policies had an emphasis on the outcomes for the employees rather than for the children."

Events in Islington may have been extreme, but Wolmar's account is a sharp reminder for local authorities, governors and headteachers o priorities in the recruitment of people who work with children. Many of the abusers eventually caught by the various enquiries had moved on to other posts after suspicious colleagues had raised concerns that could not be substantiated. Too often employers and work colleagues failed to speak up or listen to what they saw as unproven suspicions. And yet, Wolmar reminds us, a pattern of similar suspicions can be significant.

Some of those who kept quiet may have feared smearing the innocent with false accusations. But this is an area where achieving real justice for all may be impossible. One policeman, Wolmar writes, "believes the bulk of those he has pursued to be guilty, but is terribly worried about innocent people ending up in jail".

The danger of this, as Wolmar points out, is not just of individual injustice, but that a backlash could cast doubt on all who find the courage to speak out.

Most depressing, perhaps, is the realisation that adults have, routinely and far back into history, casually neglected the general duty of care towards children. We have allowed children to be put into homes where they could be strapped to their beds, wrapped in urine-soaked sheets if they wet the bed and beaten with sticks, bats, canes and slippers.

For almost 100 years, too, philanthropic children's societies, including Barnardo's and church organisations, shipped children abroad because it was cheaper to deal with them that way. An astonishing 11 per cent of the population of Canada today, Wolmar says, is descended from the 100,000 children who were sent there between 1870 and 1930.

Following the Second World War, Australia took over, receiving 50,000 UK children, the last boat leaving in 1967. Most of these emigrant children were placed with families who used them as unpaid domestic, workshop and farm labour. The greatest scandal of all, perhaps, is that not only did we not listen to the cries and complaints of these children, but that we created a climate in which it simply did not occur to them that it might be worth complaining. So their crying was done in private - crying that became a permanent feature of their inner lives through into adulthood.

Perhaps none of us - teachers, governors, parents, carers - who reads Wolmar's conscience-pricking book actually beats or abuses our children. It's a fair bet, though, that we make school rules that suit the adults and inconvenience the children. And maybe we allow other priorities to get in the way of listening to children who want to tell us they are afraid, unhappy or confused. How many staff meetings these days make time to discuss individual children?

A friend of mine has a five-year-old child in reception who cries every night because he cannot learn the spellings his teacher makes him bring home - largely because he can't actually read them yet.

Abuse starts in small ways and takes many forms.

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