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.


  1. The sudden closure of Oxendon House on the flimsiest of evidence was a knee-jerk hysterical reaction by the local authority. The resultant damage to the children's emotional stability and the harm to the future careers of the staff was unforgivable.

    In the early 1980's I worked at Oxendon House as a residential social worker. Although I only worked there for 4 years, the place had a considerable and lasting effect on me. I was impressed by the integrity, dedication and commitment of the senior staff, who set the tone for the rest of us. The methods used to educate and socialise the children were inspirational. Self discipline, self respect and consideration for others was greatly encouraged and rewarded.

    Extraordinary turn-arounds in some children's behaviour were quite usual. Every child who stayed at Oxendon House benefitted in some way.

    During my time massages were not given to children, but I can imagine how helpful some of the children would have found massage therapy in helping them to relax.
    In addition, many, if not all, of the children had no experience of being touched gently physically by an adult in a healthy non-sexual way with no hidden agenda. Massage therapy would therefore be ideal in helping them to rebuild trust in adults. What a shame the local authority did not have the insight or sensitivity to work this out for themselves before jumping in with size 12 hobnail boots!

  2. Anonymous8:07 am



  3. Anonymous1:51 pm

    There was a subsequent enquiry and i think it was chaired by the late Barbera Khan. Indeed the management was changed with a Mary McNamara taking over from Westfield Road in Dunstable. The findings were not so good and whilst good practice was observed old styles of institutional care were all too obvious. There was a report written and i know it existed in Luton Library early 2001. A4 with a green cover.

  4. The enquiry was led by Brian Roycroft, formerly DSS in Newcastle; I gave evidence to it, and I think I've still got the report somewhere.

  5. Anonymous12:03 am

    I resided in Oxendon House from 1992 to just before the closure. I can in fact confirm that massages were NOT in the presence of a qualified masseur as stated above! That aside, there was absolutely nothing untoward about the massage. I thought it was actually closed down due to man handling of children, which was something that I DID experience. An example - being told to go to my bedroom and being pushed roughly several feet down the corridor because I refused, so roughly in fact that I slithered down the door frame!! Bordering on abuse surely!! There were definitely a couple of male members of staff with 'small man' syndrome. That aside, there were lots of people doing an amazing job - Pru, Sally, Danny, Helena, Sue, Libet, Vanda - thanks for putting up with me.

    I really do hope that this makes this onto the notice board as it is an honest and fair account. Unfortunately the care of vulnerable persons leaves individuals very open to scrutiny by the public and nowadays (sadly) people are unable to give human touch due to laws and the chance it may be misunderstood. This is the only reason I have not chosen to follow child social work as a career, too much red tape and not enough treating people like human beings.

  6. Anonymous1:23 pm

    I also resided in Oxendon House during the late 1980's and was interviewed by police in the early 1990's regarding inappropriate restraint techniques being applied by some staff members. This most certainly did occur, with up to 5 members of staff holding down one minor child. I welcomed the arrest of the acting principal at that time, and am sorry to this day that the charges were not pursued.
    There were, of course, many good staff members there and the structure of the days, with activities, was indeed beneficial. However, for Tiffany to say that 'every child who stayed at Oxendon House benefitted in some way' is at best naive and at worst delusional.

  7. Such a great article it was which some of the people I trained and licensed to practice were later prosecuted for abusing children in their care.In which one of the external examiners for the course was later convicted of child sexual abuse. Thanks for posting this article.

  8. I wonder if the children gets over from the traumatic experience from their abusers. I hope they could get over with and move on got justice defend at there side.

  9. Kevin binfield10:29 pm

    Kevin binfield resident hawk house all staff treated us with the utmost respect potty my family didn't or I wouldn't of been there great memories best staff ever and all the kids were friends

  10. I lived there from 1985 to 1989 and never found any wrong doings by staff

  11. you must have walked around with your eyes closed as a former " resident " oxendon was horrible, it was a remand center for kids where normal kids homes couldn't keep the troublemakers under control they were sent to oxendon house where brutality was rife.


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