Children behind the gates – writing about historical abuse

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We know what children need – love, protection, guidance, understanding – and we know what a travesty it is when they are deprived of those basic needs. But is this a recent discovery? Looking back at the treatment of children in the care system in the middle of the last century, you might think so.

The 1990s was the decade of revelations about failings and injustice the Irish system. More recently Switzerland has been going through its decade of revelations of historical abuse. It’s a process that is being repeated all around the world and it’s heart-breaking because there is nothing you can do to help those children. It’s too late.

Did the authorities and caregivers in those times have no concept of children’s welfare and emotional needs? I would argue that they did, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on their own experience of home life. But there were limits to their ability or willingness to provide for those needs. And these factors have to be taken into account when writing about this period. If we turn those involved into evil caricatures, we are incapable of gaining any insight into our own failings as a society today.

So why was it that some children mattered less? What was stopping the authorities and religious orders from doing right by the children in their care? Some of the limits stemmed from prejudice – in particular the prevailing prejudice against ‘illegitimacy’ and against the ‘bad poor’.

The stigma attached to children born outside marriage was so strong, so well enforced by the church and its followers, that people could hardly see the child behind the stigma, if at all. The shame and secrecy let the fathers of these children off the hook and also made it possible for families to reject their ‘sinning’ daughters, even to the point of having them locked up for years.

As for poverty, widespread to an extent that we have so quickly forgotten, there were prejudices at work here too. On the one hand you had the ‘good poor’, hard-working, honest people, scraping by somehow, tipping their caps and not making any trouble. And then there were the ‘bad poor’, parents overwhelmed by the daily struggle to feed and clothe their children, families whose mothers lived on the verge of a nervous breakdown, whose fathers turned to drink or crime, whose children appeared neglected. Sympathy for these families was not forthcoming.

That’s to speak of the willingness to care for children who were unwanted or rejected by society in one way or another. I also mentioned the ability to care for these children.

A well-run children’s home should have enough money to provide a good diet for the children, as well as clothes and play materials. In a cold climate it should be well heated. The staff should be well trained and recruited for their aptitude to provide loving care to children. There should be a compassionate discipline policy in place, with good oversight so that there is no room for abuse of any kind. But what if none of these requirements is met?

Let’s put the cruel sadists aside. They are in a category of their own and nothing excuses their actions. What about the ordinary inadequate carers? Two years ago I attended the presentation of a report into allegations of historical abuse at children’s institutions run by the Swiss Ingenbohl Sisters of Mercy. The worst allegations could not be verified but the authors of the report did find “excessive punishment” doled out by some sisters.

It also described the systemic misery for both adults and children living in the homes – long working hours without free time or holidays, large groups of children to look after with insufficient financial means in crowded living conditions and with insufficient infrastructure.

But the ill-treatment didn’t end at the gates. For my story I spoke to a remarkable man, Roland Begert, the son of a Swiss gypsy (Jenisch) woman who was deserted by her husband. He was given up by his mother as a baby and grew up in the system, first with the nuns and afterwards living with a farming family as an unofficial child labourer.

Roland Begert is forgiving of the tough discipline and lack of affection shown by the nuns in the children’s home where he spend the first twelve years of his life. What hurts him most, looking back, was the attitude of the people in the town to the ‘home children’.

The townspeople warned their children not to have anything to do with the ‘home children’ and the local children obliged by throwing stones at them. Roland’s excitement at being sent out to the town school quickly ended when the teacher started bullying him mercilessly.

So while the townspeople loved and protected their own children and did their best to give them a good start in life, they participated in a horrible double standard. Society was complicit in banishing the ‘home children’ from the mainstream in the first place and the community actively kept that exclusion in place.

Writing about failings in a system that happened fifty years ago does not serve any purpose if it stays in the realm of storytelling, with a cast of wicked witches. We have to try to understand the broader mechanisms of society that caused so much suffering if we have any chance of avoiding the same mistakes.

I think a lot of lessons have been learned. One huge problem was that, until recently, society did not allow for children to be raised by one parent, whether for practical or moral reasons. Marriage breakdown or the death of one parent left children in a precarious position. No access to contraception also made it impossible for parents to limit their family size to a level they could manage.

But there are still children behind the gates in society, for example the children of asylum seekers living in direct provision. Few countries today can claim that they have a best-practice care system in place that guarantees the wellbeing and protection of their most vulnerable children. Even Switzerland, which prides itself on ‘Swiss quality’, still does not have an exemplary system, as I discovered recently when researching an article about foster care.

The stories from the past are important and they have to be told. But they have to be told in a fair way and they should never be used to make us feel complacent about our own problems.

7 thoughts on “Children behind the gates – writing about historical abuse

  1. Good article, Clare. Maybe there’s a parellel to be drawn between the old, inherited cultural prejudices against ‘sinning’ women and their offspring, and the horrors perpetrated by celebrities (Saville & co) much more recently. We find it hard to imagine why nuns should have been so ferociously cruel, but our modern cult of celebrity and the star shows the same kind of criminal deference in the face of systematic child abuse.

    1. Yes, deference. You hit the nail on the head there. Beware of any group of people who are too important or special to meet the normal standards of behaviour and accountability. I would like to think that because sexual abuse is better recognised nowadays it is harder to dismiss or disbelieve victims but I’m not sure.

  2. An excellent article, Clare. I’ve felt bad about the simplistic criticism of orphanages in the past.

    My dad stayed for a while in a Catholic orphanage in Vancouver, BC. He didn’t like it. But the orphanage was only part of the problem. His father (an immigrant from Scotland) had gone to California, following a job opportunity. His mother (an immigrant from Ireland) was deported, and her three sons were thrown into the orphanage. We don’t know if she was deported because her brothers were involved in union activity or because she was severely depressed after her daughter died or who know why. After a time, their father came back for them. I don’t know how good or bad the nuns were. I guess they were just trying to do their best for a family in a bad situation.

    1. Wow Nicki, what a story. A family under massive pressure. It is admirable that your grandfather came back for the children. A resourceful and dedicated man.
      You’ve got plenty of material there for the next novel.

  3. Important post, Clare. There’s so much in society about blaming the victims for their misfortune rather than giving them the additional support they require. How awful it must have been for the children who were blamed for the sin of being alive.

    1. Thanks for the comment and the RT Anne. I just heard about a Swiss study that’s looking at the influence of traumatic events in people’s childhoods on the likelihood that they will get Alzheimers. They are taking people who went through the care system as subjects. I think many Irish victims ended up on the streets in England because there was no place for them in Irish society when they grew up – or they couldn’t stand the place anymore.

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