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.

Children in school, mothers on stand-by

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I’m not saying there is a conspiracy in Switzerland to make life difficult for working mothers of primary school children, but if there were a conspiracy it might account for my experiences over the past four years, and look something like this:

Strategy 1: Mix it up
Have children start school (kindergarten) at the age of four but give them an erratic timetable. For fun, have the children come in three mornings a week, obviously not consecutive mornings, and throw in an afternoon just to keep it interesting.

I’m not making this up. My four year old has school on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings and Thursday afternoon for two hours. That’s it. Every night she asks, do I have school tomorrow? And every morning, do I have school today? Keep ‘em guessing.

Strategy 2: Complications
In the first few years, give different classes different afternoons and mornings off each week. That way, families with more than one child will be kept on their toes with multiple childcare gaps and a different timetable for each child.

Strategy 3: The lunch trap
Close down the school for two hours in the middle of the day so that the timetable looks like this: Morning: 7.45a.m. to 11.30a.m.; Afternoon: 1.40p.m. to 3:30p.m.

Let the parents worry about where the children will eat and who will look after them. Provide a minimum number of places in an after-school programme nearby. Sit back and watch the parents scramble for these places, at their own expense.

Strategy 4: Rise and shine
Start school at an ungodly hour of the morning, so children are too sleepy to eat breakfast and parents are grateful for the children having random mornings off during the week to recover.

Ok, the early start is part and parcel of Swiss society. It’s the norm for people to start work before eight so we all have to go to bed early and get up early.

But the rest? I hear the argument sometimes that these timetables are geared towards children, based on the notion that starting school is a big change for children so they should be eased in gradually.

But I find it hard to believe such a lack of routine is good for children. What about the body clock? And I know it is not good for parents trying to organise childcare.

For stay-at-home mothers who are attached to their role, these timetables have one advantage. It makes them indispensable. They can rightly point out that they hardly have time to turn around, do the shopping and start cooking before the children are home again.

But what if this is a gilded cage? I want stay-at-home mothers to be valued, not shackled to the home. Is it good that mothers who have already put in a huge effort in the baby and pre-school years are so restricted they cannot think of taking on another activity during the 20 to 30 hours their school-gong children are away during the week?

Is there any other country clinging to this home-for-lunch model? In Ireland the four and five year olds attend school from 9a.m. to 1p.m., Monday to Friday. They eat a packed lunch at the 11a.m. break. From the age of six or seven (first class), the school day runs from 9a.m. to 2.30p.m.

This is not about treating schools as a babysitting service for selfish career-mongering parents (a view I’ve heard expressed), it is just a simple plea to stop pretending that the two worlds – home and school – have nothing to do with each other.

I should point out that my children like coming home at lunch on the days I am here but I wouldn’t consider it a hardship for them if things were different. They were just as happy doing five-and-a-half-hour days when they attended school in Dublin for a term.

More and more Swiss schools are adapting, and have begun to provide supervision and hot meals at lunchtime but it is still a minority. Maybe mothers will be able to ‘lean in’ a bit more when this becomes the norm.

Like most mothers of young children in Switzerland, I work part-time, and accept the trade-off that my career will stall for the time being, in return for spending more time with my children.

But to “escape” into the earning world even for 20 hours a week without live-in childcare requires some creative solutions. Last year I traded childcare with a neighbour, both of us taking on each other’s children for a 10-hour day. Luckily my husband also leans in to childcare duty and we have great support from family living nearby.

To repeat what I said earlier, it’s not that there’s a conspiracy to make life difficult for working mothers. It is just that the system evolved to complement a traditional situation which is no longer the reality for many families – and in some regions the winds of change have not yet arrived.

It’s complicated enough for two-parent families. Last week I heard a Swiss parliamentarian say that the majority of social welfare recipients are households headed by one parent. How many more of them would be able to hold down a job if their children weren’t coming and going every few hours?

So what do you think? Am I being unfair to the Swiss way of life? Would you swap your system for ours?

You’ll find more background on this topic in this article I wrote for swissinfo a couple of years ago: Swiss mothers hold back from having it all.

The wrong response to a distressing week

It’s been a distressing week for Irish parents, shocked by television footage of neglect and mistreatment of small children at three crèches, exposed in an undercover RTE investigation. The private childcare sector has mushroomed in Ireland over the past two decades and the inspection system is inadequate to say the least. So not only are Irish parents paying the highest fees for day care in Europe, they are now faced with the horrible fear that their children may not be safe.

The truth is that the vast majority of children cared for outside the home are well-treated and thriving in a familiar environment, just as most children cared for one-to-one in a home setting are loved and cherished. We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that good childcare is good for the child, regardless of the category, but unfortunately bad situations exist across the board.

The model of the mother at home all day to care for her children should not for a moment be idealised. Mothers lose their temper and their patience, many still hit their children. Some are isolated, depressed, or bored at home. There is no footage of their interaction with their children behind closed doors.

Parents automatically question the important decisions they make for their children and need no encouragement to feel guilty. We want desperately to get it right. There is nothing more important than the well-being of our children, which is why the last thing working parents need is a blanket condemnation of day care.

This morning we heard from an übermother on Irish radio sneering at “shiny corporate crèches” and telling us that children under the age of three should not be cared for in a group setting – full stop. If this is where the debate is heading then let’s call off the hounds. Such a simplistic and unfair pronouncement does nothing to help parents trying to make choices from realistic options, the thousands of families who put their trust in good people and come back to happy children at the end of the day.

No one way of looking after children trumps all others. Mothers, fathers, grandparents, neighbours, crèche workers and childminders are all fallible and can give children the very best and worst of themselves. It’s a cheap shot to question the whole validity of day care on the basis of some bad cases. That is a test no category of childcare will pass.