Editorial : The Point of Apologies

Tuesday, December 1st, 2009

A Good Thing

On 16 November 2009 Kevin Rudd, the Australian Premier, apologised on behalf of the Government for the suffering of child immigrants from the UK. It was a straightforward message, and it went down well with the audience, who included some of the people who had been shipped out to Australia as children and the relatives of immigrants. The recognition by those in power of the suffering caused by earlier misuse of power gave the audience a sense that their unhappiness had been recognised and officially acknowledged.

We are not good at saying sorry, and it helps the victims to come to terms with their experiences when those in positions of authority have the humility to be able to do so. We know that power can be corrosive, making those in power defensive and overweening, and it is a sign of statesmanship to be able to acknowledge wrongs in this way.

Both from the audience’s viewpoint and in terms of the message about the politicians involved, this event was, then, a good thing.

It is said that Gordon Brown will apologise on behalf of the British Government in January 2010, and this too will be a good thing, as it is the child care agencies in the UK which initiated the movement of children to other countries. It would be good for the politicians and the child care agencies involved to make amends.

Spin Offs

As soon as one gets away from the simple message, the waters become muddied. Let us consider the process in general. People who are aggrieved because of the suffering usually want varying combinations of four things. First, they want an apology, since this acknowledges that there was something to apologise about, that they should not have had to undergo their suffering, and that someone else was responsible. For many people this is sufficient, as it answers very basic feelings of distress.

In parallel, people usually want the harmful action to stop; it is as if the sacrifice of those who suffered is validated if others do not need to go through the same experience as a result. In the case of the shipping of children to the dominions, the last child went in 1968, and there can be no satisfaction in effecting a change of  policy, as it that was done over forty years ago.

Sometimes people want to see the individuals who inflicted the harm brought to justice - prosecuted or disciplined or shown up in public by an inquiry. In this case it is most unlikely that any professional involved in the decisions is still in practice, and many will have died. There is no real prospect of any restorative action.

Finally, there is the question of financial compensation. The threat of major pay-outs is one of the reasons why those in authority do not say sorry - in case the admission makes them liable to massive amounts of compensation. In Ireland there has been a systematic approach to recompensing the thousands of children abused in care. In the case of the children sent to Australia there has already been mention made of this issue. There are three elements:

- they may need money to pay for therapy to come to terms with their experiences;

- they may seek redress for identifiable losses, such as careers stunted by abuse during childhood;

- they may simply want money as an accepted token in our culture as a recompense for the awful things they have endured, both as children and as a consequence as adults.

Other Viewpoints

It is at this point that people uninvolved in such claims sometimes start to lose sympathy with the victims. They may see them as gold-diggers, complaining simply to get money. Such a reaction may be quite unfair, but it is widely expressed in relation to former children in care suing local authorities for negligence.

Then there is the point that some people have made good despite their experiences. In the case of the children who emigrated from Britain, some seized the opportunities offered in Australia and other countries. Despite their childhood experiences they have done well in their careers, married, had families and created lifestyles. If they had not been shipped out, they might not have had such opportunities. Such success does not negate feelings of loss or past hurt which such people may still have, but it has to be acknowledged that the process had benefits as well as the harmful aspects which are the subject of the current round of apologies.

If the people who arranged the emigration of the children from Britain were around, they would probably be horrified to hear the universal criticism levelled at the system. They would claim to have been well-intentioned, to have given the children a chance to break with the past, to have been providing new opportunities for the children in a young and developing country.

It is certainly hard to accept the lies told to the children that they were orphans or had no siblings, but in those days there was a strong belief that children from damaged homes or delinquent backgrounds needed to be cut off from their roots and given a fresh start. (The same approach was taken with adoption until fairly recently. It was often kept secret from the children, so clean was the break with the rejected past.)

Going further back, the roots of the practice of assisting children’s emigration go back to the eighteenth century when people such as Jonas Hanway and Thomas Coram set up philanthropic institutions, partly motivated by wanting to train young people as sailors or to prepare them to play a role in the expanding British Empire. Their motivation was certainly altruistic in the children’s interests, but the children were seen in the wider context of the needs of the country and the roles which they could fulfil as adults.

The practice of helping children in care to emigrate grew up mainly in the nineteenth century. In those days the slums from which the children came were appalling, with high death rates among children and very little prospect of education as a means for them to better themselves. Children in institutions were often envied their regular food, clean clothes and shoes, when those in the communities went hungry, badly clad and shoeless, even in the first half of the twentieth century.

The big institutions such as reformatories were built in the countryside to escape the filth and pollution of the cities. The miasma or atmosphere in the cities was seen as a cause of illness and death, and the impact of poverty drove many young people into crime. Reforming children was a physical, mental, moral and spiritual task.

Going to the dominions was a further chance for these children to enjoy clean air, a healthier life-style and the chance to make money. There are records of boys from reformatories doing well abroad and encouraging others to join them. The point of this line of argument is not to deny that many were exploited and abused, but that was not the intention. The hope was to better the lives of children, and some did well.

Questions for the Future

As often happens, once the system was in action it rolled along like a juggernaut, and was insufficiently scrutinised or questioned, and the movement of children in this way went on too long.

The programme is now in the past; no one will revive it; what we are doing is resolving painful memories. The real lesson is to ask what we are doing now which people will look back on in 2050 and be horrified that such practice was possible. If we are to learn from the need to apologise now, it is that we need to sensitise ourselves, to be alert to what is going wrong, to be prepared to admit our current failures, and to change practice.

What about all the children whose supervision is fragmented by the current churn of social workers? Will they want an apology? What about the children whose adoptions break down because of Tony Blair’s campaign to increase the adoption rate? Will they seek damages from him? What about the children who refuse to disclose abuse by their fathers because the system’s only response is to fragment their families and take legal action against the abusers? Will they be suing because we failed to intervene constructively and protect them? What about the children who request children’s home places but who suffer multiple fostering breakdowns because of their social workers’ opposition to residential care? Will they want damages?

The list of questions could be very long, because work with children and families is complex and can easily go wrong. We may look back in horror on the forced emigration, but it was commenced with good intentions. What we are doing today with the best of intentions may also be deemed harmful retrospectively in due course. If we are to learn from the need to apologise, it will be by scrutinising our current practice very thoroughly.

Children affected by questions such as those raised above may not form readily identifiable groups like the people who were compulsorily emigrated, but there is already a growing trend to seek damages for negligence, and the services in many authorities are vulnerable to such allegations. Some may simply want to understand their experiences (as in Keith White’s column this month); some be satisfied with apologies; some may want systems to change; some may seek action against specific individuals who they feel failed them; some may seek damages.

Clearly, we ideally need to have first-rate child care services which are not open to criticisms and allegations of negligence, but because workers, children and their families are all human, there will be failings. We need not only to be alert to ways in which we may be failing children, but also to help them to understand about the ways in which their childhoods evolved and to come to terms with the decisions taken about them. In this way, we may reduce the legacy of bitterness some former children in care feel towards those who were trying to work in their best interests, and maybe prevent the need for formal apologies by future prime ministers.

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