It’s not just Jersey

Over the past couple of weeks, a scandal has emerged of a serious culture of child abuse at a major children’s home on Jersey, Haut de la Garenne, which was closed several years ago and, until a body was discovered there two weeks ago, functioned as the island’s youth hostel. Jersey is an island off the coast of France, part of a group of self-governing mini-states which are British Crown dependencies or “bailiwicks”, which are British protectorates in foreign policy terms but are outside the European Union, have their own laws, and are tax havens. (The Isle of Man is another such entity.) Jersey has a population of just over 90,000, and the home would have “looked after” a large proportion of the children who were “in care” on the island when it was open.

This is, of course, not the first childcare scandal in the English-speaking world; the island’s small size and constitutional status seems to have a substantial bearing on why it has taken so long to emerge. It was already being investigated towards the end of last year, but when the state’s longest-serving parliamentarian used his customary Christmas speech to bring the issue to light, his microphone was switched off and many of his colleagues walked out. People seem not to want the community’s “dirty linen” washed in public, something which is unavoidable when it appears that vulnerable children died, or were severely abused. Some are in denial; one local interviewed by the Guardian last weekend suggested that the Germans, who occupied the islands during World War II, were responsible for the suspected deaths.

Among the abuses which have been reported are children being locked up for various “offences”, sometimes for as long as two weeks; children being beaten for the most trivial offences, including walking with a slouch; and children being sexually abused, to the point of rape of both boys and girls. In the Guardian yesterday, one former resident from the 1960s was quoted as saying that he knew of two boys who hanged themselves after being raped, and that a third died in the sick bay after a week of solitary confinement.

These abuses are shocking, but the fact is that nobody on the mainland, or anywhere else in the British Isles or the English-speaking world generally, has any right to get sanctimonious or smug about what has transpired about abuse in Jersey. In the UK, over the years, we have had stories about sexual abuse in various children’s homes, children taken from their families on manufactured suspicion of abuse, in one case only to be put in a locked institution where he was in fact abused; young people shut in mental institutions for decades on manufactured pretexts, usually to cover their being an embarrassment to their families, the trafficking of children from various “homes” in the UK to Canada, Australia and other places in the former Empire for slave labour purposes, and more. In recent years, I have heard the BBC give free publicity to an American organisation which runs private boot camps for difficult teenagers, usually in parts of the USA where childrens’ rights are weak or in the country’s third-world neighbours, which has understandably been the subject of various abuse allegations which the BBC did not mention. Much of what we know about abuse elsewhere in the UK and its “cousin” countries relates to things which happened at the same time as this abuse which has become known of in Jersey.

To give an example that I know of personally, because I experienced it, local councils were farming out some of the more difficult children from their schools to certain cowboy-run “special” schools in the private sector as late as the early 1990s. I have already written about things I witnessed and experienced, but to give a brief run-down: bullying aided and abetted by staff, violence and threats of violence from staff, open racism from staff, and a bit of sexual harassment from a few boys to boot. To my knowledge at least, nobody died at my school, but it was a miserable experience for a lot of people, and given that it was supposed to be a special school, a lot of people emerged worse than they went in - in a lot of cases, more mature, but with whatever problems led to their ending up there unaddressed.

Why do bad schools, like mine, persist? In large part, it is because people do not talk. Plenty of people knew more than enough about Kesgrave Hall to get the place shut down, among them parents and various staff who were nice enough to the boys when working there, but did not care enough to tell social services, the police or the press what they knew. Particularly in the early part of my time there, boys were being told that if they did not stay the course they would end up in a “DC” (detention centre), or that their education would be in jeopardy as nowhere else, supposedly, could offer them the same standard of education (which was not great, actually), and that another school, which had been dangled before some of us before we started there, was actually a chaotic place where kids had to be bribed to go to lessons (which is not how it was in the accounts of people who were actually there at the time, including the headmaster who wrote to me a few years ago). A particular problem at my school was that boys generally disliked each other, and were not inclined to implicate their favourite staff when the victims were people they did not like (which may well be why an investigation into physical abuse in 1992 did not get very far).

Perhaps some of the staff came to the conclusion that we were all as bad as each other, and I’ll grant that some of us were difficult to care for, as I’m sure some in the Jersey care home were, but duty is duty and if you suspect, let alone know, that a child, is being abused, let alone that several dozen children are being abused, you have a duty to talk, particularly if you already have a duty of care to those children. Abuse of all sorts thrives on fear and silence, and if you fear for your community’s reputation, a bit of openness early on will save a huge scandal later, as is the lesson of the present Jersey scandal. However, worse than your reputation suffering is that more children will suffer if you don’t talk.

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