Care Home Kid: letting them off lightly?

I watched the first part of Neil Morrissey’s Care Home Kid series yesterday (on iPlayer, where viewers in the UK can see it until next Monday) with much interest. Although I never was in care myself, I was at a special boarding school in the early 1990s and a lot of the kids there with me were in care. I first read of the series in this article in the Guardian Society supplement last Wednesday, and there was this review in yesterday’s G2, which accused Morrissey of letting the social worker who put him and his brother in care off lightly.

My biggest criticism of the programme was that it focussed too heavily on the time when Neil Morrissey himself was in care, that is to say, the mid to late 1970s (with some attention to the early 1980s as well). That was a time when a lot of the old “children’s villages” were still in existence, when whole streets were given over to children’s homes, and when a lot of the worst scandals happened; but it’s not the whole story and some of the same problems highlighted still existed when I had my experience of institutional “care” from 1989 to 1993. The extreme abuse which took place at the “home” where Morrissey’s older brother was incarcerated (as it was a secure unit) had no parallel at my school, but the problem of totally unsuitable staff who clearly did not like children (I’ve long said they appeared to have been recruited down the pub) was obvious. Some boys from another special boarding school, Berrow Wood in Worcestershire, have posted comments on previous entries here, and their stories are much more distressing than most of what went on at my school. (Some of them tried suing the councils that sent them there, but lost their case as the councils were not deemed responsible for what happened to the children in their care at private boarding schools.)

He interviewed a number of people, all roughly the same age as himself, who had been in care homes in Staffordshire at the time; there were two women who had asked to be taken into care because they were always seeing their father beat their mother, to the point where their older brother attacked their father with an axe, but two men who were in the Riverside secure unit told Morrissey some very distressing tales of sexual abuse and isolation (known as “pin down”, in which children were locked in rooms for hours or days on their own).

Towards the end of the programme, he got to meet the social worker whose name had come up time and again in his files, and played a major part in the decision to put the Morrisseys into care in the first place. Neil Morrissey seemed very upset by the fact that he and his brother were taken away from their family and separated for years for what seemed like trivial offences (in particular, repeated petty theft), and said that only “cruel bastards” would do such a thing. His files said that he seemed to have no moral standards, and the family today clearly regarded their thieving as basically nothing. However, the social worker explained that he and his team had tried desperately to try and keep the family together, but could not work with his parents, as they were never able to supervise the children due to their shift work, and neither of them accepted that keeping a clean house was their job, and ultimately, the boys had to be taken away as the environment was damaging to them.

However, Neil Morrissey seems to have been mollified somewhat by his explanation, perhaps because he ended up in a relatively benign home, even though others were being abused in the same street that he lived in. His brother was sent to a place where boys were being raped and shut up alone for days, and whatever mischief they were getting up to at home and whatever danger they were in, they were not sexually assaulting anyone, as far as can be told, or being raped, or suffering other serious cruelty. Perhaps that was not this particular social worker’s own fault, but the question was not even put to him and should have been, in my opinion.

Next week, the programme deals with the situation facing care leavers (part of Neil Morrissey’s own story is in the Society Guardian link above), who face notorious difficulty as their “care” tails off very quickly when they reach adulthood, which is usually not the case for children raised by their own families these days.

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