Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Mark Smith on allegations of historic abuse

'EARLIER THIS MONTH,' writes Mark Smith, 'I sat in Court and watched a former colleague, a 74-year-old religious Brother whose entire life had been spent helping others, jailed.

'His crime was to have used an electricity-generating device as an instrument of torture to punish boys. Now there will be those for whom the conviction of a member of a religious order will come as no surprise — after all it is easy, given lurid headlines about psychopathic nuns and pervy priests, to conclude that they were all involved or complicit in abuse. It is a conclusion that some people seem almost to take pleasure in reaching.

'Of course had the Brother involved actually electrocuted kids then a jail sentence would seem only appropriate. But he hadn’t. '

To read the rest of Mark Smith's most recent column for cyc-online, the journal of the International Child and Youth Care Network, click here.

Mark Smith, who is a lecturer in social work at the University of Edinburgh, writes about residential care with particular authority.

This is not primarily because he is an academic. It is because his academic career is based on the foundation of twenty years experience in the residential social work sector, where he eventually became the principal of a secure unit.

In an earlier article, published in the journal Practice, he explained how his interest in the subject of historic abuse allegations came about:

'There is perhaps a default position that leads social workers to accept a view that abuse in residential care settings was widespread, reflecting the pre-eminent place of child protection in the profession's recent history. This is sustainable so long as the setting in question is not one we know. Most of my experiences as a practitioner and manager in residential care settings over a period of almost 20 years had been positive with not a hint of systematic or institutionalised abuse. Then, over the past few years, schools and individuals I knew well became implicated in claims of abuse. Many of the allegations simply did not fit with basic facts. I began to follow cases, keeping press cuttings and attending court sittings. I also began to look more critically at the literature on institutional abuse.'

His most recent article goes on to make reference to my own work and to the Jersey case. But it is not for that reason that I include it here. It is because it illustrates, as well as any piece of writing, the dangers of reposing faith in justice when it comes to historic abuse investigations.

The fact that Mark Smith's former colleague had not tortured any boys with electric shocks ultimately proved irrelevant to the court which tried him. He, like many other innocent care workers, received a prison sentence for crimes which had never been committed.

He did so because of the power of a narrative which has been built up over twenty years. This narrative maintains, in the face of a mass of contemporary evidence to the contrary, that physical and sexual abuse was rife in residential care throughout the second half of the twentieth century.

Nowhere, perhaps, has this narrative been deployed with greater force than in relation to the allegations about Haut de la Garenne.

Monday, 9 June 2008

A redress board for Jersey?

SOME TWO WEEKS have elapsed since my last post about the Haut de la Garenne inquiry. During this time there have been a number of developments in the story, none of which has led to any dramatic change in the overall situation.

Those who have followed the news coverage of the Jersey inquiry would not necessarily be aware of this. A week ago, on the evening of Sunday 1 June, the BBC Radio 4 news bulletin broadcast as its lead item the news that another suspect had been arrested in relation to allegations of abuse at Haut de la Garenne.

News of the cyclone in Burma and the earthquakes in China was evidently considered less important than the latest twist in the Jersey story.

What the BBC did not tell us, and what practically no other newspaper drew attention to in the following days, was that the man who had been arrested was aged between 14 and 17 at the time of the alleged offences.

In other words these allegations did not point , as most reports implied, to a breach of trust by a care worker, but to sexual offences carried out by one child on three younger children at a time when all were in care at Haut de la Garenne.

The failure of the British media to report this salient fact is merely the latest example of a saga of misrepresentation and shallow or misleading coverage which most editors appear to have no desire to correct. This kind of reporting, consisting largely in the suppression of significant facts, might be thought to be more appropriate to a totalitarian regime than to a democracy with an allegedly free press.

There have also been a number of other developments. More than a week ago the Jersey Evening Post reported that calls had been made by victims' advocates for Jersey to set up a 'Redress Board'. In practice this would mean that compensation could be awarded to alleged victims without the the need for allegations to be tested in a criminal court. In support of this move Fay Maxted, chief executive of the Survivors' Trust, actually cited the examples provided by compensation schemes set up both in the Republic of Ireland and in Nova Scotia:

"The redress boards set up in Nova Scotia and Ontario in the 1990s, and in Ireland in 2002, have been able to allow victims the opportunity to be heard and recompensed in some way and given communities the opportunity to challenge the silence and secrecy that concealed the abuse in the past."

Today almost exactly the same story appears in the Guardian. What neither the Jersey Evening Post nor the Guardian pointed out was that there is a significant amount of evidence that both in Ireland and Nova Scotia these schemes have in practice functioned almost as a compensation-on-demand scheme for anyone who has made allegations of abuse, whether or not there is any evidence to support these allegations.

In both cases there have been well-informed claims that the creation of such redress schemes has led to, or intensified, a veritable culture of false allegations. This is the argument put forward by Herman Kelly in the closing sections of his book Kathy's Real Story: A Culture of False Allegations Exposed. The same argument was also implicit in the conclusions of the Canadian judge Fred Kaufman when he was commissioned by the Nova Scotia government to conduct an inquiry into the compensation scheme there.

For my own comment on the workings of the Irish redress board, click here.

If the Jersey parliament were to act on the ill-judged recommendations reported today by the Guardian, they would be committing an act of the grossest kind of folly.

Meanwhile Jersey's chief minister, Frank Walker, has called on elected representatives in Jersey to 'stay silent' and refrain from passing any comments on the conduct of the police investigation. 'Our major concern,' he has said, 'is that nothing should undermine the fairness of the judicial process in the interests both of the complainants and those charged.'

The sentiments which the chief minister expresses in these words are admirable. Prejudicial publicity about alleged crimes in advance of criminal trials taking place does indeed pose a threat to justice. This is the principal reason why senior police officers usually refrain from making any comment about the evidence they have gathered in advance of a criminal trial taking place.

Unfortunately, although the minister has imposed a duty of silence on Jersey's elected representatives, he has imposed no such duty on Lenny Harper, the deputy chief officer of the Jersey police. Indeed it may well be that he is quite powerless to do so.

It is precisely because Harper has been systematically undermining the fairness of the judicial process from the day in February when he told the press that '
We have never doubted that the people who contacted us are telling the truth' until now, that he has been criticised so severely by so many people.

Since justice and fairness are indeed vital it would seem to be extremely important that Jersey's politicians should feel free to speak out if they genuinely believe that principles of justice are being violated.