I was a young teacher in a rural secondary school and my turn had come to do “The Morning Broadcast”. This was like a school radio equivalent of morning assembly, without a religious theme. My choice of subject was the United Nations International Year of the Child, which marked the twentieth anniversary of the 1959 Declaration of the Rights of the Child. Ten years later the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and in 1992 it came into force in the UK.
During the nascent years of UNCRC I was fairly busy – in 1980 I set off travelling for a year in Europe, Asia and Australia – a life enhancing experience, but nowhere near as educational as the following years that I spent back home working with young people in care. In the 1980s the voice of young people in care was just, but only just, starting to be heard. It was only a small whisper and to be truly heard it should have been a deafening roar.
The young people I worked with had led tough lives, often in poverty or neglect, frequently in abusive family relationships. Going into care, notwithstanding the trauma of separation, should have offered them a safe haven. But in many cases those young people became further abused and exploited by the very people who should have been supporting them. Years later I discovered that these abuses had been happening under my own nose and had painful exchanges with some of the survivors who by then were grown up.
During the time I was working in the care system there were thousands of abuses happening the length of the UK in children’s homes, boarding schools and young offender institutions, though knowledge of these only became public decades later, thanks in part to the backdrop of UNCRC that gave brave individuals the framework they needed to get their stories heard publicly.
Only a few years before my school broadcast, in around 1970, the last shipment of human cargo was quietly sent from this country to Australia, Canada and the United States of America. The cargo consisted of children, all of whom were judged by the government of the day as well as various “caring” and religious agencies, to be suitable for repatriation thousands of miles away in an alien country. Noone ever once considered what the children themselves might want. Subsequent heroic work by social worker Margaret Humphries with many of the Australian survivors revealed shattered lives, people who had spent lifetimes of longing, not knowing who they were, not quite belonging. And for so many of them the shaming, searing question that could stand in the way of friendship, love, family, career: “Why didn’t my mother want to keep me?” It is thought that over 150,000 children were sent to Australia, Canada and the USA under the Home Children programme that ran for around a hundred years.
Many of these children were misled into believing they were orphans, while others were told they had been given up at birth. The truth was rarely so neat, as I discovered through my own family connection to this wholesale abuse of innocents: in the late 1960s my grandmother received a letter from her lost sister in Canada. Aunt Frances spent three weeks in the UK, seeing her sister and brothers for the first time in sixty years. It transpired my great grandmother had six illegitimate children with a shopkeeper who was too high class for her to marry. Four children died, a surviving boy was brought up by his grandmother (herself a mother of twenty two) and the surviving girl, Frances, was placed in residential care. When Frances reached the age of twelve she was placed on the Home Children programme, her mother was persuaded that she would have a better life in Canada and signed the papers, giving her up. By that time Frances’ mother was married and had borne two more children, Louie, my grandmother and a boy ten years later.
Poverty, illegitimacy (scandalous then), illiteracy and a total lack of agency characterised the conditions in which parents, usually single mothers, were coerced into giving up their children. This has been painfully described in Martin Sixsmith’s story, Philomena, subsequently made into a film of the same name, which centres on the Irish Catholic Church practice, which continued into the 1970s, of procuring children for adoptive parents in the USA by the bullying of young women at the hands of nuns. It is a big enough sin that young, poor, befuddled parents were duped into giving up their children, but it pales in comparison to the injustice served on the thousands of children sentenced at best to a life without a centre, ‘the orphan’s sense of exclusion” (Sixsmith p216) but at worst to an existence of servitude, slavery and abuse.
My belief in children’s rights is unshakeable, but I know that belief is not sufficient. All those years ago some of the young people in my care made attempts to tell me they were being abused. I didn’t understand what they were trying to say and they didn’t know how to be more explicit. Many of them stayed silent.
Times have changed, we have moved on, not as fast as I would have hoped, but we have many more tools at our disposal. Digital technology provides one way in which children and young people are able to express their wishes and needs at times and in ways that suit them – and in privacy. It is why I am proud to have backed Mind of my Own from the start. MOMO alone is not the answer but it is at the forefront of positive change, which is where I want to be.
(This post will also appear on the Mind of my Own blog)