No love, no control. They were open for abuse

Published in The Times – 12th May 2012

STANDFIRST: The Rochdale rape victims were not just emotionally deprived. They were let down by an overindulgent care system

here are many guilty parties in the Rochdale child-grooming ring. Obviously, the biggest villains are the vile men who saw girls as little more than sport and objects to abuse. The police who consciously or unconsciously looked the other way also need more than a rap across the knuckles. But the other culprits are the people who make a living out of allegedly caring for our children.

One of the victims was in the care of a business that was charging £250,000 a year to look after her. Despite living in “solo care” and being entitled to 24-hour care and protection, she disappeared on so many occasions that it makes a mockery of the company’s claim to be looking after her 24/7. How did we get to this awful absurdity where a 15-year-old girl, already known to be susceptible to sexual grooming, can disappear for up to a fortnight from a home created especially for her?

I was brought up by nuns in a Catholic orphanage from the age of 7 to 10. There was little love for the children of broken slum families in the 1950s, so the regime was hard, even inhumane. Beatings and little cruelties were commonplace. I can still picture Sister Catherine, who used to run the sewing room, jabbing her needle into her little charges. We were simply statistics to be marched hither and thither. Our rights were ignored — because we had none.

This old, cruel regime worked well for producing deeply troubled children who could be slotted into the British class system. Some, like me, fell into prison, but even deeply traumatised children generally fitted into the semi- or unskilled world of factory workers.

There was a reaction to this Dickensian toughness. Indignation, along with the arrival of a more individualist age, resulted in a more relaxed, child-centred approach. But this hands-off liberalism also meant that children’s departments and local authorities gave up trying to control the children passed into their care.

What is appalling about the 15-year-old girl at the centre of the Rochdale case is that it seems no one was prepared, or felt legally confident, to restrain her. Left to their own devices, many young people in care will put themselves into danger. That’s because they suffer not so much from physical privation as “emotional poverty”. Starved of love from their families, these children haven’t built up enough trust to tell responsible adults if they are being abused. They may not even have the words to describe what is happening to them.

Life is so bad that any form of attention, even gifts of vodka and cigarettes from abusers, is mistaken for love and a sense of being important to someone. Street children I have known have sought out contact with anyone who makes them the centre of attention — even if the adults intentions are perverted. This emotional poverty makes the vulnerable even more vulnerable.

As a child, because of my constant running away from a violent home life, I put myself in the way of molesters and abusers of young boys. I fought them off, but a lack of parental love left me empty and violent, seeking relief in drink, drugs and wild behaviour. My own emotional poverty led me into revolutionary politics, joining a diehard, cultist group simply to find some kind of escape in my life.

So when I hear of these young violated children I can see their emotional poverty contributing to their vulnerability. Add to this the fact that the social services authorities walk on eggshells and these girls were open for abuse. This was the unintended consequence of a more liberal, child-centred regime.

But not only is local authority care a poor way to handle the children of failing families it is also an expensive way — and the bill keeps going up. Not long after David Cameron became the Conservative leader I visited him to talk about The Big Issue and our relationship with children in care. We had recently done a Londonwide survey of our vendors and found that more than 70 per cent had been in care.

I asked Mr Cameron how much his family had spent on making him the Old Etonian, Old Oxonian who now ran the Tory party. I had made a wild guess that it would be about a third of a million pounds. He assured me that his family had done such an exercise and it worked out at nearer to a quarter of a million. He was astonished when I told him that he was “cheap” to produce. The average Big Issue vendor cost more than a million pounds to create. Most vendors had been in care for ten years at a cost of more than £2,000 per week. It is easy to reach that million- pound mark. This treasure chest of taxpayers’ money means that children in care are not just a sexual opportunity for bad men, but a financial opportunity for businesses like the private equity group 3i.

We have to start protecting our children again, not pussyfooting around them and their rights. To do that we need to start building homes run by more ordinary people, not the so-called specialists who have spectacularly failed.

One of the best places I fell into was a reformatory. Builders, gardeners and plumbers taught us practical skills; they did not view us as pyschologically scarred. I was lucky to get out of youth offending before the white coats took over. Today, the psychoanalysing school of help casts everyone into the role of victim, taking away people’s responsibility for themselves.

We need to stop growing problem children by letting the social work professionals treat them as members of a troubled aristocracy where their whim is law. We need to bring these children back into their community, not ship them to where some business needs them. We need to tread on the eggshells and grind them into the ground.

I don’t want to return to the draconian system I grew up in, but the liberal way hasn’t worked either. We need a commonsense approach to troubled children that does not endorse their vulnerability and make them the plaything of the vile. That means getting tough with children and their tormentors, and with the authorities and businesses that almost put them out to be exploited.

One Response to “No love, no control. They were open for abuse”

  1. rachel February 22, 2014 at 8:42 pm #

    Teaching youngsters trade skills makes sense. Be it nail art, plumbing, horticulture, website design …the young person will now have something to sell in addition to their body.

    It also makes sense not to treat people who end up in the web of social services as victims. If we ‘victimise’ people in this way we are saying that they have learned nothing from their lives except how to live less well and become second class citizens, ‘helped’ by social workers and consultant psychiatrists who make a very nice living out of their work and can thereby afford to privatise their lives and those of their children.

    I have lived experience of coming from a troubled home. Yes, I am messed up inside. My early years have also taught me resilience and an active awareness of what injustice is and how to be against. These life skills have always stood me in good stead.

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