Children Abused in Institutions – Lessons Still to be Learned by Wally Harbert

Wally was Hackneys Director of Social Services, later Avon County Council Director of Social Services, President of the Association of Directors of Social Services in 1978/9 and was awarded the OBE in 1984.

His other posts on this blog are here Wally Harberts posts [1]

Time and again we do not learn the lessons from the past about child abuse. IICSA could start by publically releasing all reports about child sexual abuse but years in to the investigation, still no documents. If we cannot read about the past how can we learn from it?

This is another informative post from Wally Harbert.

 Children abused in institutions – lessons have still to be learned

The abuse of children is as old as the hills but has only recently been the subject of polite conversation. Every cohort of children has faced challenges. Mine was sent away to live with strangers to avoid Hitler’s bombs. We found hay barns were used for purposes other than storing hay. Children who returned to live in towns discovered that windowless, scream-proof air raid shelters had a different use after the all-clear sounded. We were all survivors.

 This paper describes my experiences as a director of social services from 1970 to 1990. The Children and Young Persons Act 1969 had designated approved schools Community Homes with Education, responsible to social services departments.  Most were run by charities whose trustees served as governors. Some trustees and staff resented “outside interference” but were obliged to follow a local authority’s rules to receive funding. Some homes were, what Erving Goffman called total institutions – isolated, enclosed social systems whose primary purpose was to control residents’ lives; total institutions include prisons, mental hospitals and military training camps – all unsuitable models for establishments to enhance the social development of children – unless staff are well trained and supervised.

 The absence of child-centred policies

Approved schools were in a time warp well before their transfer with disagreement about whether their purpose was care or punishment. Staff came from a variety of backgrounds, including the military; in the absence of appropriate skills, homes often adopted militaristic regimes because that was the cheapest and easiest way to run them. Respect from peers, trustees and governors depended on staff being seen to be in control. There was little or no understanding of how to prevent or contain aggressive and violent behaviour. Research showed that, when violence occurred between staff and children, staff commonly struck the first blow.

 Lacking necessary skills, some homes invented control systems with pseudo-professional titles like “regression therapy” and “pin-down” or encouraged bullying by older children. Like routines in military training camps, they were designed to command obedience by stripping children of their dignity and sense of worth. They represented crude retaliation, humiliation, abuse and sexual domination as sophisticated therapies. Fearful, docile and acquiescent children could be regarded as a prized outcome. Typically, homes were located in extensive grounds – too remote for neighbours to hear a child’s screams. Child care experts derisively called them Mouldering Bastions.

 Responsibility for children’s services was nominally held by social services departments but, in practice, decisions were often fragmented between officers of several departments including education, human resources, legal services, estates services, equal opportunities, public relations and finance; each department was responsible to a different committee with its own regulations, protocols, objectives and timescales. Everyone and no one was in charge. Children and their needs fell through the cracks.

 How denial became the default response to abuse

Investigating allegations of wrongdoing in homes risked bad publicity and tension with trades unions. Litigation might follow which, unless carefully handled, could invalidate council insurances. It was seen by some as grossly unfair that wayward and untrustworthy children might wield power over the careers of blameless staff. Some considered it better to give the staff concerned a metaphorical clip round the ear and tell them to be more careful in future rather than risk receiving an embarrassing report requiring action. 

 When I told a governor of a home that I was about to investigate allegations of abuse he said I was trying to engineer its closure. During investigations staff were confident that there would be an inquiry into the conduct of the investigation and, without consulting me, the chief executive began a clandestine inquiry into how it was being conducted. My investigators were confronted by a wall of silence. “Squealers” received threats of violence to themselves and their families and mysterious scratches appeared on their cars. The inquiry revealed widespread malpractices and revealed that governors discussed the investigation with staff as it progressed.

It was difficult to uncover the truth about abuse in homes but, when abusers knew governors actively opposed an investigation and that the chief executive was questioning its conduct, the home was rendered unmanageable. While they surreptitiously chased imaginary conspiracies, the governors and the chief executive placed abused children, as well as innocent staff, in danger, abandoning them to the bullies. I found I had regained control when, following the investigation, there was no murmur from the chief executive or governors as I disciplined staff. But it is no surprise that some abuse was not detected until several years later.

 A lawyer told me that, due to a legal technicality, I had no authority to discipline or exclude an abusing staff member from a specialist home accommodating some of the most troublesome and troubled boys in England. The chief executive (also a lawyer) confirmed this decision. When I told the Health Department I no longer regarded myself as responsible for the home it threatened to close it. The edifice of half-truths constructed to justify children being left at risk now crumbled and the staff member was moved to the education service where he continued working with children until arrested for an offence against a child some years later.

 In my experience, lawyers in the public service did not represent the interests of the public or of children. Their clients were councillors. The Shirley Oaks Survivors’ Association, with over 700 members, has expressed a profound distrust of lawyers. Many victims of abuse who encounter lawyers find them acting for third parties seeking to prove that claims of abuse are false, exaggerated, out of time or all three. The Hillsborough Family Support Group had similar experiences and fought twenty five years for justice. He who pays the lawyer usually has the deepest pockets and, almost invariably, calls the tune.

 I sat through many passionate Council debates about the needs of children but, too often, the children councillors had in mind were their own and those of other aspiring middle-class families. Children from dysfunctional working class families seldom came under scrutiny. There was no Lord Shaftesbury, Barnardo or Mary Carpenter to champion an unpopular cause or nudge the public conscience. Residential care had some high quality staff but a few rotten apples were allowed, largely by an arcane system of governance, to infect the whole barrel.


The need to improve staff training in children’s services is unfinished business from 1969. Reforms promised at that time were not fully achieved due to inadequate funding. Following the death of Adam Rickwood at the age of 14 in a Secure Training Centre, a recent Freedom of Information Request obtained the Waplington Report. 2017 Mar 21 Cathy Fox Blog Waplington Report (Youth Justice Board, Hassockfield STC) [2]. It concludes that physical restraint is applied to children in Secure Training Centres too soon and too frequently, escalating tensions between staff and children and leading to violence.

 If hospital Accident and Emergency units were run by inadequately trained staff we would expect poor outcomes and a clamour for change from a shocked public. But these are friendless and frightened children. They provoke public indifference, even, hostility. Vulnerable children suffer life-changing traumas unheeded and sometimes, die alone. The struggle to persuade governments to invest in quality services for working class children goes on; it will be greatly strengthened by a combined attack from professionals and survivors’ groups.

Please note that victims of abuse may be triggered by reading this information. These links are generally UK based.

  • The Sanctuary for the Abused [A] has advice on how to prevent triggers.
  • National Association for People Abused in Childhood [B] has a freephone helpline and has links to local support groups.
  • One in Four [C]
  • Havoca [D].
  • Useful post on Triggers [E]  from SurvivorsJustice [F] blog.
  • Jim Hoppers pages on Mindfulness [G]  and Meditation [H] may be useful.
  • Hwaairfan blog An Indigenous Australian Approach to Healing Trauma  [J]
  • Survivors UK for victims and survivors of male rape or the sexual abuse of men [K]
  • Voicing CSA group [L] helps arrange survivors meetings in your area
  • A Prescription for me blog Various emotional support links [M]
  • ShatterBoys -“Male Survivors Of Childhood Sexual Abuse Inspiring change, Through Shared Experience Whilst Building Connections…Together We Can Heal” [N]


[1] Cathy Fox Blog Wally Harberts posts

[2] 2017 Mar 21 Cathy Fox Blog Waplington Report (Youth Justice Board, Hassockfield STC)

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11 Responses to Children Abused in Institutions – Lessons Still to be Learned by Wally Harbert

  1. truth1 says:

    Here is how I see it. The biggest problem! Institutionalized schooling, without a doubt. Children cared for by strangers. They should be at home. Some will answer back, Many homes abuse them, too. Maybe but not nearly on the same scale as systematic institutionalized rape, etc. Governments want our kids. They have no right to them! ? Unless you can change this. we are doomed. I don’t believe change is possible. Only God can fix this utter mess.

    I have one other idea, though. In general, the adult world is insensitive to children. Children are born very sensitive. But as adults, we have accumulated a lot of insensitivity and get hard and indifferent and calloused. Kids get used to our indifference and figure that we don’t understand or care. So they don’t come to us with problems or think we do not care. So they silently suffer because the adult world turns a deaf ear to them and their feelings. They feel like their feelings and wants and dislikes to not matter and they withdraw.

    Children would be far more likely to speak out if their parents seemed to be more sensitive and willing to listen and really cared about their feelings. A strong bond of love between parents and child is the most safe and secure connection that is sure to cause the child to want tell how they feel or what is happening to them.

    Mind control Seeks to do the very opposite. Harm a child, and make them feel worthless and like their feelings do not matter for anything and they give up all hope inside and surrender to whatever is required. They dare not do otherwise.

    Adults love to make excuse for themselves and being wrapped up in themselves and ignore the child or even take out anger on a child, because they, the adult, id not happy or is feeling miserable.

    So must adults need to get off their self-pity trip and grow, take some responsibility for their lives and put their own misery aside, that their parents gave to them and pay attention to their child or children. This is the only way. Otherwise, it just keeps getting worse, not better. After age 20, we have no excuse. grow up or do the world a favor and get out of it.

    I’d like to thank my father for teaching me that hard lesson the hard way. Now I know how not to raise a kid as well the right way to do. We learn or we are useless.

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