Here are the first of two blogs about abuse in children’s homes which Wally Harbert has sent. He is also forwarding them to IICSA. I shall post the other next week.
Responding to Collective Astigmatism
Collective Astigmatism is when a whole group of people do not believe what they are seeing. It is particularly prevalent in the public service. If a rogue hospital or doctor provides an inferior service, staff, including senior managers, soon become aware but it may be many months or even years before the problem is openly acknowledged and remedial action taken.
When the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse reports we shall doubtless be provided with many examples of this phenomena in which people with authority have refused to believe the overwhelming evidence of abuse that has been placed before them. Their actions have unwittingly facilitated abuse to flourish.
As a director of social services throughout the 1970’s and 80’s I and my managers sometimes knew that children in care were being mistreated. At other times we were 90% certain and sought further evidence. But the prevailing culture among councillors and charity trustees was to deny the existence of abuse. So confident were they in their views that I was criticised for taking allegations of abuse seriously and instructed to cease investigations in order to avoid staff anxiety.
It can be risky for a public servant to disobey instructions but asking for a written directive was another matter. People who told me how to respond to allegations of abuse were reluctant to leave their fingerprints at the scene of the crime. If I had carried out their wishes I would have been left carrying the can when things went awry.
On an occasion when I received a written instruction not to exclude an abusing member of staff from a home I complied but declared I no longer regarded myself as responsible for events in the building. The Department of Health threatened to close it. It should not have been necessary to put my job at risk to protect children but I was not the only director obliged to test the system in this way.
When I indicated that staffing levels in homes were dangerously low, a sub- committee was established to study how I managed the department; after meeting regularly for over a year it reached no conclusions and abolished itself. On another occasion, in response to my allegation about the unsatisfactory behaviour of a member of staff in a home, an inquiry was established into how the home was managed. As long as the Council appeared to respond to criticisms it could avoid doing anything about them.
Why was there so much reluctance to face facts? To believe that someone who is employed to meet the personal needs of others would deliberately seek to harm them is counter intuitive. It is so abhorrent that evidence of wrongdoing may be disbelieved without a second thought. Child abuse makes us feel uncomfortable. If we ignore it, perhaps it will go away.
There were other reasons. Money was short and politicians resented me hi-jacking their spending priorities, particularly as many abused children come from failing and dysfunctional families. These children are often educational drop-outs; they can be aggressive, mouthy and difficult to engage in a meaningful conversation. It is easy to argue, in the abstract, for improvements to children’s services but, when they become adolescents, a caring response can give way to impatience, irritation and intolerance. Our hearts do not immediately go out to an insolent, ill-mannered, gawky and defiant adolescent. Spending money on such children is not a vote-winner.
That is why over 1400 sexually abused girls under 15 in Rotherham were let down by public services. Their cries for help were ignored because they led chaotic lives – as adolescents are prone to do. In the deep recesses of the public’s consciousness there is a feeling that misbehaving children do not deserve help and should be punished. It is no surprise that this attitude is shared by politicians although there is simply no excuse for silence by professionals.
We all have blind spots in our understanding of human nature but we must learn from the fact that, over the years, many people in many places failed to connect the dots – even when they were warned about what was happening. Perhaps we should be grateful to Jimmy Savile whose celebrity status makes it less likely that allegations of abuse will be ignored in future.
Wally Harbert 28th July 2017
Wally’s previous posts on Cathy Fox Blog Wally Harberts previous posts 
2014 Nov 9 Cathy Fox Blog Child Protection in a Hostile Environment by Wally Harbert 
2014 Nov 21 cathy fox blog Bent Twigs by Wally Harbert 
2015 Feb 3 Cathy Fox Blog Historic Abuse in Children’s Homes – The Management Context by Wally Harbert 
2016 Sept 28 Cathy fox blog Wally Harbert’s submission to IICSA 
2017 Apr 14 Cathy Fox Blog Children Abused in Institutions – Lessons Still to be Learned by Wally Harbert 
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
 2015 Feb 3 Cathy Fox Blog Historic Abuse in Children’s Homes – The Management Context by Wally Harbert https://cathyfox.wordpress.com/2015/02/03/historic-abuse-in-childrens-homes-the-management-context-by-wally-harbert/
 2014 Nov 9 Cathy Fox Blog Child Protection in a Hostile Environment by Wally Harbert https://cathyfox.wordpress.com/2014/11/09/child-protection-in-a-hostile-environment-by-wally-harbert/
 2014 Nov 21 cathy fox blog Bent Twigs by Wally Harbert https://cathyfox.wordpress.com/2014/11/21/bent-twigs-by-wally-harbert/
 2016 Sept 28 cathy fox blog Wally Harbert’s submission to IICSA https://cathyfox.wordpress.com/2016/09/28/wally-harberts-submission-to-iicsa/
 2017 Apr 14 Cathy Fox Blog Children Abused in Institutions – Lessons Still to be Learned by Wally Harbert https://cathyfox.wordpress.com/2017/04/14/children-abused-in-institutions-lessons-still-to-be-learned-by-wally-harbert/
[A] Sanctuary for the Abused http://abusesanctuary.blogspot.co.uk/2006/07/for-survivors-coping-with-triggers-if.html