Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Truth, Reconciliation and Child Abuse

"What is important is we give a voice to those who might not otherwise have the opportunity to present their views." Scottish Government spokeswoman.

"The physical, emotional and sexual abuse that has taken place in Scotland's residential care homes - perpetrated by the very people who should have been providing support -must never be forgotten. We are demonstrating our commitment through action, and that's why we are providing a new support service for adults who experienced childhood abuse in care." Adam Ingram, Minister for Children

With the debate coming up on whether to hold an enquiry, as promised, into Haut de La Garenne, I have been looking further afield. I believe that what the people who want an enquiry really want - the victims of abuse - above all else, is the chance to be heard, rather than a more generalised historical examination of the systems in place, and why there seems to have been no adequate supervisory controls of care homes.

I've noticed that in Scotland, what the home abuse victims have sought is a "truth and reconciliation" body, which can not only take witness statements, but also take statements of anyone who has been falsely accused, looking not for legal recourse, but for restorative justice. It is easy to confuse legality with justice, but the domain of ethics is, of necessity, broader than that of legality.

In 2009, the first plan was mooted in Scotland for a "truth and reconciliation" body:

SURVIVORS of abuse in children's homes have backed plans for a "truth and reconciliation" body. It would publicly acknowledge the crimes committed against hundreds of young people in residential homes in Scotland. A Scottish Government consultation on the move, which was announced last year, has revealed strong support for the creation of a "historical record" of abuse as an "act of remembrance". Creating a reconciliation forum could also allow perpetrators of abuse to accept responsibility for what they did, and lead to victims receiving education, counselling and higher levels of compensation. But it is unclear how much the bodies which ran scandal-hit children's homes are willing to take part. The consultation has so far led to a range of alternative names for the forum, including "No more secrets", "Chance to be heard" and "Truth and reconciliation"... A Scottish Government spokeswoman said it was keen to hear from survivors of childhood sexual abuse about how the forum could support them. She added: "The wide-ranging consultation has included gathering responses nationally and internationally from survivors of abuse, survivor organisations, charities, children's homes organisations, faith groups and other organisations. "What is important is we give a voice to those who might not otherwise have the opportunity to present their views."(1)

What happened to this idea? Looking forward one year to March 2010, a pilot forum was set up. Under the headline - which I think says just as much for the Jersey situation - it says "Truth and reconciliation' body to give 'historic' victims chance to find closure":

Later this year, a pilot forum initiated by the Scottish Government will hear from 100 former residents of homes run by the charity Quarriers. The independent forum, called Time to be Heard, was announced last year as part of the response to a report by Tom Shaw, former chief inspector of education and training in Northern Ireland, on historic abuse. It was initially described as an independent "acknowledgement and accountability" body which would allow victims of abuse to achieve closure through a "truth-and-reconciliation" approach. Only allegations made against individuals still working with children or vulnerable adults will be passed to the police for investigation. But the Scottish Human Rights Commission said those shown to have perpetrated historic child abuse should also be referred.(2)

Tom Shaw's own review ("Historic Abuse Systemic Review") was very much an examination of the past:

- to identify the laws, in the period 1950 - 1995, to provide, regulate, and ensure inspection of residential schools and children's homes
- to identify the adequacy of monitoring and inspection systems
- to review the practical operation and effectiveness of monitoring and inspection (3)

and he found himself hamstrung by constraints - "This review was not about individual cases, and he was not permitted to report on the facts or circumstances of any individual cases of abuse, nor to receive submissions from individuals. Mr Shaw considered and found this last a serious, unrealistic constraint. He sought and gained permission from Ministers to make contact with and receive information from individuals." It is notable that there is an argument that any enquiry on Haut de La Garenne should focus on systemic matters rather than individual cases, which would constrain it in just the same way Mr Shaw both criticised and overcame.

The Review pointed to an urgent need to act to preserve historical records, ensuring that former residents could access records and information about their location. Mr Shaw's recommendations included noting that records, often scattered, should be properly collated: "The Government should commission a review of public records legislation to ensure it is appropriate to meet the records and information needs of Scotland, not least, the needs of former residents and researchers".. In his conclusion, he addressed the importance to the historical record of the victims being heard, even if those who abused them may no longer be living:

Time and time again in the course of the Review I came upon people, stories and records highlighting the need for us all to recognise and to keep reminding ourselves that children are the most valuable yet the most vulnerable group in society. Our responsibility to respect them, to care for them, to protect them, to acknowledge and respond to their needs and rights can never be taken lightly, or patronisingly. Wherever child abuse occurs it is intolerable, a self indulgence in its ugliest form. Whenever it occurs where children are placed for safety, it is even more despicable. Those who experienced abuse in the past need to be heard, to know society supports them in speaking out, and that their experiences are recognised and addressed. (3)

As a consequence of this, the Time to be Heard Forum was set up, as a pilot scheme in 2010, and is still running in 2011:

Scottish Ministers agreed that a pilot forum Time to be Heard would go ahead in 2010. Time to be Heard is part of the Survivor Scotland strategy to help adult survivors who were sexually abused as children. The Pilot Forum is funded by the Scottish Government. Up to £375,000 is available for 2010 and the same amount for 2011. It is hoped that the forum will help survivors in the following ways:

- Provide an opportunity for survivors to talk openly about their experiences and be listened to without question.
- Safeguard the rights of survivors and the rights of people and institutions against whom allegations are made. Time to be Heard will not be an alternative to criminal prosecution or civil action.
- Creation of a confidential 'historic record' from the information presented. This record will not name individuals but will validate what survivors experienced and acknowledge Scotland's recognition of their experiences. The record should help us learn from past failures and improve practice in the future.
- Provide access and signposts to other forms of support for survivors. We're aware Time to be Heard may re-awaken distressing memories for survivors. Therefore any survivor involved in Time to be Heard will be offered access to counselling and given details of relevant support services, both during and after Time to be Heard. (4)

I see no reason why Jersey needs to "reinvent the wheel", and while any such body might well need adjustments to local needs, there must by now be a considerable body of expertise, which I am sure could be shared with our Island on the challenges and successes of this forum.

Tom Shaw, whose report seems to have triggered the move to a forum, notes that:

"There are many challenges to finding out about our past and the process is even more daunting when those experiences were bad. The reaction to our search can be defensive and cynical. the need to know can be viewed with insensitivity, rather than respect. The past can be dismissed as something which is over and done with, rather than as significant to our present.learning from our mistakes is a sign of maturity, an indication that we want to do better, to do so for all who were, or are, children in the care of the state."

I think those words are well worth bearing in mind. We can too easily dismiss the past as something over and done with, and unless those who have suffered abuse can find a voice, and have their pain respected, we have yet to learn from our mistakes. In the meantime, I would recommend a visit to their website, and see their National Strategy.


(1) http://thescotsman.scotsman.com/scotland/Homes-abuse-victims-back-plan.5337669.jp
(2) http://thescotsman.scotsman.com/scotland/39Truth-and-reconciliation39-body-to.6189352.jp
(3) http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Resource/Doc/264363/0079228.pdf
(4) http://www.survivorscotland.org.uk/national-strategy/time-to-be-heard/


Jill Gracia said...

An excellent posting and insight into why this COE must proceed.

I think all States Members would do well to read and digest this.

Anonymous said...

St Ouennais alluded to the truth and reconciliation process in South Africa as a model in his piece never mind the facts

Anonymous said...

This is a very good post and hopefully, it will give some food for thought to our States members and perhaps even change one or two minds along the way! We live in hope!