'Your parents do not want you because you are a wicked girl'

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IT WAS not until many years after leaving care that "Kim" - not her real name - realised she should never have been placed in the charge of nuns at all. She and her brother and sisters were born Protestants. They were "converted" to Catholicism before a Catholic children's charity would accept them from Sunderland social services, writes Barry Wood.

Kim's life is a terrible indictment of the care system for children of the 1960s and 1970s, when children's complaints about physical and sexual abuse were largely ignored.

Kim's allegations about her mistreatment begin with her first ever placement. She was three in 1967 when her mother was hospitalised with a nervous breakdown. Kim and her brother and sisters were placed by Sunderland social workers in the care of an organisation called the Catholic Rescue Society. They were put in a home run by nuns of the Sisters of Mercy at Thornhill Park in Sunderland.

About 20 children lived there and were educated at the convent school opposite. Kim became a chronic bed-wetter and was punished by being forced to sit in a cold bath or to parade in front of the other children with soiled bed linen on her head. She says she was told that God knew she was wicked and that was the reason her parents did not want her.

Older boys and girls would creep into the younger ones' bedrooms and abuse them. When she complained about being molested by an older girl, she says, she was punished by being forced to move into the girl's bedroom. "I still remember her, the smell of her, she would do disgusting things. After that I never complained about such things again." She remembers being punished for speaking to boys by being beaten with branches across her bare back until it bled.

Among her most vivid memories are the criticisms she endured over her appearance. A pretty girl with full lips, she was accused of "pouting" by the nuns. She responded by hiding her mouth with her hand.

A psychologist wrote in her file in 1975: "She sat glowering behind her left hand which she seemed to place so that I could not see her face ... it became evident very quickly that she is very unhappy at the moment."

An internal social services memo from the same year says: "All of the children are wilful and disobedient and ... bluntly they [the nuns] want them out ... [Kim] was particularly singled out for criticism. The opinion was expressed that the children were neglected by the authority ... I feel forced to agree to this to some extent."

One social worker wrote of 12-year-old Kim's state of mind: "I was surprised at how forcefully she expressed herself ... she spoke in the manner of an exasperated adolescent ..." She had been complaining of the nuns' unreasonable demands and unfair punishments.

After being removed from Thornhill, Kim was placed in a special school for "miscreant" girls called Benton Grange, also run by nuns, in Newcastle. Girls convicted of drugs, muggings and prostitution offences were sent there.

Self-mutilation was common, although dismissed as "attention seeking" by the nuns. At Christmas, the other children were taken out and she was shifted to an empty hostel where she was left to her own devices without any cards, presents or meals.

Her time ended there with a series of overdoses which led to her being hospitalised for six months at the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle where she met the one adult who ever showed her kindness, a distinguished consultant paediatrician called David Coulthard.

He took her home to meet his wife and children and taught her to look after the other children on the wards. "He was gentle," said Kim. "He asked how I was, what I was feeling, what was the matter with me. I was amazed because no adult had ever treated me like that before."

But, after leaving the hospital, Kim's life became a succession of remand homes, hostels, assessment centres and special schools. Thirty-two missing- person forms in her file bear testimony to the kind of girl she had become at 13. She was, in the social services jargon, a "constant runner".

She joined the shifting band of runaway children from council care homes and lived a life of squats, hitching, petty theft and glue-sniffing. "I didn't care. In my opinion I was safer out on the road than behind their walls," she says.

At 15, she was out of care but had only the barest notion of how to function in the real world. Even the simplest exchange, such as buying a pint of milk, was beyond her.

Then, after a period of drift, she found some direction in voluntary work, first in welfare rights for the unemployed and later for the Northumbria Association of Youth Clubs.

With the encouragement of friends, Kim went to university. But the past has yet to be exorcised. More than 30 years after entering care, she still suffers from flashbacks and has been diagnosed as having post-traumatic stress disorder. Now living in a leafy suburb of Sunderland, she has become so traumatised she is too scared to cross her front door.

"I live with what happened to me every day. I don't feel like a real person. I still find social situations very difficult and the smallest things are so difficult. I've no confidence and feel this has scarred me forever.

"I just want to know if the people who were responsible for caring for me realise that what they did was wrong."