Small voices tell ghastly truths

We have heard too much about `firm control' of children. Does anybody remember pindown?
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The British don't like children very much. And we particularly don't like children in care who, after long-term abuse and neglect, tend to be awkward and difficult. But they remain our responsibility whether they are sweet little Miss Pears types or not.

The Social Services White Paper published yesterday has been hailed as proposing the most radical shake-up in social services for 25 years. But in one respect it is several steps back when it comes to dealing with children.

It is nearly eight years since the Children Act of 1989, brought in as a result of the Cleveland inquiry, made clear that the interests of the child should be paramount. Yesterday's announcement challenges that, reviving the idea that adults do know best in the end, and a bit of hard discipline never hurt anyone. Especially if they are young tearaways to start off with.

This part of the White Paper, said to be rewritten by Mr Dorrell himself, emphasises the fear that over-enthusiastic social workers are falling victim to weedy political correctness. Now that "child abuse" is a phrase that can be uttered in public, it is feared they see it everywhere. Social workers themselves tell a different story. One comments: "Breaking up families? Chance'd be a fine thing. A lot of our work is parents standing in our office demanding that their children be taken away because they can't cope."

The White Paper reiterates that the interests and wishes of the child should be taken into account. But it adds: "The Government ... does not believe however that emphasising the interests of the individual child should be allowed to become an excuse for distorting the proper relationship between children and adults." The paper continues: "When decisions about the care of children are being made it is important to listen to their views according to their age and capacity but it is equally important not to ascribe to children the capacity to make mature judgements about their interests which are the proper responsibility of adults. To do so is not to protect their interests but to prejudice them." According to the Department of Health, this is designed to redress the balance in residential homes. The "proper relationship" and "proper responsibility" for social workers can be translated as: "They should stop caving into children's wishes but exert firm discipline." For example, if kids won't do what they are told and persist in running away, bolt the doors. Stop being subservient to what they say and put your foot down.

No one is putting forward the view that children are angelic, Rousseau- esque beings who behave immaculately and never tell lies. "You have to acknowledge children can embroider the truth as we all do," Dave Burchell, assistant director of the British Association of Social Workers, says. "But to suggest we should ignore them is exceedingly dangerous."

Children do not make up accusations of ill-treatment or make trouble needlessly because they want their families broken up. All they want is the situation that they are unhappy with dealt with.

Say a teenage girl says she has been sexually abused. There is no evidence for that so social services must balance the probabilities of it having happened. One of the things they must take into account, although not unquestioningly, is the account of the girl herself. If it does turn out to be a pack of lies, there is still the question to be answered: why is she making up such a serious allegation?

The problem with toughening our attitude to children is that we have not been good enough about listening to children in the past. It may be a great vote-winner to limit "child power" and demand "firm control" over them (although the White Paper concedes there should not be "habitual reliance on physical coercion"). Much the same language is being used for prisoners by both sides of the house: punish and lock up rather than rehabilitate.

But we have heard too much about "mature judgements" and "firm control". Does anyone remember "pindown" in Staffordshire, the Kincora boys' home in Northern Ireland, Frank Beck in Leicester? In all cases children's voices got drowned out over the years.

On Monday's Panorama programme it was revealed that one boy at Greystone Heath, a children's home in the North-West, told his mother and the police he was being abused by his housemaster, Dennis Grain. The police were told by the school that he was a "malicious liar" and no action was taken. It was 20 years before Grain was jailed after confessing to paedophile offences.

Last week Judge Huw Daniel jailed Keith Laverack, a former social services manager, at Chester Crown Court after two decades of abuse. "You were confident you could get away with it because the system allowed you to get away with it and you ensured the silence of these children by threats and sweet talk, confident in the knowledge that if these children did complain they would not be believed," the judge said.

Ministers rightly acted last October to tighten up regulation of children's homes. And now it boasts that the abuse in north Wales is being "properly investigated". But the sad fact is that if we had listened to children in the first place, we would not need these investigations now. Mr Dorrell, don't let's make the same mistake again.