Chris Creegan

Comment | Ideas | Opinion

Who spoke for us?

by Chris on 11th April 2016

Who spoke for us

Making policy that protects the most vulnerable without using a sledgehammer to crack a nut can be a challenging business. Combine that with a tenor of policy debate in Scotland which, because of the political landscape, can quickly become binary and you have something of a perfect storm.

The conversation about the Named Person Scheme seems to have become the victim of just such a storm, particularly ongoing arguments about whether government has become too centralised. And with the implementation date approaching the storm shows no sign of abating.

I’ve no doubt that views on all sides have been offered in good faith. But whereas many commentators who I respect feel deeply uneasy about the Scheme, for some time I have felt the reverse. And I think that’s because more than 35 years after I left a troubled childhood behind I still find myself returning to the question: Who spoke for us? I’ll come back to that in a moment, but first, I want to draw on a more recent recollection.

When I moved to Scotland just over a decade ago I worked as a social policy research consultant. One of my first projects was about advocacy and participation in the Children’s Hearings System. It proved to be one of the most powerful experiences of my working life. Because I’d not lived and worked in Scotland previously, I had little knowledge of the Children’s Hearings System. It quickly became apparent to me that although it was far from perfect, there was much to commend it as a process for bringing together people to work out what should be done where a child’s welfare was in jeopardy.

By and large, the children and young people I interviewed for the project were from areas of high deprivation and had life experiences which for many of us would be unthinkable. And because of this, they embodied a curious and at times contradictory set of characteristics. In short they were often both terribly vulnerable and very wise, albeit in the world-weary sense of the word.

Some of them had lived for a long time with a bewildering combination of dysfunctional adults who were supposed to protect them and professionals who regularly arrived on the scene because they hadn’t or couldn’t. These were ‘named people’ of a sort and the children and young people’s experiences of them was one of the things that we tried to shed light on.

The affluent village I grew up in on the edge of Derbyshire was a world away from Drumchapel where taxi drivers spoke of guns and knives as they drove me to interview locations. And yet the wisdom I encountered wasn’t as alien to me as the contrast might suggest.That’s because I grew up in a family that was often chaotic and sometimes frightening. The root of this was my mum’s clinical depression. Throughout our childhood, she had a series of dramatic breakdowns and in between times was often unwell and unstable. For years at a time she was very heavily medicated and later on became addicted to alcohol. My dad mostly did the best he could but was often bemused and at times resentful of the havoc this wrought on everyday life.

It’s hard to describe in a few short paragraphs what life was like in our house, but I’ll have a go. From the age of four or five, I witnessed my mum being distressed and self-harming in ways no child should ever have to. She would rage for hours at a time. She would bang her head against the wall until it bled. She would throw objects and shatter them into tiny pieces. And sometimes she would just scream and scream for hours on end. Her piercing cries of loneliness were clearly deep rooted but what are you supposed to do with that when you’re six?

I didn’t experience physical violence on a daily basis by any means but it happened enough for the fear it generated to linger. And that was in part because it was completely out of proportion to the thing that had apparently provoked it. One incident that’s always stuck in my mind was accidentally losing my dad’s car keys on a holiday visit to Hadrian’s Wall. It was a pretty daft thing to do and it did result in us frantically searching for them in driving rain. But even now I struggle to understand the viciousness of the response it generated once we were back in the car; my mother lashing out at me, urging my dad to do the same, which he did albeit without the same vigour while my four younger siblings screamed for it to stop. I was 13. And yet somehow this moment of childish carelessness on my part became an indicator of everything that was wrong with me and the justification for physical assault.

My dad’s collusion stung. But sometimes he just wanted out and no wonder. Sometimes we did too. We would fantasise about a time when it would all just stop. And always there was the unspoken sense that we weren’t like other families. Always you would go home from school not quite knowing what you’d find, a mum who was okay or a mum who wasn’t. I used to measure it by the colour of the soup we got for tea. Good mum days meant thick, bright and hearty soup. Bad mum days meant soup that resembled dishwater. We ate it all the same of course.

You grow up quickly in that type of environment. You take responsibility for helping to make the house run, bringing up your siblings and of course looking after mum. Later you rationalise that on the plus side, growing up quickly is character building. But it’s not really. Sure you survive it and if you’re lucky you achieve despite it. But, to make the most obvious poetic connection, it fucks you up. You live in a space where you tiptoe around in fear, where you internalise the violence. You rarely invite friends home because you’re fearful of how she’ll behave. And in any case, they’ve likely heard your mum is a bit mad anyway.

And in all this there are adults everywhere. There’s the doctor, the minister, the local copper. There are neighbours and occasional visits by extended family. Everyone knows things aren’t right. But it’s a bloody great elephant in the room that they all avoid. At the village primary school, the teachers are aware but they don’t ask. Later at secondary school, it’s not unknown either but it’s not acknowledged. Though on one occasion I did get asked to the head of the lower school’s office to talk about my younger sister’s misbehaviour because it was thought best not to worry my mum.

The last big nervous breakdown before I left home came to a head over Christmas of my O level year. A few weeks later I failed nearly all my mock exams. Just the previous summer I had passed them all. No-one asked why this had happened. My school head’s report bluntly warned that if I didn’t pull my socks up I’d be heading for big failure in the summer. True enough. But why? Through all of this no one ever asked us how it was for us, how we felt. And almost without exception, no one intervened. Hardly surprising then that after my mum died two years ago memories resurfaced and the question reared its head again. Who was there for us?

None of this is to suggest that policy should not be carefully thought through. As a social policy researcher to trade, I’m never going to advocate emotion over evidence as a basis for designing child protection services. And of course, it’s important to get the balance right between protection and privacy. My own recollection of childhood means I don’t find the idea of the Scheme ‘philosophically indefensible’ as Chris Deerin has remarked or an attack on civil liberties as Kenny Farquharson has argued.

The No2Named Person campaign argues against the Scheme because its focus goes beyond protecting the most vulnerable to looking after the well-being of every child. This is wrong-headed apparently because that’s the role of the parent.  Opponents have talked of everything from unnecessary minor busybodying to spies in the family home. But is an objective focus on well being by those with whom children spend so much of their lives really such a travesty?

Voicing a different perspective on the Scheme Dani Garavelli has argued that whatever the shortcomings of the proposals, they need to be viewed in context and remembering that sometimes parents don’t know what’s best. More recently Sean McPartlin questioned whether in fact the Scheme isn’t an articulation of something he sought to do anyway during a 40-year career in teaching.

My word of caution about how we judge the Scheme is not from the perspective of parent or professional but from an adult who recalls a childhood where no one asked about my wellbeing, where the assumption can only have been that because we lived in a nice house in a leafy village nothing can possibly have been wrong. Yet in fact, everyone knew that something was. If only someone had asked. If only someone had had the guts to think beyond family privacy. If only there had been a minor busybody.

This isn’t intended a passionate defence of every detail of the Scheme or a suggestion that the concerns of opponents might not have some merit. It’s a plea to reconsider arguments from the perspective of children for whom asking questions might help. We take pride in our Children’s Hearings System because it helps us protect the most vulnerable children. I think that, like Children’s Panels, these proposals are grounded in good intention and deserve not to fall foul of a wider debate about the centralisation of policy, however important that is.

A Named Person wouldn’t have been able to wave a magic wand over my childhood. But if there had been such a person, at least I might not still be asking, at the age of 55, who spoke for us?

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