Children First

Yesterday, I babysat my nephew for a few hours. When I arrived, he was in tears. He had woken up in a strange place (his parents are visiting his grandparents): his mother wasn’t there: he’d wet his nappy: and he was hungry. Because he’s three, he responded to this concatenation of awful circumstances by sobbing, loudly and non-stop, while I picked him up, washed him, changed him, collected his picnic tea, and pointed out to him that we were now going for a walk to the park and quite possibly a bus ride and then he would see his mother. He’d stopped sobbing by the time we got to the front door, and before we had gone five minutes down the road to the park, he was skipping.

I mention this because we don’t treat children exactly like adults. Had I come across an adult in such misery, I would not have treated him as I treated my small nephew: I was pretty sure I knew what was making him miserable, and the best thing to do seemed to be to take away the causes of his misery even if he was sobbing as I did it.

Bikers Against Child Abuse:

The origins of BACA are recent, Mopar says. The incident that kicked it off took place in Utah, circa 1995. A child psychologist and clinical play therapist, whose ride name is Chief because he is a Native American, came across the case of an abused boy who was so traumatized he refused to leave his house. Chief made a house call to see what was going on with the child. He soon discovered that the only thing that piqued the boy’s interest was when Chief mentioned his bike. Then his eyes lit up.

Knowing he was on the right track to help this child, Chief gathered together his friends from the local Harley Owners Group and the next Saturday, 27 HOGs descended on the boy’s home. Looking out the window, the child was in awe and, for the first time in weeks, he ventured outside to see the bikes.

It wasn’t long before the boy was outside playing and riding his skateboard all over the neighborhood. It was an amazing and rapid transformation and a new tool in the recovery kit. BACA was incorporated as a not-for-profit organization the next year.

I cannot find a quote from this long account by Karina Bland in AZ Central about the work Bikers Against Child Abuse do, because every time I read it my eyes tear up. But their basic objective is to make children feel safe: the bikers of BACA believe and believe in the children they help.

Mopar fell silent for a few seconds. “At the risk of ruining my big, bad biker image, I was almost in tears,” he recalls. “I got down on my knees and told them they weren’t bad, their daddy was bad — that’s why he was in jail. They looked at each other, seeming to understand for the first time.”

A girl wrote to her local council asking for emergency housing:

“I have been prevented from attending college and my part time job. I am scared of going back to my parents and frightened enough to flee my home.
“My teachers have approached my parents in the past about preventing me from going into school and have threatened to get social services involved.

“I would prefer to stay in Warrington and feel that if I was given accommodation, then my parents would leave me alone because of the involvement of police and the social services.”

Had Shafilea Ahmed been given emergency housing at the age of 16, and lived, the Daily Mail and the Telegraph would doubtless have been outraged about that. Because she was killed, they can instead be outraged about the social workers who failed to take seriously the danger she was in.

In Bullied by the Boss, Eva James asks:

How would society view a situation where a child was bullied at school and, when the bullying was reported, the school denied the fact entirely and expelled the child with a sub-standard report card?

Well, that would often be viewed as what the child deserves – because the child’s behaviour is probably bad and likely to get worse:

Children with toxic stress live their lives in fight, flight or fright (freeze) mode. They respond to the world as a place of constant danger. They can fall behind in school, fail to develop healthy relationships with peers, or develop problems with authority because they are unable to trust adults. With failure, despair, and frustration pecking away at their psyche, they find solace in food, alcohol, tobacco, methamphetamines, inappropriate sex, high-risk sports, and/or work. They don’t regard these coping methods as problems. They see them as solutions to escape from depression, anxiety, anger, fear and shame.

US schools suspend millions of kids a year. (In 2006, 3,328,750) The suspension rate for white kids is 6%, for black kids, 15%. Hispanics: 7%, and Native Americans: 8%. Since a zero-tolerance policy of suspending kids from school was adopted in the 1970s, suspension rates at least doubled and sometimes tripled. 5% of all out-of-school suspensions in 2006 were for weapons or drugs, 95% were for “disruptive behavior” and “other” – using a mobile phone, violating the school dress code, being “defiant”, public displays of affection. Removing kids from the classroom for minor disciplinary issues is not shown to help the other children in the class.

when a kid who’s got complex trauma feels threatened or overwhelmed, exploding in rage at something that most people wouldn’t even shrug over is a perfectly normal response.

That’s worth repeating: exploding in rage, getting pissed off, stomping, hitting….it’s all normal. Until a school helps kids learn how to control their emotions, they’ll just keep losing it. For some kids, erupting is a stress reflex response.

“That’s the hardest pill to swallow,” says Erik Gordon, a science teacher at Lincoln High. “Trying to figure out how much of their behavior is from a choice and how much is outside their control. It’s a drag when you believe it’s outside their control, because all of the easy disciplinary action doesn’t work.”

Natalie Turner, of Washington State University’s Area Health Education Center, has just two rules for trauma-free schools:

Rule No. 1: Take nothing a raging kid says personally. Really. Act like a duck: let the words roll off your back like drops of water.

Rule No. 2: Don’t mirror the kid’s behavior. Take a deep breath. Wait for the storm to pass, and then ask something along the lines of: “Are you okay? Did something happen to you that’s bothering you? Do you want to talk about it?”

It’s not that a kid gets off the hook for bad behavior. “There have to be consequences,” explains Turner. Replace punishment, which doesn’t work, with a system to give kids tools so that they can learn how to recognize their reaction to stress and to control it. “We need to teach the kids how to do something differently if we want to see a different response.”

A teenage boy in Kent was homeless for nine months because neither his county council nor the district council of Dover were willing to provide a minor child with the support he needed: a boy who

had been taken into care by Kent and fostered from the age of 12 to 14. He returned to live with his mother, who had mental health problems, but she told him to leave after an argument when he was 16.

By that time he had been involved in drugs and crime and had fathered a baby.

The ombudsman, which investigates complaints against local authorities, said the boy had shown willingness to improve his life.

Dover council had offered him bed-and-breakfast accommodation, but he had declined it because he was worried it was in an area where he might be tempted back to offending and drug use.

So he spent most of the next nine months, including during a spell of heavy snow, in a tent, pitched at various locations in rural Kent. On some nights he slept on friends’ sofas.

In 2008, a teenage girl was arrested in Rochdale – and told (the Crown Prosecution Service decided) a literally incredible story:

Yet nothing prepared Tom and his wife for what they would discover a few weeks later, one night in August. The police phoned to say that their daughter had been arrested on suspicion of criminal damage – she had smashed up the counter of the Balti House takeaway in Heywood. When detectives began to interview her, however, she poured out an awful story: she had been raped, on repeated occasions, by a gang of men. They would ply her with vodka or beer and threaten her with violence if she did not do as she was told. Was she telling the truth? Tom had arrived to collect his daughter from the police station and he remembers how, on their way out of the interview room, an officer turned to his daughter and said, “I believe you, because there’s somebody else come into the station and said the same thing.”


It took the police 11 months to send a file to the Crown Prosecution Service, which then decided in July 2009 not to prosecute, for fear that Tom’s daughter would not be a credible witness. Only in late 2010 was the case taken up in earnest and arrests made that would eventually bring the gang to trial.

And yet:

For two years, the authorities knew a terrible crime was happening, but nothing was done to protect the victims. (The five girls who tes­tified in court represent a fraction of the victims. To date, the police have identified at least 47 suspects.)

From the ACLU, 6th August 2012:

In a Louisiana public school, female students who are suspected of being pregnant are told that they must take a pregnancy test. Under school policy, those who are pregnant or refuse to take the test are kicked out and forced to undergo home schooling.

Welcome to Delhi Charter School, in Delhi, Louisiana, a school of 600 students that does not believe its female students have a right to education free from discrimination. According to its Student Pregnancy Policy, the school has a right to not only force testing upon girls, but to send them to a physician of the school administration’s choice. A positive test result, or failure to take the test at all, means administrators can forbid a girl from taking classes and force her to pursue a course of home study if she wishes to continue her education with the school.

(As from 1st October, Louisiana will be one of the US states where the law will require ultrasounds and a 24-hour wait before abortion is legal. If this is an early abortion, a transvaginal ultrasound will be required, effectively requiring the doctor performing an abortion to commit an act of state-sanctioned rape on the patient. So in Louisiana, girls can be penalised by withdrawal of education if they stay pregnant, and penalised by rape if they have an abortion.)

In September 2011, Rolling Stone reported on a trial in Philadelphia, where Monsignor William Lynn (secretary for clergy in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia from 1992 to 2004) was charged with child endangerment. In June this year, he was found guilty on one of the counts, having allowed a priest “to take a new assignment involving contact with children even after learning of allegations that he had engaged in inappropriate contact with at least one minor.”

At 60, Lynn is portly and dignified, his thin lips pressed together and his double chin held high. In a dramatic fashion statement, he alone has chosen to wear his black clerical garb today, a startling reminder that this is a priest on trial, a revered representative of the Catholic Church, not to mention a high-ranking official in Philadelphia’s archdiocese. Lynn, who reported directly to the cardinal, was the trusted custodian of a trove of documents known in the church as the “Secret Archives files.” The files prove what many have long suspected: that officials in the upper echelons of the church not only tolerated the widespread sexual abuse of children by priests but conspired to hide the crimes and silence the victims. Lynn is accused of having been the archdiocese’s sex-abuse fixer, the man who covered up for its priests. Incredibly, after a scandal that has rocked the church for a generation, he is the first Catholic official ever criminally charged for the cover-up.

In 1996, a parish priest, Monsignor Michael Picard, was sent on a two week retreat by the Archbishop of Philadelphia, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, and ordered to apologise for disobedience. Picard had refused to accept a priest who had been transferred to his Newtown parish because “he had heard disturbing information about the priest from reliable sources”. (In 2005, when the Grand Jury report came out, it was discovered that the priest whom Picard had refused had been accused in 1982 of sexually assaulting a child.) The priest who was the subject of Picard’s concern was sent to other parishes, where while “no angel”, “no serious complaints about his work” were received until his death in 2006. The memo of the 1996 disciplinary meeting says

“Cardinal Bevilacqua noted that he will not tolerate even the appearance of disobedience by any priest.”

According to documents read in court, Picard told his superiors:

“There are so many problems today for priests and the church, he thought he would stop this one.”

Cardinal Bevilacqua died on 31st January 2012. He was Archbishop of Philadelphia from 1987 to 2003. While there was evidence that many priests in his diocese who had molested children had been transferred to other parishes where their crimes were unknown and the police had never been informed

the grand jury regretfully noted that it could not recommend criminal charges in the current case, since it lacked direct evidence against the cardinal. Bevilacqua, now 88, has rejected responsibility for the abuses that occurred during his tenure. When he testified before the grand jury in 2003, Bevilacqua conceded that any move involving the reassignment of accused priests was “ultimately my decision.” But he was quick to stress who was really at fault: In every instance, he insisted, he had “relied on my secretary of the clergy’s recommendations if anything was necessary to be done.”

Read the whole article: it may make you wonder what the “Secret Archives” of Scotland contain, and whether we will ever know.

When the secret archives [of Philadelphia] were finally unlocked, prosecutors were stunned to find thousands of documents that detailed the hundreds of victims who had allegedly been abused by 169 priests. “There was so much material, we could still be presenting information to the grand jury today if we followed every lead,” says Charles Gallagher, a former Philadelphia deputy district attorney who supervised the investigation. “We ultimately had to focus.”

In 2005, the grand jury released its 418-page report, which stands as the most blistering and comprehensive account ever issued on the church’s institutional cover-up of sexual abuse. It named 63 priests who, despite credible accusations of abuse, had been hidden under the direction of Cardinal Bevilacqua and his predecessor, Cardinal Krol. It also gave numerous examples of Lynn covering up crimes at the bidding of his boss.

In the case of Rev. Stanley Gana, accused of “countless” child molestations, Lynn spent months ruthlessly investigating the personal life of one of the priest’s victims, whom Gana had allegedly begun raping at age 13. Lynn later helpfully explained to the victim that the priest slept with women as well as children. “You see,” he said, “he’s not a pure pedophile” – which was why Gana remained in the ministry with the cardinal’s blessing.

One child repeatedly molested by – among others – a priest whom Lynn had protected and transferred to the parish were he would contiunue to have access to children, was named “Billy” in the evidence.

Before long, Billy began to change in disturbing ways. He often gagged or vomited for no reason and became increasingly sullen and withdrawn. He stopped hanging out with his friends and playing sports. He started smoking pot at 11; by his late teens, he was addicted to heroin. Billy spent his adolescence cycling in and out of drug-treatment programs and psychiatric centers, once spending a week in a locked ward after a suicide attempt. His parents, who later took out a mortgage on their home to pay for Billy’s care, were beside themselves, clueless as to what had sent their sunny child into such a downward spiral.

In 2005, Father Edward Avery – the priest who had been reported to William Lynn in 1992 as a child molester, who had then been transferred to Billy’s parish and been the second of his molesters – was persuaded to accept a voluntary and speedy laicization with a redundancy payment of $87,000. Monsignor William Lynn had been transferred to a wealthy suburban parish a year before, a plum job that might lead to a bishopric. When confronted with the Grand Jury report, Lynn told his parishioners:

“Don’t believe everything you read,” he said firmly. “I put them in treatment. I took care of the families.”

In 2009, when Billy sought help from the Philadelphia’s Victim Assistance Program

Instead of immediately offering to take the case to the police, the grand jury found, a coordinator named Louise Hagner and another staffer showed up at Billy’s house, where they pressured him into giving a graphic statement. Returning to her office, Hagner wrote up her notes – including her observation that she thought Billy had pretended to cry – and informed the church’s lawyers that Billy intended to sue.

“I urge anyone who was abused in the past to contact our Victim Assistance Coordinators, who can help begin the healing process,” Cardinal Rigali declared. In reality, the grand jury found, the program was used as a way to discourage victims from calling the police and, even more insidiously, to extract information that could later be used against the victim in court. In a recent lawsuit against the archdiocese, one victim recounts how, in return for any assistance, the church pressured him to sign an agreement that “prohibited” the archdiocese from reporting the abuse to law enforcement. “All along, they were acting like they wanted to help me,” says the victim, “but really they just wanted to help themselves.”

After William Lynn was sentenced to several years in prison on 24th July 2012, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia responded:

Since the events some ten years ago that were at the center of this trial, the Archdiocese has changed. We have taken dramatic steps to ensure that all young people in our care are safe, and these efforts will continue even more forcefully now and in the years ahead.

We remain committed to protecting children and caring for victims. Fair-minded people will question the severity of the heavy, three to six year sentence imposed on Msgr. Lynn today. We hope that when this punishment is objectively reviewed, it will be adjusted.

Let’s take a moment to consider whether, as fair-minded people, we really agree it’s wrong to put someone in jail who consciously allowed child molesters to operate unhindered rather than cause public scandal.

Moving on.

It’s been known for years that if we really want to help young people long term, the best investment is to provide quality nursery education for all children from the age of two. Children who go to nursery age two, especially if the nursery has a good adult-child ratio, do better in school – and there is evidnece from studies done in the 1970s onwards that their quality of life generally is greatly improved ahead of children from the same social background who do not go to nursery school.

What is less well known, outside Scotland, is that since 15th April 1971 Children’s Panels have been quietly proving that if a minor child commits a crime or otherwise gets into trouble, a better solution than a court trial is to have a tribunal deal with the situation based on the principle that something has gone wrong in the child’s life, which needs to be remedied.

From 2009:

In England and Wales, more children are imprisoned than in any other western European country.

In the UK, we lock up 23 children per 100,000 of the population, compared to six in France, two in Spain and 0.2 in Finland.

The rate of child imprisonment is increasing all the time and, contrary to popular belief, the majority of children in custody have not committed violent crimes.

The Howard League for Penal Reform has a legal team that represents children and young people in custody. The league’s director, Frances Crook, says the team’s case files provide a litany of the “chaos, neglect and abuse of dysfunctional families and an often failing care system”, and that children can be seen in criminal courts from the age of 10, with little regard as to why they have ended up in the dock in the first place.

Does locking up so many of our children make them – or society – better?

The system of dealing with children who break the law, many of them vulnerable – and victims themselves – fails disastrously in preventing re-offending: 82% of boys sentenced to custody are reconvicted within two years of release.

In 2006, 816 under-16s were in prison in England and Wales. But only 26 (a ratio of 1.97 per 100,000, comparable to Spain) in Scotland – this was considered to be a high figure: the goal was none. A study done for the Scottish Government on What Works to Reduce Reoffending: A Summary of the Evidence found:

Community sentences are more effective in reducing reoffending than short-term prison sentences. Scottish and English data suggest that community sentences are more effective in reducing recidivism than short-term prison sentences (less than 12 months). In Scotland, we have not controlled for the difference in offender characteristics but we do find that reconviction rates are lower for those given community sentences compared to those released from short custodial sentences. Sixty two per cent of those released from custody in 2006-07 were reconvicted within the following two years and the reconviction rate for those given short custodial sentences (of 6 months or less) is as high as 72%. Whilst not directly comparable, 42% of those given community service orders in 2006-07, and 58% of those given probation orders in 2006-07, were reconvicted within the following two years.

Somehow, it works to put children first. So why don’t we do it more often?

Update, 12th October

How Maureen McKenna, Glasgow City Council’s executive director of education services, changed Glasgow’s exclusion record in five years from 140 permanent exclusions in 2007 to 3 in 2012: 7,399 temporary exclusion incidents in 2007 to 2,857 in 2012:

“There cannot be anything more important in anybody’s job than looking after somebody’s children. It’s a duty of care.”

Good for her, and good for Glasgow.

Leave a comment

Filed under Children, Education, Religion

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.