It is only since the Second World War that parents have been regarded as inescapable.
Victorian philanthropists who founded “homes” and orphanages did so on the assumption that either the parents were dead, or else so depraved that the children should at all costs be protected from them.
A century earlier the Foundling Hospital took infinite trouble to disassociate every foundling from its mother. Each child was provided with a new surname. (The present1 Governors are taking even greater trouble to repair some of the damage and trace the parentage of often quite elderly clients.)
The belief that all parents tried to reclaim children old enough to work was as strongly held as that of “coals in the bath” in another context.
Unfortunately we are all coloured by the prejudices of our time. I remember with shame my attitude to a girl from my Public Assistance Home who had run away from the excellent “situation” to which she had been sent, and returned to her mother.
In 1918 the Caldecott Community called itself a “Boarding School for the Children of Working Men”. This was I believe the first opportunity for working people with domestic difficulties to send their children away without any loss of parental rights. They were expected to have their children in the school holidays and they were able to remove them at any time.
Orphanages connected with the Services, the Police Force or particular industries such as the railways were less antagonistic to parents than those which were founded to relieve general destitution .
Dead Service and Police fathers could be regarded as heroes, but it was also deemed possible that civilians might be deserving parents. Even then the policy was to take complete charge of the child and relieve the parent of all responsibility for his upbringing. When rules were relaxed and “motherless” children were admitted, fathers were expected to contribute towards maintenance, but this did not greatly improve their status.
Weakening a child’s link with a good family was obviously deplorable but when the home was bad, separation often had the opposite effect to what was intended and the child became increasingly determined to return to it.
Every child should know his parentage and home situation as of right. In certain circumstances, as for instance if he is the child of an incestuous relationship, knowledge should be withheld until he is relatively mature but such circumstances are fortunately exceptional. It is only when he understands his situation that he is in a position to decide whether he wishes to return home after leaving school.
When children are completely separated from their homes, or only return to them for one short holiday in the year, they do not see the difficulties and do not know whether they would be able to adjust to them permanently. Most such children are passionately anxious to return. This often leads to breakdown and disillusionment which could have been avoided if they had grown up in the knowledge of their true situation.
The personality of the parents is as important as their material circumstances.
Some authorities censor incoming letters in the hope that they will be able to protect children from disappointment. They withhold letters promising a bicycle when they think that no bicycle will be forthcoming, or a visit when they know that it will not take place. This appears to be a mistaken policy and only postpones the time when the child must accept that his parents are entirely unreliable. Clearly it is as essential for him to know this as that they are deaf or blind. No one should disparage a child’s parents in words; such words would cause bitter resentment and would probably be disbelieved. Unpalatable truths can only be learnt through experience. Discussion may follow.
A ten year old boy illustrated this to me when I found him alone in a large institution three days before the children were expected to return from their holidays. I expressed concern and the hope that there had not been a mistake over dates? “No” he said. “It’s my Dad. You know how he is.” I did indeed. That boy grew up with a tolerant acceptance of his father’s inadequacy but made an independent life for himself after he left school.
One of the advantages of working with children who have not been committed by the courts is the greater possibility of co-operation with parents. The child knows that he is in a particular home at his parent’s request, because the parent believes that it is the best place for him at that particular time and he is therefore less resentful than if he had been taken from his parents against their will. He is in exactly the same position as a child at a boarding school.
In an approved school the staff, however well intentioned, represent an alien authority. In a voluntary Home they are, to the great majority of children, people whom their parents trust.
It is only when one has worked in both types of institution that one realises the enormous difference which this can make. In some approved schools the breakthrough is made in individual cases but it is a victory against odds.
Local authorities and the large voluntary societies employ qualified Child Care Officers to make a thorough investigation of family circumstances before a child is admitted. This makes the work of residential staff much easier.
In many of the smaller voluntary societies there is no such skilled service. The family situation is often misconceived and events, of great significance to the child, are not known. During Christmas week 1959 I received three children whose mother had died on Boxing Day. It was not until three weeks later that I discovered that the mother had, in fact, committed suicide and had been found by the eldest boy, age nine, hanging in an empty house. We had, I hope, treated this boy with reasonable kindness but his real state of mind had been quite unknown tous. The father seemed to think that by ignoring what had happened he was more likely to forget.
In the case of separated parents it was generally assumed that the parent who brought the child to us was the better of the two. It was only after we got to know the children that we found their loyalties were often painfully divided and that they were pathetically anxious for us to get in touch with the missing parent. On more than one occasion children were brought to us without the knowledge of the other parent, who was distraught at not being able to trace them. Children of broken marriages were generally reassured by the fact that we welcomed both parents and that we were able to discuss their home difficulties with understanding.
In many societies trained welfare workers are now replacing the quite unskilled people who formerly did welfare work. Many of these untrained people were kindly and sympathetic to families in distress, but in their anxiety to give immediate practical help they sometimes ignored the long term interests of the family. This was particularly apparent in the zest with which they tried to persuade widows to send their children to orphanages.
I have no doubt that they genuinely believed an orphanage offered the children a better chance in life than would otherwise be open to them. They tried to convince the mothers that it would be selfish to deprive their children of such an opportunity! A good education, clothes and a “leaving outfit” were some of the advantages stressed.
Some mothers surrendered their children and either reclaimed them later or, as with a missing tooth, found that the cavity gradually closed and ceased to miss them. Others were more resistant.
I remember with admiration a Welsh widow who had seven children and was n very poor circumstances. She maintained that she did not want to part with any of them but was persuaded that she might at least come and see St Christopher’s so that she could see what she was refusing. It was arranged that she should spend the night.
Anyone who has done residential work will know that the chance visitor seldom gets an absolutely true picture of the establishment but generally one which is either better or worse.
On this occasion everything was perfect. The widow arrived late in the evening. It was half-term and there was a general feeling of relaxation. The younger children were in bed but most of the older boys and girls who had not gone away were taking part in a whist drive with the staff, fortified by ‘refreshments’ on a rather lavish scale. At breakfast next morning everyone was excited about plans for the day - picnics, swimming, football, cinema etc. After we had toured the building and she had commented on how much “Our Emrys would enjoy this.” or “Our Morgan …” she returned to my room for a cup of tea. “How do you fel about it?” I enquired. “Well” she replied. “I think this is a lovely place and I am glad to think that if anything happened to me my children could here but, so long as I am alive I want to keep them with me. You see, if they came here it would be like as if they were your children, not mine.” The children never came.
I remember also a young widow with four children age two, six, seven and nine. Her husband had died a few months previously and she had found it impossible to continue her secretarial job and give the family adequate attention. School finished at three-thirty in the afternoon so there was a long interval before she could get home from the office. It had therefore been arranged that the children be admitted to St Christopher’s. They arrived one morning. It was summer and we walked through the grounds. The elder children were subdued but the two year old was in splendid form, racing up and down the banks and generally enjoying herself. I asked whether the children knew that they were to stay with us and she replied that the three eldest knew but that she had felt it would be quite impossible to explain it to the baby. “Gillian just won’t understand and I’m afraid it is going to upset her terribly.” I feared that we were on the verge of what could be a shattering experience for all concerned. Knowing that Gillian had been attending a Day Nursery I asked why that arrangement had been found unsatisfactory. “Oh, it is very satisfactory. I like the Matron and Gillian is very happy there. But the Welfare Officer said that if I didn’t accept this vacancy now it might not be open to me again, and I didn’t want to send her away from the others when she is five.” I assured her that this was quite untrue and a tragedy was averted. Before Gillian reached school age her mother re-married and the family was again united.
Before the days of the Welfare State, poverty compelled widows to part with their children. Now it is no longer necessary, though there is a stronger incentive when the family has been accustomed to a fairly high standard of living and the mother is herself capable of earning a salary. She may feel that it is in the long term interest of the children that the standard of the home should be maintained. This is, I believe, an error. Only under most exceptional circumstances should a mother part with very young children; the relationship once broken may never be repaired.
With older children, circumstances vary. Some mothers find it impossible to manage their sons single handed and are probably wise in seeking for them what is, in effect, a boarding school education. Others are nervously and physically unfit to cope with a large family.
Fathers are in an entirely different position. However devoted he may be it is virtually impossible for a working man to make adequate provision at home for his motherless children. Even if a grandmother is available she is seldom satisfactory and the experiment of a housekeeper almost always ends in failure.
Some of the fathers at St Christopher’s were excellent parents who visited regularly and always wanted their children for Christmas, Easter, Whitsun and their own annual holiday.
My own reactions to “holidays with Dad” became more enlightened with the years. On reading an old report I was horrified to find that in 1950 I had obtained holiday foster homes for a family who had returned from their previous holiday with impetigo. I was obviously afraid that in the care of “Dad” they might be re-infected. Years later another family of nine went home to Father when the baby was under two and the eldest only nine. They continued to go home regularly and as regularly their heads were de-loused when they came back. In time, the older children cleaned up the house.
Some fathers, of course, are even more house-proud than some mothers, and some have very exacting standards about the general appearance of their children. I remember a West Indian father who was genuinely distressed because we failed to plait his children’s hair in West Indian fashion. It was a relief when we got someone on the staff who had learnt this rather difficult art.
At St Christopher’s we welcomed parents for meals at weekends. It was significant that our guests were almost invariably fathers. The explanation was simple: the best parents visit but, for whatever reason, our mothers were not the best parents. There were, of course, exceptions.