Monday, February 25, 2008

The Jersey child abuse scandal

I still remember an article in the first ever issue of the New Statesman that I ever bought - it must have been in 1977 or even 1976.

It was headed "John Bull's Other Islands" and dealt with the cliquey and undemocratic nature of local politics in the Channel Islands. And I remember it because it reminded me so much of Market Harborough in those days. (Prophetically so: we were to have our own child abuse scandal years later.)

The poisonous nature of local politics in Jersey forms part of the background to the growing childcare scandal there. The dispute between Stuart Syvret and the Jersey establishment was played out on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme this morning.

In view of this it is worth reading a personal statement Syvret made to the Jersey States Assembly on 15 January this year. He complained that he had been shouted down in an earlier speech and went on to say:

In the speech, I mentioned a child who committed suicide in 1966. The death of this boy was, movingly, still of deep concern to a man who had been his close friend when they were in Haut de la Garenne together as children.

During the evening of the day on which the speech was published, I received two messages on my answer phone from a man who was clearly emotional. He had read in the speech the name of the young boy who died in 1966. And it was this that prompted him to call me. For he is the brother of the deceased.

I called him back and spoke with him for some time. I met him a couple of days later and had a long conversation with him.

There was a time – recently - when I would have found his life-experiences shocking. Sadly – these days I no longer find any great surprise with the betrayals, and failures of the system and the way so many people harmed by their childhood experiences had their lives cast on the scrapheap by the rest of our society.

In some small way, as an elected member of the States, as someone in authority, as someone who listened and took his experiences seriously – I hope I was able to offer him some comfort, some recognition – and some understanding of the difficulties he has faced in his life

Syvert also complains of the attitude of the BBC on Jersey and the local press.

Elsewhere on the web, the Haut de la Garenne's own site (it is now a youth hostel) confirms the not terribly amusing irony that it was used as John Nettles's office during the filming of Begerac.

But perhaps we should not be so surprised by events there. The local history site That Was Jersey says:

The building now known as Haut de la Garenne started life in 1867 as the Industrial School, for "young people of the lower classes of society and neglected children". Good behaviour was rewarded by treats, like cricket on the common and tea and cakes. Poor behaviour led to deprivation of some sort, with flogging or solitary confinement for the worst offenders.

Total institutions have a way of carrying on with their own agenda whatever the law or wider society says.

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