12 July 2017 | Comment | Article by Alan Collins
On the 3rd July 2017 the long awaited and much anticipated Independent Jersey Care Inquiry was published. The report’s origins go back decades, with its authors looking back as far as 1945. It was necessary to look back so far to understand why so many children in the care of the States of Jersey had been abused. The report needed to answer the questions how and why a culture that came to be known as the "Jersey way" had developed that allowed this to go mostly unchecked.
I represented the Jersey Care Leavers Association at the Inquiry, as also as many other victims. Despite the conclusion of the Inquiry, I will continue to represent these victims in their quest for justice.
Due to my involvement in the Inquiry, I was given the unique opportunity to hear countless accounts from survivors. I suspect, like the Inquiry, I started to pick up on reoccurring themes that emerged from the survivors’ testimony, and from other witnesses.
Survivors have complained of being treated as “second class” citizens, not just while in care, but since leaving care too. Being labelled as having been in “care” can prove a serious handicap both in education and in seeking employment because being in “care” was often erroneously associated with being “in trouble with the law”. An ethos of its own developed that carried stigma and influenced government policy and the attitude of those concerned at all levels with the care of vulnerable children in Jersey.
The Inquiry in its report sets out its findings in detail in relation to Les Chenes which was known in some quarters as the “children’s prison”. Children as young as 11 could find themselves in Les Chenes for a wide range of offences including:
- Causing offence
- Simply needing to be in care as a result of family breakdown.
The regime was a tough one akin at times to what was known as an approved school (long since abolished in the UK). The school permitted the regular use of a secure unit, and the use of isolation. Children could find themselves effectively detained at Les Chenes for long periods and in many cases years would spend considerable periods of time in the secure unit. The use of such practices was condemned in the rest of the UK long ago.
For such an unfortunate and in many cases tragic state of affairs to arise, Jersey allowed itself to fall behind best practice which meant it was not living up to the standards of child welfare recognised in the West. It allowed a repressive situation for example to develop at Les Chenes contrary to recognised legal and child welfare standards by detaining children for long periods and placing them in a secure unit. The Inquiry revealed that all government in its various guises was contributing by actively placing children at Les Chenes. For example, the youth court used probation orders with a condition of residence which ensured that even minor offences resulted in children entering the care system. .
What occurred at Les Chenes encapsulates the “Jersey Way” in that society was allowed to develop in a way that deemed it acceptable to allow the rights of vulnerable children to become secondary to what were thought to be more important issues. Under the “Jersey Way”, law and policy could be distorted or just made-up to suit the prevailing mood. The Inquiry’s report says “’the Jersey Way’ is said to involve the protection of powerful interests and resistance to change, even when change is patently needed”. Then when things went wrong, the reaction wasn’t to step back and ask how and why things had gone wrong, but to just muddle along and never actually fix anything.
In my time representing survivors in Jersey I have witnessed the attitudes of those with responsibility towards child protection change dramatically for the better, but as the report identifies, there is a long way to go. I am always concerned that the danger complacency and the desire to maintain the status quo pose to children is never far away. The Inquiry states that the “Jersey Way” still exists and so my fears are not misplaced.
The report has made a series of recommendations which need to be implemented immediately. The appointment of a children’s commissioner for example, is a measure that needs to be implemented as soon as is possible. Appointing one is one thing, but legislating to ensure that the commissioner is effective is another, and therein lies the challenge for Jersey’s leaders.
A “commissioner with teeth” is required to ensure that Jersey has the best child protection and welfare system possible. The dangers of child abuse and neglect have not gone away, they are real and present. Whoever is appointed needs to have the ability to ensure that Jersey’s leaders are delivering good management and best practices through the provision of resources.
Jersey also needs to face up to the wrongs of the past. The States cannot do that without a plan for how to address all of the wrongs from the very recent right the way back to those from decades ago. The publication of the report in itself will draw out new complaints of abuse which will need to be investigated.
The publication of the Inquiry’s report is not the end of the Haut de la Garenne scandal. It’s the beginning of a new chapter in Jersey’s long and proud history. The inquiry has set a benchmark for child protection and has asked Jersey to meet the challenge that it has been presented with.