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CATHY FOX REPORT: ‘ Historic Abuse in Care Homes – The Management Context by Wally Harbert ‘

Wally Harbert writes from his personal experiences about the wider context in which child abuse was allowed to happen in the Social Services Sector. This is valuable not only so that we can understand how child abuse was allowed to happen, but also so that we can learn from this and prevent child abuse occurring in the future from the same reasons

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IF we learn the lessons from the past​: ​

This is even more valuable because it is available for the public to read and also for free, not stuck in academia or a report that needs to be paid for and thus the readership is limited. If we are to learn the lessons of the past, people must be able to access information to hold authorities to account. The sooner Wally and other knowledgeable professionals are able to give evidence to child sexual abuse inquiries, the better. An inquiry does not need “teeth” to learn valuable information from the vast majority of knowledgeable people who will give it willingly.

Historic Abuse in Children’s Homes – the Management Context

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Wally Harbert

Wally Harbert-2

Wally Harbert

In recent years, nearly every police force in the country has examined historic abuse in children’s homes and we await further developments in the delayed independent national inquiry into child sexual abuse. I was a director of social services from 1970 to 1990 and have described how my job was at risk when I sought to protect children from abuse [1] . There is more to learn about how abusive behaviour flourished in the 1970’s and 80’s but it is important to analyse what we now know to better protect children in future. I give below my perspective of some of the issues that led to children being failed.

All kinds of abuse – verbal, emotional, physical and sexual are closely related. Where there is one kind of abuse others are commonly present or may follow. Sexual abuse may be part of a process of dominating or humiliating children. It can be a demonstration of power making children compliant. Once there is a loss of respect for human dignity, the weak are at the mercy of the strong. Coercion can take many forms. That is why it is important to respond vigorously to all allegations of wrong-doing in homes, even when the presenting symptoms may appear minor.

When I worked in mental health services in the 1950’s I saw at first-hand how disparities of power between users and providers can corrupt relationships, particularly in institutions where it is difficult to provide outside scrutiny. Events in the Catholic Church demonstrate that those motivated by strong religious convictions are not immune from sexual urges that can lead to abuse. There is no doubt that many of the cruelties and indignities inflicted on girls in Magdalene laundries arose from the vicarious sexual gratification it gave to priests and nuns. For these reasons I believe the pending government inquiry cannot sensibly be limited by an arbitrary definition of sexual abuse.

All Change


Social services departments were created in 1971 by amalgamating the work of local authority children’s, welfare and mental health services. The approved school system, run by the Home Office was also included together with some responsibilities formerly undertaken by the Probation and After Care Service. Hospital social workers were later transferred. There were substantial changes in 1974 to local authority boundaries which created larger authorities, including some entirely new counties. Management systems were also changed profoundly. Gone was the system by which town and county clerks led teams of chief officers as ‘first among equals’. They were replaced by or became chief executives with clear, overriding, authority.

Guidance on management systems was given to local authorities by the Bains Working Group [2]. This emphasised the need for strong central management in each authority. Unfortunately, the Working Group was composed of enthusiasts, none of whom had experience running public services for which local government existed. The report was used to justify excessively centralised control. As a result, some new monolithic authorities placed immense power in the hands of chief executives and party leaders who had little interest or knowledge of very sensitive services. That was fine where they were prepared to learn……

The local authority associations attempted to prepare local authorities for their new responsibilities. I addressed several meetings of local authority chief officers and councillors about the changes but there was little enthusiasm from participants. The education service took up the lion’s share of local authority budgets.

I ceased to be responsible for children’s services in 1990 so it is for others to judge the current quality of services. Inspection systems have been greatly strengthened but the move towards independent providers means that there remains intense pressure to minimise management and staff training costs – areas which were extremely weak in the 1970’s and 80’s.

The Inheritance


Throughout the 1960’s there was a vigorous debate about the organisation of care services for vulnerable children. Local authority children’s departments provided care and protection for those deprived of a normal home life while the Home Office was responsible, through the probation service and the approved school system, for young offenders. There was a strong desire to integrate the two systems.

In the 1960’s, I was a member of the Home Office Probation and After-care Advisory Board. We found no enthusiasm among probation officers for an amalgamation with local authority services. They preferred to relinquish their responsibilities for children altogether rather than follow their Scottish colleagues into a monolithic local authority family service in which they might lose their special status as a service to the courts. They were strongly supported in this by magistrates. In 1971 the new social services departments absorbed responsibilities for child offenders from the probation service and incorporated approved schools into an enlarged community homes system.

Community homes had been developed by children’s departments since 1948 when the Poor Law was broken-up. They were mostly small in size, domestic in character and close to the communities they served. Approved schools, now re-named, community homes with education (CHE’s), tended to be much larger and were often geographically isolated; staff in both services were largely untrained and came from a variety of backgrounds.

Staff in former approved schools were entitled to feel defensive. Probably no social services department employed anyone in its senior management team with significant approved school experience. Moreover, some had no senior manager with a background in child care services. Also, departments were under pressure to reduce management costs. The new centralised local authorities required senior managers and it seemed reasonable to some, that the cost should be met by cutting back on the cost of management in social services and other departments. In practice, a large bureaucratic centre made enormous demands on individual departments but it was difficult to persuade anyone that sizeable institutions like approved schools required management oversight. Thus, few social services management teams were capable of forestalling problems in former approved schools and they varied in how well they responded when failure became apparent.

Not only was the oversight afforded to former approved schools inadequate but two distinct residential child care systems continued, one endeavouring to be relaxed and informal, mirroring home life while the other, deliberately institutional and authoritarian with an emphasis on discipline and good order. In smaller homes, discipline and punishment were applied with reluctance as a last resort. In former approved schools, staff and children expected punishment to play a more central role. Many male staff had experienced National Service which ended in 1963 and some regimes for boys were distinctly militaristic.

When staff from the two services met as part of the new social services department, there could be tension as they competed for status and recognition. This was exacerbated because CHE’s were often called upon to admit children who were too unruly to be contained in other parts of the system. Official documents continued to refer to “Former Approved Schools” because pay and conditions were still negotiated separately. This made any kind of integration between the two workforces difficult to achieve and it proved impossible to harmonise underlying philosophies.

Many children requiring residential care had already been badly let-down by adults and were emotionally damaged. Residential services, especially former approved schools, were providers of last resort. They stepped in when education and health services claimed to have no suitable provision. Unlike schools and psychiatric units, they could not turn away children yet, in comparison, their staff were poorly paid, were less well educated and trained and less well supervised. After a high influx of violent offenders, rapists and arsonists, one officer in charge threatened to put-up a sign made famous by the Windmill Theatre after the London blitz. We never closed. This, he thought, might intimidate the visiting psychiatrist.


Psychiatric services for children and adolescents were highly selective and unable to meet the enormous need. In the County of Avon the position worsened in the 1980’s when it became necessary to withdraw social workers from child guidance clinics to meet the growing need in area teams for social workers to investigate and monitor allegations of abuse and neglect by families.

The new arrangements were impressive on paper. Each region was required by law to establish a Children’s Regional Planning Committee which assembled information about the various homes available and determined which would be regarded as regional resources open to other local authorities. There was a network of residential observation and assessment centres, some regional, and some local. In practice the care received by children was largely a matter of chance. Research showed that children assessed in residential units were most likely to be allocated to residential care and that the nearer children lived to a secure unit the more likely they were to be allocated a place in it.

The former approved schools system was in a time-warp and was overdue for reform, when it was transferred to local authorities in 1971. Some of the most sensitive and complex tasks in local government were now being undertaken by untrained and untutored staff. Meeting the needs of children from failed working class families was not on any political agenda.

Exercising Control

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By the time they were admitted to CHE’s many children had been abandoned by fostering services and family group homes and were in conflict with their families. They were often frightened, resentful and angry. One of the first tasks for staff on admission was to control aggressive behaviour. This could require physical restraint to protect a child, other children or staff but it was rare to find a member of staff with any formal training in physical control.

Research suggested that there was a widespread belief among staff that, to express concern about controlling aggressive children was to admit failure; also, colleagues might be reluctant to intervene to help a struggling co-worker for fear of implying that he or she was failing [3]. CHE staff habitually denied to me and other managers that they experienced difficulty exercising control yet it was clear they faced enormous problems. This denial was worrying.

Some staff were superb at diffusing tense situations but others, unwittingly, provoked them. A study published in 1978 found, “few staff have had even the simplest instructions on how to take preventative action. Frequently they hasten into confrontation in which neither staff nor boy feels he can back-down without a significant loss of face”; when violence occurred, it was most commonly staff who struck the first blow [4].

By 1980, only 15% of staff in community homes were qualified. In the absence of strong theoretical models, clear guidance and effective supervision, staff used their own judgements as to what represented the best interests of children. Drawing on their own limited experiences, they invented systems for controlling unruly children. Fancy names like “regression therapy” and “pin-down” were given to the methods that were developed. Others adopted what they called, “a toughening-up regime” in which older children were encouraged to bully and intimidate (i.e. abuse) those younger than themselves. These were self-delusional devices to present crude retaliation, humiliation, abuse and punishment as sophisticated therapeutic techniques.

Evidence suggests that some homes developed regimes that met violence with violence mistaking acquiescence by children as a sign of success.

Complaints from the public about the control of adolescents in community homes were fewer when offenders were cared for in large, remote institutions. But, increasingly, they were now cared for in small homes in ordinary residential streets. It became a priority to suppress disruptive behaviour to reduce the volume of criticism from neighbours. When their constituents complained about out-of-control children in a local home, councillors who, for years had shown no interest in children’s services began seeking information about staffing levels.

I explained to them that the shouting, screaming and swearing about which they received complaints occurred because the children knew neighbours would be provoked into complaining. When complaints proliferated, some children were moved around but policy options were limited to further improving the quality and quantity of staff or returning children to geographically remote institutions where, if shouting, screaming and swearing continued, it would not be heard by the public. There were stormy and uncomfortable meetings where some councillors searched for someone to blame but this was exhilarating stuff. Children now had the ear and the attention of policy-makers. In consequence, there was even greater pressure to improve services. This represented a seismic and unexpected shift of power.

At this time, a home might be judged by how far it was successful in keeping out of the newspapers. The harsh regime in a Leicester home was criticised by a coroner following the death of a child and the director of social services, who had been a distinguished children’s officer, reported “The unit is being far more successful with disturbed children than any similar establishment I know” [5a] . She said about the officer in charge, “I don’t know quite what he is doing but he’s doing it very well” [5b]. When the police finally found out what he was doing he was sentenced to 24 years in prison plus five life terms for buggery, rape and indecent assault.

We should be careful not to sully the good name of every employee in residential children’s services during that period. Some community home staff worked with considerable skill and dedication. There were successes as well as failures. But good quality care was sometimes achieved at a heavy price in terms of stress to staff.

In larger homes it was relatively easy for staff to conceal abusive behaviour from the officer in charge. Shift systems complicated communications and children were generally disbelieved. Officers in charge tended to respond to allegations of abuse informally. It was not in their interests to acknowledge maltreatment.

During visits to a family group home a casual visitor was likely to see at firsthand how staff and children related to one another in unguarded moments. It was much more difficult to ascertain this in a CHE where, because everything was on a larger scale, there were seldom opportunities to discern the quality of relationships. Visitors placed greater reliance on the word of staff. This was true also for governors of homes who mostly took their responsibilities seriously, spending many hours on visits. But they almost invariably saw children in groups and were escorted by staff so had limited opportunities for casual exchanges with children.

Changing Services

At the end of the 1970’s I served on a government working partyvi which reported on observation and assessment services for children. It revealed how the sophistication of assessment processes was not matched by the quality of facilities available for children passing through the system. The number of children in residential care was artificially high because so many were assessed in residential centres where residential care was the predominate expertise; some CHE’s only accepted children who had passed through a residential assessment. The system was self-perpetuating.

Residential assessments were inclined to be flawed because, instead of judging needs based on how a child behaved at home, at school and in the community they studied how the child behaved when wrenched from home. We recommended greater flexibility knowing that if more assessments took place while children were living at home fewer would be sent to children’s homes.

Our terms of reference precluded a review of staffing arrangements in former approved schools but the report said about staff, “The lack of recruits of good calibre not only impoverishes the lives of children in care but it is clear to us that pressures of the job, inadequate staffing ratios and problems of recruitment have led to staff feeling unable to cope with many difficult youngsters” [5c]. It went on, “security is a matter of personal relationships, of close individual support and of constant personal involvement” [5d].

Mrs Thatcher gained her first election victory before the report was published. Political rhetoric was now about boot camps and short sharp shocks. Government ministers were in no mood to increase expenditure on the care of children in trouble. They did not accept that children who received poor quality care became recidivists in the next generation. An opportunity to improve staffing levels and staff training was lost. Indeed, social services departments were singled out for the most savage cuts of all.

There is no magic bullet that will transform the outlook of angry and distressed children. What most of them need is a period of calm in a safe environment where they can test-out relationships. They need opportunities to build self respect and gain a sense of achievement. That requires skilled and painstaking work by staff to build effective relationships. This is expensive but, in the long run saves money on health, criminal justice and other public services.

I was a professional adviser to employers on a national joint negotiating committee with trades unions for staff in former approved schools. It was soon clear that there was no basis on which we could reach agreement about the future shape of services. Progress would only be made by destroying existing provision and re-building from scratch. I took part in discussions about the future of former approved schools at two annual conferences of staff in CHE’s. Although everyone present accepted the need for change, they could only envisage a new package in which their service took the lead. This mirrored my experience locally. It did not offer a way forward.

The development of non-residential assessment services led to a reduction in the demand for care in CHE’s. Many staff from former approved schools could not be found a place in the new services being developed. Occupancy levels fell and unit costs rose prompting comments about the cost per place compared with places at top-end public schools. Closures were accelerated but there were no quick solutions. The closure of a large home could take many months. While managers struggled to provide an acceptable service with a depleted and demoralised workforce, staff felt abandoned. We can only guess at the impact this had on children.

Investigations into allegations of malpractice in homes at this time were greeted with a chorus of “You are trying to close us down” from staff and governors alike. Some behaved as though they had a moral duty to resist any criticism or change. In their way, the changes that were taking place were as profound as those occurring in heavy industry at the time. Closures evoked anger, fear, resentment and despair which had a direct effect on the quality of care and the behaviour of staff towards children. There was no national plan to ease the changes or lessen the pain and no precedent to follow.

The Political Dimension


Political tension and partisanship were strong in the 1970’s and 80’s. The three day week, the Winter of Discontent and the miners’ strike served as a backdrop. Militant Tendency caused havoc in some local authorities. People were asking “Who runs Britain?” and strikers were called, “The enemy within”. Mrs Thatcher was at her most strident. High political feelings over-spilled into committee meetings. Everything, including the care of children, was politicised.

I vividly recall reporting on the death of a child in care. I explained to the committee that a coach party of children was returning from London when it broke-down on the motorway. A boy ran across the carriageway and was killed. I intended to tell the committee about the number of staff present and the supervision arrangements but, when I explained that the trip had stopped-off at a demonstration about youth unemployment a member shouted ,
“Why the hell did they do that?”
“Because they need to know what your government is doing”, replied another.

“Well, see what happened to him. That wasn’t very clever was it?”
I gave the chairman a nudge and he moved the discussion on.

Any attempt to describe the attitude of councillors towards children’s services at this time is in danger of being a caricature and I do not know how far my experience is reflected elsewhere. Many councillors took their responsibilities seriously and did their best to improve services. However, few took a strategic view or resisted the commonly held belief that, in the light of financial constraints, the needs of children in care could not be a political priority.

A significant segment of the Labour Party took the view that managers could not be trusted and that the best child care experts were closest to the coal face. They persuaded themselves that the maltreatment of children was not an issue and that staff needed protection from over-zealous, college-trained, so-called, experts. They had the power to hinder investigations and to assist in hiding malpractices from view. Other Labour Party members had an entirely different approach but were unable to silence their colleagues. However, as opportunities arose, they fought fierce battles to radically increase staff ratios in homes and also strengthened the departmental management structure.

When the Conservative Party held power locally, leading politicians seemed to take the view that putting money into services for failed working class families yielded no political or social advantage. They kept staffing and salary levels to a minimum and froze vacant post arbitrarily. Some homes became little more than warehouses for wayward children.



Services for vulnerable children in England have a nomadic history and no natural home. Responsibility for them has moved from the Home Office, to the Health Department and, most recently, to Education. Locally, responsibility has relocated from Children’s to Social Services departments before arriving with Education. This reflects changing perceptions as well as uncertainty about core values. It is now on the periphery of a service that is substantially driven by a middle class constituency. That may not be to its advantage.

The Chief Inspector of Schools has drawn attention to falling educational standards for white working class children. He could have added that this does not augur well for children in care who mostly come from working class families that have failed. There is no effective pressure group. History tells us that the system will not work to the advantage of vulnerable children unless there is a champion in government and ring-fenced budgets. Without purposeful action backed by hard cash there will be future generations of neglected, forgotten and even abused children.

Those unfortunate enough to spend their childhood being humiliated and degraded by authority-figures develop a distorted view of the world. Given the widespread abuse that we now know existed in homes during the 1970’s and 80’s, it is little wonder that children in care are over-represented in the prison population. Two of the three jihadists in the Paris January shootings were, we are told, brought up in residential care. Is that coincidental? We know that some jihadists come from apparently well-adjusted families but it would not be surprising to discover that significant numbers were brought-up in demeaning circumstances, including poorly run-residential homes.

Perhaps the lesson is that children deprived of affection become easy prey to religious radicalism as well as to Fagin.

Wally Harbert was director of social services in the London Borough of Hackney from 1970 to 1973 and in the County of Avon from 1973 to 1990. He was President of the Association of Directors of Social Services in 1978-9.
Among his ten published books, Bent Twigs, (2005), is a fictionalised account of his experiences responding to abuse in children’s homes. [7] [8]


2nd February 2015.
Wally Harbert.

References and Links

[1] Wally Harbert Child protection in a hostile environment
[2] The New Local Authorities HMSO 1972
[3] Hargreaves, D. What teaching does to teachers. New Society. Vol 42. No. 805, p 541. March 1978.
[4] Milham, S. Bullock. R. and Hosie, K. Locking up Children. Saxon House p 63.
[5] D’Arcy, Mark & Gosling, Paulo. Abuse of Trust. Bowerdean. 1998. [5a] Pg 193, [5b] Pg21, [5c] pg 44, [5d] pg 45.
[6] Observation and Assessment. Report of a Working Party. Department of Health and Social Security 1981.

[7] Bent Twigs by Wally Harbert

[8] CathyFox Bent Twigs by Wally Harbert

betn twigsPlease note that victims of abuse may be triggered by reading this information

​: The Sanctuary for the Abused [A] has advice on how to prevent triggers. National Association for People Abused in Childhood [B] has a freephone helpline and has links to local support groups. Other useful sites are One in Four [C] and Havoca [D]. Useful post on triggers [E] from SurvivorsJustice [F] blog.

[A] Sanctuary for the Abused


[C] One in Four

[D] Havoca

[E] SurvivorsJustice Triggers post

[F] SurvivorsJustice Blog

This is all written in good faith but if there is anything that needs to be corrected please email

Cathy Fox: The truth will out, the truth will shout, the truth will set us free

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