Insight: 'It was bleak and utterly brutal': Finding of Scottish childhood institutional care report revealed

“It was bleak and at some points utterly brutal,” says Jayne Laidlaw, head of the National Confidential Forum (NCF), which – for the past five years – has been listening to people talk about their childhood experiences of institutional care in Scotland.

“But it was also a privilege because it was giving them validation.

“At the outset, everyone who took part said ‘I am here because I don’t want what happened to me to happen to anyone else’. But later, when we evaluated the process, what they told us was that they also felt lighter, unburdened. They had found it cathartic to be able to speak – and to finally be heard – in this safe space.”

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Born out of a pilot designed by survivors, the NCF had two main objectives. The first was to acknowledge their pain and promote their recovery. The second was to put their experiences on public record and ensure Scotland learned lessons from the past.

Kenneth Murray. Picture: John Devlin

Running alongside the Independent Care Review and the ongoing Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry, it offered something unique – a platform for people to speak anonymously and without cross-examination.

“A lot of work went into preparing them – the whole process took up to six months,” Ms Laidlaw says.

“We had to ensure we did no harm; that there was no negative psychological impact to taking part. For example, people could have nightmares and flashbacks after or even during the session, so we made sure people were aware of that and that they had adequate support, including access to a helpline.”

In the end, forum members, including specialists in clinical psychology, psychiatry, social work and the voluntary sector, heard from 174 survivors.

Kenneth Murray. Picture: John Devlin

Most had been in residential children’s homes run by local authorities, religious organisations or the voluntary sector, but some had been in assessment centres, hospitals, List D schools, remand homes and boarding schools.

The youngest was 25 and had been in care as recently as 2010. Their anonymised accounts are now lodged with the National Records for Scotland.

Ms Laidlaw is speaking to me on the eve of the publication of the forum’s final reports, which The Scotsman has been given exclusive access to.

There are two – Shining a Light on Care, in which the NCF explores the issues raised by the testimonies and sets out its recommendations, and My Message To Scotland: a collection of individual experiences, messages and reflections.

Jayne Laidlaw. Picture: John Devlin

Both are – as Ms Laidlaw says – brutal.

There are graphic accounts of beatings, repeated sexual assaults and terrible privations. But just as devastating is the casual, systemic cruelty: the taking of children from their home without explanation, the lack of investment in health and education and the way in which so many were cast out at 16 without basic life skills.

When read together, the reports also raise questions about who was taken into institutional care and why, with poverty appearing to play a key role.

“The sexual, physical and emotional abuse lots of these people endured is depraved and shocking,” says forum member and child psychologist Tara Pennington-Twist.

“But it’s also important to reflect on the chronic neglect: the lack of love, the lack of affection, the lack of anyone trying to make sense of their experiences for them. So many of the things we know children need to develop into emotionally healthy adults were absent."

The separation of siblings appears to have been routine, with no thought given to the impact losing those vital family connections would have on the children and their future ability to form relationships. In some cases those in care were discouraged from contacting brothers and sisters in other homes.

One woman told how, when her twin did not appear for dinner one day, she went upstairs to find her locker empty and her bed stripped, and no-one would tell her where her sister had gone.

In one of the most devastating accounts, another survivor recalled being summoned to be told a brother had died.

“I remember waiting for her to tell me which brother, I’ve got three brothers. I had three brothers,” the survivor said. “And I looked at her and she never ... and I said ‘who?’ and she said ‘I don’t know. You’ll be going to the funeral and you’ll find out then’.”

Many of those who took part also reported a lack of basic medical attention. “We heard over and over from people who had never seen a dentist or a doctor the whole time they were in care,” says Ms Laidlaw.

“There was a gentleman in his 40s who had gone into care not long after a childhood accident. He told us he was supposed to have surgery on his leg, but the surgery never happened. He is permanently disabled as a result and unable to work. That’s the level of neglect we are talking about.”

Education was also overlooked. Some of this was a result of children being moved from home to home and so from school to school. As a result, they would repeat some modules and miss out on others.

"It was all very fragmented,” Ms Laidlaw says.

When children worked hard, their achievements often went uncelebrated. One survivor told the forum they thought staff at the home would be pleased because they had come second in their class.

Instead they’d been beaten for being proud. “Pride was a sin,” the survivor recalled. “After that I thought ‘what’s the point?’ and I didn’t bother going to school. I didn’t take any exams at all. I left school with nothing.”

When it came time to leave care, some said it felt like jumping off a cliff into the unknown.

“They told us they had no idea what things cost or how to buy them,” says Ms Laidlaw. “One woman said she hadn’t known sanitary towels came in packs because she had only ever been given them singly. Others didn’t know how to cook.”

Then later, when they were trying to make sense of their lives, they struggled to get hold of their records. When they did, the documents were scant, poorly written, redacted and in some cases inaccurate.

“Some people told us what they found in the records was in direct contrast to their experience,” says Ms Pennington-Twist. “In one case, the records said a parent had tried to make contact with the child and the child had refused to take the phone call. In fact, the child had not been informed of any phone call."

One woman told the forum her records included the comment that she was “such an ugly child”.

“Imagine writing that about a child of seven or eight,” says Ms Laidlaw. “And imagine having to read it as an adult after everything else you have been through.”

According to the forum members, there was a lack of acknowledgement on the part of care institutions that record keeping was important either for scrutinising standards of care or for the sake of the children who would later want to make sense of their pasts. Nor did there appear to have been much effort to take the children aside from their carers to ask them about their welfare.

“There was little evidence of proper scrutiny; of people asking ‘are you happy here? Are they treating you well? Are you experiencing any abuse?’,” Ms Pennington-Twist says.

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Kenneth Murray, 30, who spent five years in residential care and foster homes, did not take part in the forum, though he recently gave evidence to the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry.

Yet much of what was disclosed to the NCF is familiar to him. He and his four younger siblings were removed from their family home in 2002 when he was 11 after their mother, who was having a mental health crisis, phoned the police.

His two younger brothers were taken to one home, his two younger sisters to another, while he was placed in a third. The decision to split them was taken, in part, as a means to “de-parent” him.

Social workers realised that, as the oldest, he had been taking care of his siblings and wanted to relieve him of that responsibility.

“What they didn’t recognise was this was a connection of love I had in my life,” he says.

Did anyone ask him what he wanted? “Yes, and I told them I wanted to be with my brothers and sister, but I was ignored,” he recalls.

At one point, his social worker pushed for him to be reunited with his siblings or at least to be moved closer to them, but was overruled.

“The argument was that I had stability, but I think you become a piece of stock,” he says. “They put you wherever they can find a space for you and move you from place to place as the need arises. It is a question of logistics.”

At school, Mr Murray joined every extra curricular activity he could. “I saw that as the path to success,” he says.

But where, at debates or school concerts, his peers would scan the audience for the faces of their mums and dads, there was no-one there to applaud him. “The state decides it can parent you better than your own parents, but then it doesn’t do the things parents would do,” he says. “There’s that element of it being a job, so no-one takes an active interest in your life.”

Mr Murray’s girlfriend, who was not brought up in the care system, can chart her life through photographs taken at different events – birthdays, holidays, Christmas. But there are no photographs of Mr Murray from the time he was taken into care until the time he left.

He hoped his records might help him create a timeline, but when he finally received them last year, after more than a year of asking, they were heavily redacted to protect third parties.

Sometimes those third parties were his brothers and sisters, so he can put their care files and his together and fill in some of the blanks. "But to me it’s not symbolic of a system that is open and transparent and wants to help people have the best opportunity in life," he says.

One thing he read in his records related to a contact meeting he had with his mum and siblings.

“There was a comment that we were all struggling to be validated by her – to be given attention,” he says. “Well, of course we were. There were five of us who hadn’t seen her for so long. We all wanted to tell her what we were doing. We all wanted to find out how she was doing. We all wanted to find out about each other.

"When you are in care, you are viewed through a pathological lens. If you were to take any family and view them through that lens, I don’t know how well they would pass.”

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The legacy of those years in care still weighs on Mr Murray. He now works as a consultant on the media portrayal, stigma and public understanding of those with experience of the care system.

The fact he is so passionate in his campaigning is evidence, he believes, that he is still processing his own past.

And yet he is one of the lucky ones. Returned to his family home before his 16th birthday, he has been able to rebuild his relationships with his brothers and sisters, and they have all gone on to forge happy and successful lives.

Many who spoke to the NCF talked of the heavy toll their time in care had taken on them and others, with the impact rippling down the generations.

One of the most striking legacies was the guilt felt by those who had witnessed or been forced to take part in the abuse of others. “The picture of abject misery and the pleading look in their eyes is, for me, a recurring nightmare, not least because, although I was only a child myself, I was unable to do anything to ease their pain,” one survivor said.

Some spoke of struggling to form relationships with partners or children. “They said they found it difficult to bond with their babies or show affection to their children because they had never experienced it themselves,” explains Ms Pennington-Twist.

“For others, it had the opposite effect. They were so anxious awful things would happen, they spent their entire child’s upbringing trying to prevent them from doing anything that might put them at risk.”

Many of those who took part had experienced poor physical and mental health, homelessness, alcohol and/or drug abuse and jail.

According to the Centre for Excellence for Children’s Care (CELCIS), 27 per cent of Scotland's prison population have experienced care. Not that they weren’t resilient.

“They needed to be resilient just to cross the threshold,” Ms Laidlaw says.

The testimonies given to the NCF demonstrate the cost of getting care wrong to the individual, their families and society in general. Both forum members and survivors are determined those mistakes should not be repeated. They want Scotland to learn and build a better, more compassionate system.

In the past few years, there has been a growing acknowledgment of the failings of the past and a commitment to improve. The Independent Care Review found the care system in Scotland was “fractured, bureaucratic and unfeeling” and did not “adequately value the voices and experiences of those in it”.

It resulted in The Promise, which identified 80 specific changes to “transform how Scotland cares for children and families”.

Yesterday, mental wellbeing and social care minister Kevin Stewart welcomed the NCF reports. “The most important aspect of the reports is that care-experienced people have driven and shaped the recommendations and we are happy to accept these in full,” he said.

Many of the forum’s recommendations complement those made by the Care Review. For example, the NCF also calls for greater scrutiny and for future decisions to be evidence-based and in the child’s best interests.

People consistently told us they felt decisions were made without any real consideration about the likely physical, psychological or emotional impact on them, and that cannot continue,” Ms Pennington-Twist says.

Another interesting and under-discussed issue involves those older survivors who – as their health fails – may once again find themselves in a care home.

“We heard testimony from people in this position and it’s horrific because you feel you are losing control again,” says Ms Laidlaw. "It can re-traumatise people so we support the Scottish Government’s commitment to having a trauma-informed workforce.”

Everyone also agrees poverty alone should never lead to children going into care. Stigma must be tackled and resources focused on supporting rather than punishing those who are struggling.

This is something Mr Murray feels strongly about. He believes if his mother had been better supported, she might never have reached crisis point and might have been able to continue caring for her children at home.

“There is so much prejudice about working class lives,” he says. “There are so many Shameless-style stereotypes. People think 'how awful that people are living their lives like that' without asking the bigger question ‘why are people living in poverty and what can we do to alleviate it?’.

"Instead, how we choose to fix it is we take their kids away, and that costs the state money and leaves everybody drowning.”

So how optimistic are they that things will change?

Mr Murray says he has great faith in the people on The Promise oversight board. All the same, he worries when he sees foster carers fight for sick pay and holiday pay.

“It is clear there are people in the system who don't see themselves as the parents of the children they take in,” he says.

"They are their guardians until the next stage in life, when someone else will be their guardian, until nobody is their guardian.”

Mr Murray is also disheartened by care homes which, during Covid-19, asked if people laid off from Wetherspoons or Thomas Cook would consider switching jobs.

“Why don’t you put your hospitality experience to work in a residential child care setting?” they said.

He believes that to put love at the heart of the system, you need to take the profit motive out. You need to employ people who will take an interest in all aspects of children’s lives and retain that interest as those children leave care and begin their adult lives.

Putting love at the heart of the system has been the focus of both the NCF and the Care Review’s reports. It’s a concept that seems both obvious and nebulous.

We all know children thrive on love, but how do you legislate it for it? How do you enshrine it in a system?

“It can seem nebulous,” Ms Pennington-Twist agrees. "But actually we just need to break down what we mean by 'love'. It’s things like empathy, understanding and time. It’s affection and touch and warmth: the experience of an authentic, reciprocal relationship with adults, who have your best interests at heart and are by your side as you navigate the challenges of life.

“We actually have an excellent understanding in terms of brain science as to what children need to become emotionally healthy adults. What the testimonies given to the NCF show is the importance of bringing this into policy and practice as quickly as possible.”

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