Looking back on Looking Back

Noel Howard

This article has allowed the writer to reflect on a recent publication which he co-edited


For nearly 20 of the last 30 years I have been the editor or co-editor of CURAM, the biannual magazine of the Irish Association of Social Care Workers. The title comes from the Irish word  for CARE. In 1986 the idea for such a magazine came about because of the need to communicate with association members on a number of relevant topics, the range and importance of which a smaller newsletter could not always reflect.

Aware that 2016 would mark the 30th anniversary and 50th edition of CURAM I decided  last year that this was an occasion that should not go unmarked. The association executive, taking a leap of faith, was more than willing to go with a suggestion that we publish a special lookback edition.  Like most ideas conceived in a fit of enthusiasm, the practicalities of what might be involved slowly began to emerge. Would earlier copies of the actual 49 previous editions be available? How would material from past issues be chosen? To really do justice to such a special edition would cost become prohibitive? Would association members be interested? In any event we set about the task.

Locating  earlier pre computerised editions proved reasonably successful but not without the assistance of a long term friend and former co-editor of CURAM, Annette Collins, whose methodical approach to life and  preserving the past is greatly envied by the author of this article. Another colleague and the education rep on the association’s executive, Dr David Williams, volunteered to co-edit the anniversary edition. His analytical mind, enthusiasm for the idea and ability to make decisions when faced with numerous possible options greatly helped to bring the project to fruition. Others, too numerous to mention, helped in many ways when dates, times, issues and individuals from the past were in doubt and needed clarification. Agreeing on a title for this special edition was relatively easy and we chose Social Care –Snapshots in Time.

Faced with up to a thousand pages from previous editions David’s task and mine was to select those articles that we as individuals felt best reflected the child and social care scene in Ireland over the past thirty years. The end result was a level of natural dissatisfaction that much deserving material  which  a bigger edition might accommodate just had to be excluded. As we note in our editorial, two other co-editors, faced with the same choices might well have chosen a completely different set of articles from the archives. Had time permitted, such an exercise would have no doubt yielded an interesting and even fascinating outcome.

One approach we agreed to take was that, where at all possible, we would give particular attention to the positive rather than the negative as evidenced in the pages of previous editions. This proved to be more difficult than we had anticipated but we made a conscious effort to include material that was positive and in some cases light hearted. The truth dawned as we ploughed through previous editions that, like it or not, the vast bulk of material reflected much that was seen in child / social care not only as problematical at the time but concerning, unacceptable and in not a few cases, scandalous . Looking at it now I wonder would similar publications in the UK or elsewhere reflect the similarities of content over the past 30 years. Looking back through previous journal content of  goodenoughcaring I can realistically conclude that, yes, perhaps  what makes it into print will be what we are often strongly dissatisfied with rather than the opposite.  With that said, the goodenoughcaring journal  archival material that I perused has many articles of a positive,  indeed uplifting nature and I hope that comes through too in what the special edition of CURAM has to say. I suppose ,while we would all want life to be bells and whistles, the reality is that in our professional lives we tend to “want to do something” about what we perceive as anything from shortcomings to scandals. The facility or invitation to get something on paper is the form that this sometimes takes and as well as getting something off our chests may be of relevance to the reader and perhaps lead to some form of action.

In the above context then, what stands out most for me is proof that really “the more things change the more they stay the same.” Just a  glance at one  extract we included from 1988 exemplifies this and could just as easily be said of today’s Ireland. Just consider the headings from 1988: Situation gets worse for homeless adolescents; Concern about young people between 16 and 18;Children’s homes and young people’s hostels closing. Coincidentally,  thirteen years later, an extract from a 2001 edition about the same issues around  youth homelessness which alludes to political apathy and bureaucracy would not go amiss today either.  An extract from 2002 is on Workplace Violence and its unacceptability.  This article refers to the level of complacency and disinterest evident from managers with, thankfully, some honourable exceptions. That level of complacency and disinterest from 2002 has morphed into today’s situation where there is a very strong perception that social care workers are expected, to use a modern expression,   “to  suck it up.” In a paper delivered at the Social Care Ireland conference in April this year one presenter recalled a story she was told where a social care worker left their position because of an assault. The manager’s subsequent response was, ‘If she can’t take a few slaps she shouldn’t be in the job’.

Similarly, we still await  effective after care provision in Ireland with a promise of new legislation to replace the relevant section in the 1991 Child Care Act. That piece of legislation, by use of the word “may” rather than “shall” means that for the past 25 years the state was able to evade its obligations with respect to young people leaving state care. While some improvements have been made, thanks largely to voluntary agencies, young  people leaving care are often left facing uncertain futures. An extract, After Care-Ten Point Plan from as far back as 1989 notes the state’s clear responsibility in this matter. In tandem with this can be read an article from a 2001 edition on Youth Homelessness which we chose to include and to which I have referred to earlier.

A number of editorials from past issues made their way into the  edition and again reflect the unacceptable nature of situations that faced social care workers at different points in time and yes, still do. The need for statutory registration, now slowly moving toward implementation, features as does one from 2008 entitled The Winter of our Discontent. Sombre and realistic are two words used in that particular editorial as the economic crisis hit  and harsh realities in all aspects of life were to become all too common. The world of social care was no different and huge cutbacks left their indelible mark  and the residue is there right up to the present day.

References to the child abuse scandals that have emerged over the past thirty years in Ireland were bound to be included in any publication  covering child and social care and for the anniversary edition  it was no different. While many landmark reports have emerged over thirty years it is perhaps one that somehow encapsulated the horror and disbelief that became so much part of our lives in Ireland. The Ryan Report (2009) exposed the most negative and abusive realities of residential care and the sordid collusion of church and state in not only ensuring abuse was hidden but was in fact facilitated in many instances by lack of action.  The editorial from 2009, Stigma, which we feature, attempts to bring some perspective to what Ryan exposed in the context of where residential care was then at and what lessons, some glaringly obvious, needed to be learned. The religious orders tasked with running the industrial and reformatory schools in the past were rightly excoriated in the Ryan Report . Interestingly  however, in 2012 another report covering the years 2000-2010, when few if any  religious orders were  involved, concluded that 112 children had died while in care of the state.

Another aspect related to the abuse scandals that got attention in CURAM over many years was the prospect of false allegations being made against social care workers even before the Institutional Redress Board was set up in 2002. In subsequent years this body made payments to many former residents of industrial and reformatory schools. Well before then however, an extract from 1995 which we include, Innocent but never exonerated! Guilty but never caught!  alerted readers to  emerging allegations following the Dublin Madonna House abuse report and the effect false allegations were having on the profession and those who worked in it. Little did the writer of that article know what was ahead as media in all its forms outlined details of abuse as report after report emerged.  Innuendo and sweeping generalisations, not just in the tabloid press, meant that rational debate was often lacking and to this day shadows from the past hang over those who work in social care. More importantly perhaps ,is the fact that such suspicion and the prospect of false allegations has led to a situation where children are now more written about than cared for as in many cases the baby has been well and truly thrown out with the bathwater. This phrase will feature again further along in this article.

Two other pieces in the above context come to mind as I write this. The Ryan Report was published in 2009 and that year also saw  the revised edition of Richard Webster’s The Secret of Bryn Estyn being published. Webster’s  landmark publication, a necessary piece of reading for all in social care, gives the lie to the idea that what we read in the press is always  true. Ray Jones’ The Story of Baby P-Setting the Record Straight , again comes to mind when pondering all of this. One of the most commented on abuse cases of the past thirty years in Ireland was that of a nun, Nora Wall, who in 1999 was convicted of rape but released after four days in prison when the state’s case fell and  her conviction was quashed. Her trial got wall to wall coverage in the media and every vile, sordid  or abusive epithet  allowed in print was used  about her. She sued the state for the miscarriage of justice  and was offered €75,000. That was contested and the case was eventually settled on May 16th this year for over €500,000. What was the media response to this? A few paragraphs in The Irish Times greeted  the outcome of one of the great miscarriages of justice in Irish legal history. So much for balance.

But back to what this article is supposed to be about. It is interesting looking back on where I have digressed somewhat and  why  abuse and all its implications take up the foregoing full page?. Why, I asked myself does much of what the past thirty years have been about involve  child abuse and why am I led  to give  it the emphasis I have in this article? Surely I should be seeking some balance in what I write myself? Then I conclude that the abuse scandals in Ireland have defined what the perception of social care is in many cases.  They also define and influence how social care workers now approach their job in the context  an almost obsessive societal  and institutional emphasis on child protection.  Baby and bathwater now get a second mention and I’m assuming anyone reading this needs no further elaboration. My limited knowledge of the UK situation leads me to believe that things are not very different there. To digress again around the same subject matter. A number of years ago  in the lovely  village where I live in county Cork a state of the art children’s playground was opened right in the village centre. Now, maybe there is something wrong with me but would I as a male over 70 feel comfortable taking a seat for an hour in our current beautiful sunny weather  in that playground  watching children at play? Would any male?  Well, I wouldn’t. Why? Because I think, and it is my view only on this, that at some point someone would question my motives for being there. Now, if I were a woman over 70 that would be a different story and no such suspicion would arise. Says a lot I think about males and children not only in social care but in society at large in today’s world. Or maybe it says a lot about me?

Getting off my hobby horse and back to the task at hand, I mentioned earlier that in deliberating on what should be included in the special edition, we decided to feature where possible material that was taken up with what was not  so obviously negative. Yes, there were positives in the archival material.

Reference is made here and there in different articles to the establishment of a Minister for Children so often called for over many years. In 2002 that became a reality.  What  had previously been a junior ministerial post became a full senior position with Minister Brian Lenihan making that bit of history.  Affable, approachable, erudite and highly intelligent, he did give a boost and a sense of optimism to the social care scene. An indication of this was his decision to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 7 to 12 years as again over many years this Dickensian feature of the Irish juvenile justice system had been seen as regressive and outdated.  He kick started moves toward the Children’s Rights referendum  becoming  a reality in 2012.  He was to go on to become Minister for Finance and remaining there through the throes of the financial crisis until his untimely death in 2011.

One article we include is Feminism and The Caring Profession from 1995, a timely and interesting perspective on a profession that to this day at community and residential level has a very large proportion of women. The vast majority of those going into social care education today are female and were the situation reversed at either work or training level I have no doubt but it would lead to a level of discussion not evident in the present context.

From a 2001 edition we chose a graphic on You’ve made a mistake, The Sweep it under the Carpet School of Management versus The Learning Organisation. It’s hard to imagine how the very notion of making a mistake has changed in those 15 years. From my knowledge of what goes on in social care now it would appear that even what was once taken as “you made a mistake and learn from it” today can mean even the most routine mistake takeing  on a level of significance which at times is mind boggling. For the third time I will mention baby and bathwater. The question arises – has the normal sense of give and take, rough and tumble, ebb and flow of normal relationships disappeared from our social care settings? I get a sense at times that the term “traumatic” is edging closer and closer to becoming a descriptive term for the most routine, innocuous upsetting events in life which previously would not have even merited a comment never mind laboriously written up in some log. This is helped along by the new school of thought madly encouraging the sense that anything can and even must now offend someone. For that reason alone I am glad we included Frank Furedi’s article Victimised by Normal Life…we are all brainwashed by the therapy cult from 2004 and Andrew Hendrick’s article from 2001, Close Enough? Professional Closeness and Self Caring

Glad also that we feature articles such as Research is a front-line activity in Social Care, one on The Good Supervisor and one  on Immigration and Ethnic Minorities. The last from 2004 suggests we were looking ahead to a feature of what modern day Ireland now has become in terms of multi culturalism.  No need to add that in this area much needs to be learned, accepted and occasionally challenged as our world becomes smaller and integration becomes more and more evident.

The above is mostly a rather rambling attempt to give some sense of aspects   the past  thirty years have thrown up in social care in Ireland and obviously my opinions around all that. I wonder does it any way reflect, allowing for my particular obsessions and hobbyhorses , what the UK scene has been like in social care and social work over that same time span? Perhaps you might let me know.

In relation to all of the foregoing I think it’s no harm and indeed most appropriate to finish on one quote about the past that we  included, inter alia,  from Katherine Anne Porter: The Past is never where you think you left it.

CURAM Social Care Snapshots in Time (Spring 2016) can be accessed by going to cpd resources on  www.socialcareireland.ie


To comment on this article or to contact the author email goodenoughcaring@icloud.com

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