Telling Tales

By Mark Smith

Dr Mark Smith is the Head of Social Work and Senior Lecturer in the School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh. Among his recent publications are : 

Cree, V.E., Clapton, G,, and Smith, M. (eds) (2015) Revisiting Moral Panics: Theory and Practice, Bristol: Policy Press.

Smith, M., Fulcher, L., and Doran, P. (2013) Residential Child Care in Practice: Making a Difference.  Bristol:  Policy Press

Smith, M. (2009) Rethinking Residential Child Care. Bristol:  Policy Press



Telling Tales

This piece is about stories. We all draw upon stories to make sense of our lives but we rarely think about them as other than our own. But individual stories intersect with wider public or cultural ones. The major cultural story circulating at the moment is one of historical sexual abuse. It is a story that has defined and despoiled residential child care for the past twenty years or more. Inquiries across the UK profess that they will leave no stone unturned to uncover the ‘truth’ of what went on in the past. The experience to date of such Inquiries might suggest that this is easier said than done – and it is.

In the wake of the Jimmy Savile affair, the focus on abuse has extended to include ageing entertainers and politicians. And just as the Henriques Report began to raise serious questions about the Metropolitan Police’s response to the allegations made against a number of politicians by a fantasist, ‘Nick’, we have a new site of concern – boys club football. Someone like myself, of a sceptical bent, might wonder whether there are certain parties with a vested interest in keeping this pot boiling. They might also look below the surface of what is reported to consider questions of motivation and timing in some of the revelations.

In even asking questions in such a febrile climate I will be accused (and not for the first time) of denying the scale and consequences of child sexual abuse. When it comes to scale, any serious academic commentator would attest that questions of incidence and prevalence are notoriously difficult to assess. The moral entrepreneurs of the child protection charities never tire of reminding us that what we hear in the papers is only the tip of the iceberg. This assertion is presumably based on a belief that a majority of those who have been abused do not come forward. While I have no doubt that this is true, I want to reframe this belief through questioning whether all of those who do come forward have actually been abused or whether, for a whole range of reasons, they may be picking up on prevailing cultural stories and writing themselves into these. I have written about this in a recent article in the journal Ethics and Social Welfare and also here

A recent Irish Inquiry into a compensation scheme in respect of a particular medical procedure, symphysiotomy, came to some fascinating conclusions. Basically, around of a third of those claiming compensation for the damage they claimed to have been caused by symphysiotomy, had not even had the procedure. For further explanation of the details of the case see

Now, you might wonder why historical Irish obstetric and gynaecological practices might be of interest to child care. They are of particular interest to me. Earlier this year, I witnessed a former colleague of mine being jailed for abusing children in his care. I am convinced this is a miscarriage of justice. Several of the accounts that led to his conviction struck me as being wider cultural stories, constructed and shared within victim groups or on the various internet forums that spring up once a particular institution is named, rather than accurate reflections of past events. There are a host of reasons, other than that it happened, why someone might write his or her self  into a particular story – many, no doubt, come to claim and internalise that story – others crave the emotional attention that being a victim in out current ostensibly therapeutic culture can bring and others still are motivated by financial reward – why, otherwise, would they choose particular law firms to advance their claims?

The consequences of being caught up in such stories are catastrophic for workers and former workers in residential child care. A recent study by criminologists at Oxford University highlights this. When we speak of victims, we need to be aware that there are also those victims of wrongful allegations.


But another concern of mine is around the impact of dominant stories on those who have experienced abuse. My first exposure to this has stuck with me and has informed the way I think about such issues, since. A number of years after he left care, a former pupil who I had re-established contact with told me he had been sexually abused during his time in care (although not in the care setting). He said something that stuck with me, to the effect that every time he put on the television or opened a newspaper he was confronted by stories that brought back what had happened to him. He was not allowed to forget. But, actually, there are some stories that are better forgotten or at least suitably packaged and put to rest. Telling stories is not necessarily liberating and rarely brings the kind of closure that a therapeutic or legal discourse would claim. Indeed, once told, stories can become freeze-dried, imprisoning as much as liberating those who tell them. We risk creating serial victims of things that may or may not have happened. Telling their stories has manifestly not helped those victims who circle the various Inquiries, looking for something the process can never give them, presumably the peace of mind that might come from being able to understand their life histories in a different way.



Cynthia Cross writes on !8th December, 2016.

I was pleased to see that Mark had put his head above the parapet and written about alleged sexual and physical abuse in residential settings.

Another phenomenon I have observed :

A child comes into care having (sometimes allegedly) been sexually abused. He/she becomes the centre of attention, who lots of people want to talk to. Then the matter is thought to be dealt with and life goes on, the child who may have lost family and friends and support networks, is not of any great interest anymore. The child feels abandoned and depressed. How can he/she become interesting again?  One way is to make another allegation; this time about a residential worker or foster carer. Unfortunately often against the person who could most help them. What power!

Charles Sharpe comments on 19th December, 2016 :

Any child who has been physically or sexually abused –  so becoming emotionally abused – deserves justice, care and support for the cruelty they have suffered. The same is so for adults who, fearful for themselves in the face of power, have kept quiet about abuse they suffered as children. Few would argue otherwise though it may be pointed out that to some extent or another most of us, whether we are aware of it or not, have been abused as children. It might also be argued that some level of abuse is necessary if children are to develop a resilience to what life on this planet will throw at them. In this instance however we are considering abuse that is by any standards unacceptable. Yet it is an issue to be dealt with sensitively, even if this takes a long time.  Each case should be judged individually. It cannot be dealt with by covering it over with a smothering blanket, though Lambeth Council seems to think it can. See

It would appear Lambeth Council believes by paying sums of money to all the children who lived at this children home that  it has found a final solution to the issue.But, is this really justice?  What about the significant number of children who received a great deal of help from the residential staff at that children’s home? Are we to assume that by offering monetary compensation to all the children who lived at the home, every person who was a residential child care worker at the home abused children?  What justice for them or must they accept being forever tainted by this. Should we say to children “OK, you may not have been given the kind of the care you needed so have some money instead.”   Money does not equal love.

We should accept that this is a sad, tragic and complex issue that cannot be fixed by the offer of money. It is not difficult to understand why it has proved so problematic to find a chairperson to lead a national inquiry into these matters.

Lastly an uncomfortable fact for politicians, the media and we ourselves as members of the public is that 90% of child sexual and physical abuse takes place within the familial and social network of the child’s home. It’s convenient for us that we can navigate past our guilt about this and project most of it upon innocent residential child care workers.