After the devastating fire at Plympton library four years ago, a phoenix of a new library has arisen: 50% bigger and incorporating all the latest must-haves in a modern library. At a time when libraries across the land are being closed due to austerity cutbacks, this is serendipity of the highest order.
All this week there are events, and on Thursday it is authors’ day. I have been much privileged to be asked to contribute on that day. But what shall I speak about? My book, of course, but I shall also speak about children’s issues since it is much of what the book is about.
In researching the book, I came across a startling set of statistics; they relate to a recent UNICEF report. It stated that 60% of children passing through the present childcare system grow up to be either criminals, homeless or suicidal. And we must not assume that the other 40% have made successful lives for themselves; more probably they have muddled through and simply don’t qualify for a place in that terrible roll-call of tragedy.
These figures caused me to consider the fate of the Foundling Hospital children of which I was one. They were taken into care as weeks’ old babies, fostered out for their first five years and then sent to the hospital for their next ten.
The hospital, now called Coram after its 17th century founder, Captain Thomas Coram, has an association called the Old Coram Association (OCA) which encourages old boys and girls to keep in touch with each other. It publishes a twice-annual magazine and stages umpteen gatherings each year at its central London headquarters.
What emerges through all this communication is that, for all its faults, the hospital’s children made infinitely more successful lives for themselves than is the case with today’s deprived children. So what is going on?
Foundling children were institutionalised at a very tender age; they were subject to the harshest and most disciplinarian of regimes – although, it has to be said, no harsher than many of the country’s top public schools of the time – and should, therefore, be prime candidates for a failed life. They didn’t even know who their mother and father were, or even what their real name was (a new one was given them by the hospital). Yet despite all these things they have become, for the most part, loving parents and successful people.
The only conclusion that I and other ‘old boys’ can reach is that the hospital’s policy of fostering them out for their first five years saved the day. Children are tougher and more resilient than we often give them credit for. Having been surrounded by love and security since babyhood, they were able to survive the rigours of what was to become. But what they cannot survive is a messed up, abusive early start to life: nothing and nobody can undo such damage inflicted so early. If this is true – and all the evidence points to this being the case – then it seems to me that we have to move fast and adopt a much more hands-on approach where babies at risk are concerned.
The rights of parents absolutely have to come secondary to those of the child. It is well known that social services will bend over backwards and go to incredible lengths to keep mother and child together. And by the time they wake up to the reality of the relationship it is, in almost all cases, too late. The child is irredeemably scarred.
If it becomes apparent that the parent, or parents, for whatever reason cannot provide stability, love and a decent standard of care then I believe the baby should be removed as a matter of urgency and placed in an environment where it has all of these things. Intervention at the earliest point – once the facts have been established – is of the absolute essence. Who would deny that if such a policy had been in place for poor Baby P, he would not be alive today?
I would not even be averse to sending them, during term time, to a school such as the Foundling Hospital – ran with all its stunning facilities. There, in today’s world, they could be guaranteed a standard of education second to none. Think of the pressure cooking excellence that a live-in school bestows. And don’t say ‘yes, but it would be cruel to send them off from their home during term time’. Isn’t this exactly what the elite of our country have done for centuries and continue to spend thousands of pounds doing? Sending them at the tender age of eight from the far flung outposts of empire in times past, not to see their parents for years, never mind every school holiday?
Armed with this very superior education, wouldn’t society have gone a very long way not just in saving them, but off-setting the sadness of the loss of their own inadequate parents?
If you can spare some time to join with me, we can discuss some of these very important issues. I can also answer any of your questions with regard to my book. The opportunity comes at 2.30pm at Plympton Library on Thursday 9th February. Another local writer, John White, who writes military and political thrillers, will also be there.