The Australian government has recently issued
a statement of public regret about the treatment of child migrants
shipped from Britain after the Second World War. To some, this
seems far too little, far too late. Certainly, the experience of
those thousands of children, some told they were orphans while
their parents were told they were adopted, many of them sexually
and emotionally abused, is unbearable to contemplate.
Looked at another way, the Australian
government’s declaration shows how far we have come from the
attitudes of that bleak post-war period when so many children could
be wrenched away from their families and their country of origin
without a whisper of public concern. Once upon a time a child could
be adopted and never expect to trace their birth family. An adopted
child now has the legal right to find their first family.
Whether poignant or joyful, there is something
relatively straightforward about the adoption narrative. A baby
given up at birth is usually placed with another family. The first
family moves into the shadows there to remain unless, and until,
they are reclaimed in later life. It is the stuff of some of the
best fictional and real life dramas in the past decade.
Compare this to the situation of children in
care about whom there is so little popular fiction, film or drama,
although let’s not forget the marvellous children’s author
Jacqueline Wilson. Here, the story may be much more ambiguous, the
suffering more mundane. A child may very well know their mother or
father. There is no secret, just a slow loosening of contact over
the years. That same child may move from home to home or in and out
of foster care. Records may not travel with them or worse, get
lost. In the care of the state, there is no single adult or group
of adults to hold the child’s experience and memories of
The older the care leaver, the more likely
there are to be big gaps in the record. On one of a number of
recently established websites, care leavers write about their
attempts to piece together both an official and more personal
history. Some of these stories read like a Victorian novel or even
a thriller, with a sequence of vivid snapshot memories; a bomb
shelter during the war, a house on a bend in a road. The story is a
blur of constant change, constant disruption. There is poignant
recall of both adult cruelty and kindness.
One website contributor, now a grandmother,
describes what it felt like to receive her records from the local
authority. Somewhere in those bulging files was the only picture in
existence of her as a baby. She also discovered her real birth date
after years of celebrating somewhere round the middle of the month
in which she believed she was born.
Human rights don’t get much simpler than this.
To know the day on which you came into the world. To know the names
of your biological mother and father. To know something of why you
couldn’t stay with them. To know what siblings and wider family you
might have. To know what happened to you as a child and young
adult. To know salient facts about your medical history, including
information about any potentially inheritable conditions.
Young people in care today can rightfully
expect better record-keeping than in the past. That doesn’t mean
enough is yet being done to create an accurate and meaningful
personal history for them. Some of this will depend on factors
beyond the law or policy, in other words the individual kindness
and creativity of social workers, doctors, teachers and others.
But some of it depends on resources. The
Australian government has offered a £1.38m package to help
those who were child migrants to trace their relatives back in
Britain. That doesn’t seem much to buy back the remnants of a
shattered life but it recognises, at least, that tracing one’s
history can cost money.
At present, older care leavers often face an
uphill struggle to find out where they have spent large parts of
their childhood and why. Piecing together a coherent personal
history brings a sense of liberation, a sense of wholeness. A
childhood is, at last, returned to its owner. Settling with the
past is the right and task of all humans. The more difficult the
past, the greater the right and the more important the task.
Melissa Benn is a journalist and