Three pioneers were crucial to the development of children’s departments, set up 60 years ago. Bob Holman remembers how inspirational they were
In July 1948, the Children Act established local authority children’s departments to care for children deprived of a normal home life.
The summer has passed and much of the media – which gave enormous attention to the 60th anniversary of the NHS – has ignored the birth of the children’s departments. I will illustrate their impact through three people, all now dead, whom I knew.
The first is Dennis Allen who was imprisoned as a conscientious objector during the Second World War. He became a childcare officer in the London County Council’s children’s department. He once told me that a lot of his time was spent doing detective work for boys who knew nothing about their parents.
In 1966, he was promoted to children’s officer at East Sussex Council where he advocated prevention. He persuaded the housing department to house homeless families whose children would otherwise have been removed into care. He told me his approach was to get good staff, help them with training, and then turn them loose.
When I became a child care officer in Hertfordshire in 1962, my supervisor was the assistant children’s officer, John Stroud. He was also a famous author whose childcare novel, The Shorn Lamb, was a hit.
He was a sensitive communicator with children. Outside of their presence, he could be moody and abrupt. He showed his contempt for a bossy official by giving the Nazi salute and shouting “Seig Heil”. He would not fit easily into today’s bureaucracies but he was a marvellous social worker.
The third is Barbara Kahan. She was 28 when appointed children’s officer for Dudley in 1948. What she lacked in years, she made up in drive. She moved the department into a large house where a homeless family could live on the upper floor. The offices were open at lunchtime for teenagers in care to share lunch with the staff.
After three years, she moved to Oxfordshire. Disliking the old approved schools, she persuaded the authorities to commit young offenders to the children’s department. In a six-year period, only one youngster went to an approved school. From 1970, Barbara held a number of distinguished posts. She also maintained contact with children who had been in care and recounted those experiences in a book, Growing Up In Care (1970), one of the first studies of the views of users.
Engaging with children
These three pioneers obtained managerial posts yet always regarded themselves as practitioners. I absorbed much from them. Dennis insisted on maintaining contact with the kind of people we wanted to help. He and his wife took into their own home one very disturbed young man. My own practice developed along the lines of living in the neighbourhood where I worked.
John Stroud taught me how to engage with children by sitting on swings with them or kicking a ball around. He said that being in the car was better than sitting in the office: the children could fiddle with the radio and, when ready and if they wished, talk.
Initially I was in fear of Barbara Kahan. Then I admired her. Finally, I loved her readiness to take on those in authority for the sake of children. I want her courage.
It is forgotten that the children’s departments, which were abolished in 1970-1, were progressive. It is time to recall their values and practices.
Bob Holman is the author of Champions for Children: The lives of modern child care pioneers, Policy Press, 2001
This article is published in the 2 October edition of Community Care under the headline “Heroes of children services”