An eerie silence

    As a child, I was bullied for being plump, clever, foreign (Welsh)
    and from a broken home, suffering for my differences through no
    fault of my own. Miserable but angry, I eventually took the war
    into the enemy’s camp and, in front of a full class and a teacher,
    floored the ringleader.

    However, the broken home issue, when an eight-year-old girl slung
    the barb “Your father doesn’t love you enough to live with you”
    before admitting that she was only repeating her mother’s words,
    proved how often adults make the bullets that children fire.

    Bullied children wish away their childhood, wrongly believing
    everything will be fine when they grow up. But adult bullies, with
    more weapons to hand and an aptitude for painting their nasty
    habits with the gloss of socialisation, arguably have greater power
    to do real damage. I have personal experience of being forced out
    of a job because I refused to ignore the plight of children in its
    care.

    In one respect, bullying reflects our innate fear of the stranger:
    someone not quite like us and therefore a possible threat, but how
    that distinction is made is often a mystery. It is also a primitive
    tool to determine who climbs the human hierarchy, a trial of
    strength in life’s proving ground. Inevitably, neither victim nor
    bully learn anything noble; for both it can forge the early links
    in a chain of violence that characterises their later
    conduct.

    Sadly, bullying among children is sure to happen, but is usually
    easy to recognise. Unfortunately, in residential child care, normal
    frames of reference are ever vulnerable to the institutional
    setting, and a child’s oppressive and intimidating behaviour may,
    in context, be reclassified as indicative of a disturbance beyond
    the expertise of residential staff.

    I once dealt with a vicious 16 year old who was a blatant risk to
    other children. Management refused to transfer him; more
    damagingly, all sanctions were banned on the basis that he had
    “problems”. Indeed he did, but they paled in comparison with those
    he created for others.

    Evidence to the North Wales Child Abuse Tribunal demonstrated how
    staff may allow bullying as a group control mechanism, actively
    encouraging older or more dominant children to rule, by fear and
    force, on their behalf. Less obviously, staff may use peer
    government to manage those children of whom they are themselves
    afraid.

    The human element in staff-child interactions is equally
    problematic. Bullying does not occur in isolation and adults may be
    complacent if not complicit. Moreover, adults may identify a victim
    either unwittingly or deliberately. Children are quick to pick up
    on adult antipathies and, where children and staff unconsciously
    bond into exclusive groups, victimisation of the “outsider” – the
    ready-made scapegoat – is tacitly approved by staff. Training for
    residential staff bypasses the study of institutions, their
    internal dynamics, their intense, claustrophobic inner
    relationships and their potential to distort psychological and
    social perspectives. Nonetheless, staff must constantly balance a
    group of personalities in flux and conflict, absorbing and
    neutralising high staff turnover, admissions and discharges in the
    children’s group, and the natural fear of change that affects
    everyone.

    For children bullied at school the torment is to an extent
    time-limited. Those in residential or foster care are at the mercy
    of their persecutors day and night. Some schoolchildren avoid the
    bullies by truanting; others take the last resort of suicide. In
    the residential setting, those coping mechanisms translate into
    absconding, self-harm, substance abuse and, possibly, deliberate
    offending intended to transform an indeterminate “sentence” in care
    to a fixed term in custody. Children in care also kill themselves,
    but their number and motivation remain under-researched.

    Children who bully their in-care peers often have an existing
    reputation for intimidation and may come from a background where
    physical and psychological violence are the preferred
    problem-solvers. While low-level fear-mongering is a part of the
    give and take of children’s interactions, that alone may be too
    much for some.

    Dr Emma Renold at Cardiff University recently concluded that
    children entering care from abusive or profoundly demoralising
    backgrounds are incapable of defending themselves and unable to
    weather further threat, particularly in a so-called place of
    safety.

    Social work training must address the complexity of institutional
    interactions and relationships and develop a greater understanding
    of peer group dynamics. Bullied children, like abuse victims,
    rarely tell tales – they live in fear of greater reprisal. Properly
    trained and vigilant staff can make the difference between
    individual success and failure or, even, life and death.

    Alison Taylor is a novelist and former senior child care
    worker.

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