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

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

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

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

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

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

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