The Independent Jersey Care Inquiry on Wednesday (12 August) heard from two witnesses about their experiences working in care homes.
Mrs Christine Wilson spent 15 years at La Preference between 1968 and 1983 when it was still run by The Vegetarian Society. After a brief stint as a secretary after school she joined the home with a view to assisting her aging grandmother, Mrs Flora Walden. Her husband also joined her but not on a salary or contract.
Counsel to the Inquiry, Mr Patrick Sadd, took her through her witness statement about how the home was run, staffing levels and the layout of the home and grounds.
Mrs Wilson recalled how children responded to her grandmother’s gentle manner and explained how the characteristics of this approach enabled them to manage a group of children. She said many of the children had been there a long time and loved her.
Mrs Wilson said she was driven to continue making La Preference as homely as possible when she took over the running of it in 1971, and management was put on a formal setting by The Vegetarian Society. A local committee was set up and there were more visits and support provided.
She explained that the philosophy was that they loved children and wanted to help them. She said staff, often non-qualified, were recruited on the basis that they shared that philosophy.
She outlined how the home was funded, how children came to be placed there and the significance of vegetarianism in the home. She described the environment as “loving” and that the older children would help with the younger ones and with chores, contributing to their keep as they would in any normal family setting.
Mrs Wilson described her relationship with Children’s Officers, the admissions process and how she never felt the need to refuse admission to a child. She said she just did what she could to cope with numbers and inadequate staffing levels. She talked about how they dealt with difficult children, saying they needed clear guidelines.
She recalled that the threshold for children coming into care for this period was low compared to what was happening in the UK. She described the tension between trying to create a stable and permanent home for children by giving long-term placements and trying to ensure that children returned to their families as soon as possible. The shift to the latter in the late ‘70s meant the damage was greater each time they returned because of the disappointment of not being able to stay at home.
Mrs Wilson talked about the differences in behaviour between children in La Preference, many of whom had been there for a long time, and those who came in from Haut de la Garenne. She said she understood that HDLG staff were keen to protect themselves, so it was difficult for them to be tactile with the children.
She described her approach to discipline and restraint as fairly informal and that looking back it worked regardless of the absence of written procedures and guidelines. Although she would never advocate the use of the cane, at that time it was the accepted form of punishment. She recalled two serious incidents which led to it being used but didn’t witness them.
She said that children needed clear guidelines - but some were too damaged to respond to the trust given to them. On two occasions they had to give up on children and it was suggested they move elsewhere.
She talked about the relationship with staff from other homes and how she and Mrs Margaret Holley at Brig-y-Don saw themselves as slightly different in their approach because they shared the same philosophies. She recalled being invited to a social gathering at Haut de la Garenne by the Superintendant, Mr Jim Thomson. She thought it inappropriate holding that sort of event when there were children around. She did not attend another one.
She described the day-to-day management of La Preference and recalled the changes in policy regarding placements. She admitted the work was taking its toll on her and how the Director for Education, Mr John Rodhouse, had intervened and said it needed sorting out.
She outlined how Mr Ernie Mallett was recruited in the early 1980s to provide immediate help. She said it made a huge difference as he was very keen to do anything he was asked to do and the children loved him. She said he was the right person at that time to bring a lot of fun and laughter back to the home and fitted in with the philosophy, the ethos of the home.
She described her decision to leave La Preference for personal reasons as heart wrenching and a very difficult decision.
Looking back, Mrs Wilson said that La Preference was generally a success. With hindsight, staffing levels may have been too low and she may have given the children too much trust. She admitted that things would be done differently now, but in the past there was no training and it was all instinctive. She said many of the children who were in her care have gone on to become highly successful people in stable relationships - and she hoped that the stability they were given had helped that situation.
When asked about what should be done to help children in the future, she said she felt strongly that children were often moved at the wrong time in their lives, and cited moving from permanent care when they started college. She advocated an extended period of care or halfway house which meant they could turn to a responsible adult to help them into independence. She said helping school leavers to find employment and encourage them to go for something they wanted to do was a natural part of what happened at La Preference.
After lunch, Mr Derek Carter gave evidence about his experience teaching at Les Chenes and Greenfields for more than 26 years.
Mr Sadd took him through his early career after qualifying as a teacher in London where he initially worked for six years. During that time he also took part in a befriending scheme for children from a National Children's Home in Essex. He also spent six years working at Moortop Boarding School for Maladjusted Boys in Yorkshire.
Mr Carter said he applied for the post at Les Chenes because it was similar to what he had already done in terms of teaching and caring and the shift pattern would allow him more time with his family. His first impressions were that it seemed friendly, homely and had good facilities.
He recalled that the Principal, Mr Tom McKeon, ran a very tight ship, and lead by example. He also talked about the other six teachers and domestic staff.
He said that overall, Les Chenes was a good place to work and he always looked forward to going in. He enjoyed the job and found it challenging, although it was certainly difficult at times.
Mr Carter described his responsibilities and how they were to care for the children in the sense of a parental role; looking after their welfare out of lesson times, making sure they were comfortable and that they looked after themselves.
He said the philosophy was to get the children back into mainstream education as soon as possible; however this was not achieved to a large extent particularly with children who were there too long.
He described the routine as fairly strict and detailed the sleeping arrangements and how beds were allocated.
He recalled a sense of community amongst the staff and between the staff and young people, saying it was like an extended family most of the time. He described activities they would get involved with as a school such as gardening and decorating.
Mr Carter explained how staff handovers, meetings and record keeping were carried out and what they did if they needed to voice concerns. He spoke in detail about how Les Chenes was staffed, shift patterns, responsibilities and staff turnover. He said staff shortages and the use of supply teachers often made it difficult to maintain continuity for the young people.
He said it was not compulsory to read children's files when they arrived. He preferred not to read them so his perceptions about them would not be clouded and he took them as he found them. He described how staff would record incidents in a book and how they would deal with bad behaviour.
As a teacher he had very little interaction with outside agencies such as Children’s Services, the Education Committee and the Probation Services.
When asked about the points system Mr Carter said it was probably a means of control. He explained it was the Principal’s decision as to who went home at the weekends and who didn't, but it was quite rare for a child not to go home. He described how current residents who were coping well with being at the school were paired up with new arrivals to give them guidance on what to do.
He recalled corporal punishment only ever being used sparingly and he was asked to act as a witness on only one occasion. If he had seen a member of staff hit a child he would have reported it to the Head or Deputy Head. He said he didn't receive any formal training and even when he did, he did not think it equipped him very well. He just did the best he could to try and guard against using too much force and followed a common sense approach. He didn't recall there being any policies for dealing with aggressive or violent situations.
He explained how remand and non-remand children were organised and the use of the secure cells. Occasionally there were too many things to do and not enough staff. He said they would try to reason with residents who were misbehaving. He was asked about the use of a small storeroom being used to secure young people.
Mr Carter described events surrounding what he termed as a “major incident” in 2003 when two residents smashed up a recreation room where he had been supervising them. On this occasion they refused to go to bed when asked and "started going mad" throwing things around. He locked the door and called the police, and moved the nearest group of children away from the area to safety. He also called a colleague, Peter Waggott, to help. He said he did not know what the trigger was.
He said the transition of Les Chenes to Greenfields and the introduction of more specialised care staff was relatively well received. He talked about the different Principals he had worked under over the 26 years and compared and contrasted their styles. He was positive about the Alternative Curriculum and its impact on the children.
Transcripts and supporting documents will be available in due course.
Public hearings resume 0930 tomorrow (Thursday 12 August) with further evidence about working in Children’s Services.