Looking Back to Look Ahead
Abuse and Neglect of Children in Institutions
Tjelflaat, Senior Researcher and Torbjorn Bolstad, Associate Professor
article, we will look into the conditions for children in institutions (reform
schools and children’s homes) as found in five Norwegian investigations (Bergen,
2003; Oslo, 2005; Stavanger, 2006; Trondheim, 2007; Kristiansand, 2007) about
abuse and neglect of children. The investigations cover the period from about 1940
to 1990 (the period varied somewhat between the five investigations), and they
showed that many children in institutions were seriously abused and neglected.
We will raise the question of how this could happen, and look at the
development of care systems and legislation for children in institutions after
the investigation period, from a children’s rights perspective.
late 1990’s, the media published stories about serious abuse and neglect of children
who had lived in children’s homes and reform schools. The former residents told
about shocking conditions and experiences. As time passed, many of the former
residents told similar stories. This was not just a case of isolated
experiences. There was a clear pattern. The foundation “Justice for victims”
took up the issue, and it was placed on the political agenda. High-ranking political
officials took responsibility and investigations were initiated in the national
bureaucracy and in the country’s largest cities to find out what had happened.
is based on data from investigations in the cities of Bergen, Oslo, Stavanger,
Trondheim, and Kristiansand. Data was collected from two main sources: historical
documents and interviews. Children who had lived in institutions in the period
from 1930 to 1990 (approximately) were interviewed. Staff and some other adults
were also interviewed, about 570 “children” and 230 adults in all.
committees examined basic living conditions such as food, clothes, school,
recreation, and health care services. The living conditions were evaluated in
relation to conditions of that period of time. From that perspective, the
quality of clothing was mostly satisfactory. The informants related, however, that
their own clothes were taken from them, and they were given used clothing which
belonged to the institution. These could be old and the wrong size. Some of the
children felt the clothing to be like a uniform which identified them as residents
of the children’s home. Some shortcomings with food and clothes were uncovered
up to the mid-1960s, after which these conditions gradually improved.
were a very negative experience for many of the children. The social environment
for the meals was often inadequate. Forced feeding, denial of meals as
punishment, and physical abuse during the meals was reported by many of the
informants. These events occurred throughout the whole period being
committees examined the level of safety and comfort which the children
experienced through conversations with the staff, in the amount of contact with
adults, through encouragement and recognition, and through the feeling of being
treated fairly. Inadequate emotional support was found in many situations. Many
informants told that they were left to cope for themselves in most situations.
For the most part, they had no adults to whom they could turn for comfort,
safety, and intimacy.
committees examined the use of punishment and physical abuse including: denial
of privileges, extra duties, and use of physical violence. Many of the “child
informants” told about serious and systematic punishment. The abuse could
include everything from hard blows with the hand/fist to the body, being hit
with an object, kicks, and beatings. Boxing the ears, pinching, and hair
pulling were also common. With regard to daily care, as mentioned above, there
were many unacceptable practices related to mealtimes. Many of the informants
told about forced feeding, denial of meals, and physical abuse during meals.
also told about being locked in cellars and other rooms that resembled prison
cells. Violence and physical abuse between boys was a frequent topic in the
interviews. Some of these abuses may have been “hidden” from the staff, but
there was also reason to believe that some staff intentionally allowed children
to physically abuse other children, as a form of pedagogical method.
the part of some staff members was almost daily behaviour in some institutions.
Informants told about individual staff members who would slam boys against the
wall, throw them down stairways, and break their fingers. In many cases, it was
the leader of the institution or his next-in-command who carried out the
punishments or “commanded” other staff to do so. The culture of violence or
punishment pedagogy promoted by the leader was critical. Many of the
institutions systematized and legitimized the use of physical punishment
carried out by staff against children and between children.
Sexual abuse can be
divided into two categories:
- Physical sexual abuse:
meaning everything from inappropriate touching to intercourse and
- Non-physical sexual abuse: meaning sexual activity without direct
physical contact, with the child being exposed to uncomfortable sensory
stimulation and abuse in the form of threats and harassment.
All of the
investigating committees found that both forms of sexual abuse (physical and
non-physical) had been committed at several institutions. Sexual abuse was reported
at nearly all of the reform schools, but also at some of the children’s homes. Abuse
was committed by staff against children and by older children against younger.
The informants said that this could produce anxiety and fear in the children.
There were differences
between boys and girls with regard to abuse by other residents and staff. The
boys were the victims of many, and sometimes serious physical sexual abuse,
while the girls often told about spoken sexual harassment.
between reform schools and children’s homes
The reform schools had
more serious shortcomings than the children’s homes throughout the whole period
under investigation. Although there were changes after 1970 with regard to the
number of children in reform schools, the development of professional
competence and understanding on the part of the staff, and the development of
milieu therapy and other pedagogic intervention; children were the victims of
especially serious and often systematic abuse until the 1980’s.
Children’s homes had a
more positive development during the period under investigation. There were
many reports of punishment and physical abuse during the 1950’s and 1960’s.
This was most widespread in the large children’s homes. The leader’s attitude
was very important in this respect. Physical punishment was carried out on a
systematic basis and this kind of activity was legitimized. Even though
isolated episodes of serious abuse and neglect occurred after the 1960’s, the
main conclusion was that conditions in the children’s homes were much improved
in the 1970’s.
Can abuse and
neglect be understood?
for specific background factors which can help to explain abuse and neglect can
be a difficult professional challenge. When it comes to the institutions which
were investigated, it is, nonetheless, possible to identify some important
factors which helped to create intolerable situations. We will emphasize seven
factors which represent different levels of understanding: individual, group,
organizational, and societal. Abuse and neglect in institutions can not be
understood on only one level. The events must be seen as an interaction between
factors on different levels and in their historical context.
resources including lack of competent personnel, insufficient finances, and
overpopulated institutions appeared to be an important explanation for how
abuse and neglect can occur. There were long working hours, a high child to
staff ratio, and poor salaries. Resources were more limited in children’s homes
than in reform schools (Ericsson, 1996). Severe staff shortages at most
institutions caused hopelessness which led to actions that would otherwise have
The total institution
schools, and to some extent the children’s homes, resemble total institutions
as described by Goffman (1967). The institution was isolated from the surrounding
world, often in a geographically remote location, and with great social
distance between “insiders” and “outsiders”. Daily life was characterized by a
break down of identity caused by the loss of material and social supports. Goffman
calls this “the process of humiliation”. Another process which Goffman
describes as typical for total institutions is “the system of privilege”. Behaviour
which is consistent with the goals and ideals of the institution is rewarded,
while behaviour which is in conflict with these is punished. An institutional
culture with the elements described here can both promote and hide physical
abuse and neglect, and tacitly allow it to occur (St. melding nr 24,
Tradition of punishment
Part of the
context for abuse and neglect may be found in a tradition of punishment which
is based on partly on revenge, and partly on the use of pain as a pedagogical
tool (Raundalen, 2004). Even though physical chastisement was totally banned in
reform schools in 1951, and in child protection institutions in 1953, the use
of punishment as a pedagogical tool continued until the late 1970’s. Children’s
homes were seen as family-like institutions which legitimated physical punishment.
Parents were allowed to punish their own children physically until 1987.
The role of the leader
considerable evidence that the role of the leader is very important for an
understanding of the extent of abuse and neglect. All the investigative reports
point to this factor as one important explanation for the extent and nature of
physical abuse in the institution. This is apparent throughout the whole period
being investigated. The leader’s unquestioned authority has been a consistent
theme in children’s institutions since the early reformatories of the 1800’s
(Thuen, 2002). The institutions have been organized according to the
patriarchal principle. This was also the case for institutions with a female
leader. The leader was dominant and always had the last word. The fate of the
child was in the hands of the leader, and he/she exercised all power over the
child (ibid). The leader’s behaviour and attitudes was fundamental for the
culture of the institution. The leader directed and legitimized abusive
of the investigative committees are supported by the research of Sundrum
(1986), Thomas (1990) and Utting (1991). They emphasize the critical importance
of the leader and his/her style of leadership for abuse of children in the
institution, and they argue that the leader of a 24 hour residential institution
is the one with the greatest influence upon the institution’s culture, environment,
and practical activity.
Marginalised children – Vulnerable
are vulnerable because of their age. The “child informants” interviewed by the investigative
committees, were especially vulnerable because of their life history and marginalised
living conditions. Most of the children had a life history before they were
placed in an institution which was characterized by poverty and physical and
emotional neglect. Being placed in an institution increased their feeling of
social exclusion and stigmatisation. The abuse and neglect which occurred must
be understood as a result of the powerlessness and feeling of inferiority that
these children had experienced. The children had no influence over their own
situation. Even when the children tried to talk about this to others, they were
not heard. The committee reports contain many examples of this.
Deviants seek work with children
investigative committees concluded that sexual abuse in many cases was connected
to individuals, both male and female, who were interested in children sexually.
It appears that some people intentionally sought work in child protection
institutions in order to come into contact with and achieve close relations
with especially vulnerable children, who were then sexually exploited. An
American study (Rosenthal et al. 1991) points to this phenomenon as basic for
understanding sexual abuse in institutions.
Lack of supervision
of individual children and institutions was regulated by law, regulations and
guidelines. All of the investigative committees found, nonetheless, that
municipal and national supervision failed both with respect to individual
children and as control over the institutions. Once a child had been placed in
care, they were largely forgotten. None of the children ever told about being
asked about how they were doing.
– development after the investigations
from the investigations represents many sad stories. A lot of misery has been
communicated. It has been difficult for many of the informants to tell their
stories (Dyregrov & Heltne, 2007). Much has been suppressed. Many lives have
been damaged due to what the informants experienced during their childhoods.
All the informants were offered psychological help and support after the interviews
to take care of possible damages. The children who had been placed in
institutions and who had been abused and/or neglected also received a financial
compensation for all the misery caused by the placements.
investigations have provided important historical information. An important question
is how to learn from this experience, to put it in the past and to look ahead.
Many have also raised the question if this can happen again. In one respect, we
can never be sure that no child will ever be abused or neglected while in an
institution, neither at present nor in the future. Bullying, victimization and overly
severe punishment can happen, whether intended or not (Gautun et al. 2006;
Tjelflaat et al. 2003; Barter 2003). But hopefully, this can never happen in
the systematic and intentional way which many of our informants experienced.
many reasons for this. First of all, children’s rights have been strengthened
considerably since the investigations. In 1981 Norway appointed the first ombudsman
for children. The intention with the ombudsman was to promote children’s interests
and monitor conditions for children in different parts of the society. The same
year, the children’s and parents’ act was adopted. This act gives the child an
independent right to participation. In 1954 a new children’s act was also passed.
The UN Convention on the rights of the child (1989) was ratified by Norway in
1991. The convention became incorporated in Norwegian Law in 2003. The present
child protection act was adopted in 1993, and embodied several of the provisions
of the articles in the UN convention, for example the right to protection,
provision and participation. It also recognizes basic principles such as
understanding children as human beings, and that every action shall be in the
“the best interest of the child”. The child protection act is very important
for protecting children in institutions. The Ministry of children and equality
has, since 2002, issued several regulations specifically designed to take care
of the rights and quality of life of children in these situations. Several
guidelines have also been issued to ensure reliable routines for the treatment
of children in institutions.
are now understood differently than in the past, during the period of investigation.
The child is now understood as a subject with his/her own rights, and not an
object subjected to adult’s treatment. The child has the right to protection,
provision, and participation. The child shall be seen as an active protagonist,
participant, and partner, but also with a need to be cared for and protected
also a change in the professional and political approach to services for children
in need. Prevention and home-based services are preferred. If out of home
placement is needed, foster homes are almost always seen as the best choice. If
prevention is insufficient, and a foster home not appropriate or available, then
an institution may still be the only alternative. But, the Norwegian
institutions are very small (5-8 residents), they are open to the surroundings,
children attend public schools and the institutions are often situated in urban
areas. This makes it difficult for irregular conditions and abuse to happen.
care requires substantial resources and is very challenging politically,
organisationally, pedagogically and not least of all socially. Legislation to
safeguard children in institutions, organisational issues and routines are not
always sufficient to ensure children a satisfactory daily life in out of home
placement. Even with the best intentions, there are always factors that can
make this difficult.
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