Reckoning with historical abuse of children in institutions

The UK’s Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) is drawing to a close. It has unflinchingly uncovered historical child sexual abuse on a massive scale, particularly inside the country’s so-called system of care and protection. For hundreds, if not thousands of children, the ‘homes’ provided by the state, ostensibly to rescue them from abuse and neglect in their families, did not provide safety and respite. Instead, children felt trapped and imprisoned, abused by their carers, with nowhere to turn. Time and again, children reported the abuse – including to the police – but were ignored. They learned there was nowhere safe for them in this world.


I have watched the inquiry with interest, as hundreds of survivors have given evidence, revealing in the UK what I have seen and heard countless times across the world from children living in institutions and from care leavers. That, in the name of care and protection, residential institutions harm children and expose them to all forms of abuse and neglect. Personnel are poorly paid and too few in number to provide individualised care. Little attention is paid to recruitment – and abusers target institutions, as an easy way to access vulnerable children.


Similar inquiries over the past three decades in Canada, Australia and Ireland found abuse in residential institutions was widespread and frequently covered up. The Ryan Report in Ireland documented abuse in 216 institutions. Repeated reports from institutions had been made of endemic abuse over the years, but were covered up. Sexual abuse in particular was kept hidden by transferring abusers to other institutions, where they reoffended. The report found more than 800 individuals responsible for the physical and sexual abuse of the 1090 witnesses.


In Canada and the USA, right now, inquiries are being held into the horrific abuse of indigenous children in residential schools, due to recently discovered mass graves.


Working in Romania in the early 1990s, I witnessed the country’s struggles to cope with the myriad legacies of the oppressive Ceausescu regime. Few were more devastating than the vast orphanage system, where mortality rates in institutions were high and the levels of abuse and neglect were almost beyond definition. As the years went by and, working alongside my courageous Romanian colleagues to change the system, we battled bureaucracy, indifference and vested interests, I often wondered when Romania’s turn would come. When would the survivors’ voices be heard? Would they ever receive an apology? Would reparations ever be made?


I read this week that the moment of reckoning for Romania may be coming. My former colleague, Ileana Cirt, has established a Museum of Abandonment to document and bear witness to the massive scale of abuse in the country’s orphanages during the communist and post-communist era. She says this is “a wound that’s hard to bear – and that won’t heal” unless the voices of survivors are heard.


As countries the world over – from Colombia, to Kenya, Malaysia and Ukraine – drive forward change aiming to end the institutionalisation of their nations’ children, I wonder when each will have to face up to their past. And as countries like the USA, Australia, the UK and other European nations increasingly incarcerate refugee children in institutions, I wonder if – decades from now – the world will have to face another reckoning.