Wednesday, October 1, 2008

‘I believed by telling of the horrors that scarred my childhood I’d begin to heal. Instead I have been betrayed’

‘I believed by telling of the horrors that scarred my childhood I’d begin to heal. Instead I have been betrayed’
IT WAS meant to be a landmark inquiry by the Scottish government which would once and for all give closure and a little peace to the thousands of men and women who suffered physical, sexual and emotional abuse in residential care homes run by churches and charities from the 1950s to the 1990s.
But today - even before the publication of the inquiry team's findings later this month - the work of the Historic Abuse Review has been savaged by the very people it was set up to help: the Scottish victims of child abuse.
Over recent weeks, a series of Sunday Herald investigations into the exploitation of children in Scotland has looked at underage prostitution on the streets of Glasgow, the abuse of children in mosques and, last week, the rape of boys in Scottish borstals from the 1950s to the 1980s.
As part of last week's investigation, we told how Tom Shaw, the man appointed by the government to head the review of historic abuse, was not going to name and shame individual homes or perpetrators in his report. His comments, and the narrow remit of the report, incensed victims who had given painful testimony to his staff, and led to the inquiry being dismissed as a "colossal waste of time and money".
Elizabeth McWilliams is one of those victims outraged by the limitations of the remit. A key witness for the Historic Abuse Review, she believed that reliving the sexual assaults, beatings and humiliations she endured as a child in the care of Quarriers - one of Scotland's leading children's charities built on the Christian principles of love and compassion - would help the inquiry team understand what happened to children in care over the past five decades and how to stop such mistakes being repeated.
Now McWilliams has decided to make public her testimony in the hope of shaming the government into "standing up properly for the victims of child abuse".
She hopes that if the public read the evidence she gave they too will want to see those who victimised her and many other children exposed by the state inquiry.
McWilliams, soon to be 70, spent her entire childhood in Quarriers. She was sexually assaulted, beaten, tortured psychologically and subjected to criminal neglect. After brutal beatings, she was plunged into baths of freezing water. McWilliams was even forced to eat pigswill after her face was stuck into the food slops.
She watched bed-wetters have their noses rubbed in soiled sheets and saw one girl almost die after "carers" threw her head-first down a flight of stairs. Other children were deprived of water and reduced to drinking out of toilets.
Perhaps the most tragic experience of all for McWilliams was that her twin brother was sent to Quarriers with her as a toddler but Quarriers chose not to tell either child they were siblings. The pair went through childhood together not knowing they were related.
Her brother later slipped into alcoholism and homelessness because of his experiences, and McWilliams attempted suicide on a number of occasions.
The Sunday Herald has previously revealed that Quarriers believes up to 100,000 children went through the system between 1900 and the early 1980s and were never told they had siblings. It was standard practice to keep it secret as care homes such as Quarriers believed the family the child had been removed from was so damaged it was better to sever all ties.
"I feel utterly betrayed," McWilliams said. "I've lived in silence and shame for years. The truth needs to come out.
"If you want to protect children, you have to get to the root of the problem and expose those who have harmed children.
"I consider this inquiry a colossal waste of time and money unless they name and shame the institutions and the perpetrators.
"I came into this world already betrayed in the cradle and I don't want to go to my grave betrayed."
McWilliams and many other victims, who have organised themselves into campaigning groups, now believe the only way to deal with historic abuse is for a series of genuine public inquiries.
"Now we know how this review is going to treat the issue," says McWilliams, "we will fight on - seeking an inquiry - until the whole truth finally comes out."
Elizabeth's evidenceQ: Did you know the reason for your placement in a residential home?
A: The only thing I was told was that I was unwanted, unloved and a child from the gutter. I was told this from four years old by the cottage mother children in Quarriers were housed in cottages overseen by staff called cottage or house mothers and fathers.
Q: Did you know who was responsible for your care?
A: I didn't know. I was led to believe that I was an orphan by the cottage mother. I was never told my birthdate, nor the year I was born until I left Quarriers and got my birth certificate. I found out then that I had a father and mother. No birthdays were celebrated in Quarriers for any child at any time. I felt as though I had no identity.
Q: Were there any adults at the residential home where you lived whom you could talk to?
A: No. We were prisoners of fear. We were paralysed. The level of fear of the house mother was unbelievable. She would often have a strap in her hand and with that would hit you in passing. If you cowered when passing her, as we often did, she would say: "I won't disappoint you, girl," and hit you. There was nobody to tell and we were too scared anyway. Life was so narrow with nobody to turn to.
Q: Were you aware of adults visiting from outside the residential home?
A: Nobody came to visit in 16 years.
Q: Did you have contact with adults when you spent time away from the residential home?
A: The only time away I had was one year we went to Rothesay for a holiday to a Christian Endeavour Home, but we were kept apart from other folk there.
Q: Did you know what "quality of care" you could expect to receive when you lived in your residential home?
A: Nothing. When I lived in Quarriers I was never allowed to be ill. If I was ill and unable to work I was told I was skiving and made to feel like a criminal. We got no respect. For example, at puberty I had to knock the door and declare to the house mother if I had my period, and children who wet the bed had to do the same.
Sometimes teachers would be told that we were in bed ill when in fact we were scrubbing floors and unable to attend school in case the teachers saw the results of the physical punishment meted out by the house mother, eg black eyes. At the age of seven, I had my first bout of housemaid's knee but as soon as I got back I was made to scrub the floors again.
I was left illiterate and my health suffered through neglect of a squint in my eye. I had to learn things by heart to cope as I couldn't see. We weren't allowed comics, newspapers or radios. We had no outside stimulus. I had no glasses until I was eight by which time the damage was done. If I said I couldn't see, I got slapped. When I left Quarriers I was "put out to a family" to do their housework. It was an awful experience.
Q: If you had concerns as a child in care, what options did you think you had if you wanted adult help?
A: It was hard to seek help from the few outsiders you came into contact with. You didn't trust anybody. The doctor came once a year and sometimes there would still be marks on you from punishment which he must have seen, but he said and did nothing.
Q: What would you recommend for children living in care who want to express their unhappiness?
A: They must have contact with the outside world. We didn't and look what happened. There must be someone to build a trusting relationship with who isn't part of the place they live. They need to feel they can tell someone if things aren't right. To hold back fear is a terrible thing. Never tell a child nobody wants them or deny them information about their family. Children need love and compassion. We can't turn the clock back but we can change the future.
6:24pm Saturday 8th September 2007

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