Thursday, 17 November 2011
THE SPEECH THE JERSEY PARLIAMENT REFUSED TO HEAR
Sir, Your Excellency, fellow members – but especially the people we are here to represent,
As Father of the House, it is customary for the senior Senator to lead the seasonal exchange of greetings with which we end the year.
In these addresses, it is common to reflect upon the year past – and to contemplate the coming year. And it is the birth of Christ that we mark with these reflections and which we celebrate in this season of goodwill.
Christ taught many things in the course of His life. Amongst His teachings was the virtue of honesty.
For even though I am an ordinary, fallible person, with no particular religious convictions, still, I could not stand here and falsely claim that the past year has been an episode upon which we, as an assembly, could look back upon with satisfaction – or even self-respect. This has not been a year in which we have displayed wisdom, compassion or even basic common sense.
As is now public knowledge, we as a society - Jersey – this community - have begun the awful task of facing up to decades – at least – of disgraceful failure – and worse – towards children.
I will not refer to my personal experiences of 2007; perhaps I will speak of such things on another occasion.
Instead, I wish to speak of the children, the victims, the innocent – the many - who have been catastrophically failed by the edifice of public administration in Jersey – year in and year out. Decade after decade.
We like to imagine ourselves as being some kind of model community; a safe, well-governed and happy group of people. Whilst I cannot speak in detail of individual sufferings now; nor of the many betrayals – I can say this: that as far as I am aware the coming months and years are going to require the most painful reconsideration of our communal values, our competence – and our collective ethics.
Indeed, I am not aware of a more wretched and shocking example of communal failure in the entire 800 year history of Jersey as a self-governing jurisdiction.
How much worse could things be than the systemic decades-long betrayal of the innocents?
As we approach the birthday of Christ, we should reflect upon his words. When on an occasion, some little children were brought to Jesus, Jesus’ disciples became angry and rebuked those who had brought the children into Christ‘s presence. Scriptures then tell us, “But when Jesus saw it, he was much displeased, and said unto them “ Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.”
Jesus is also recorded as saying, “And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name received me. But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea”
I would hope that these simple words – that place children and their welfare at the heart of human values – could be accepted by any decent person – regardless of their particular religious thoughts or beliefs.
Greater minds than mine have said that we may gauge the quality of a society by how it treats its children. Having learnt what I have learnt in the course of this year I have to say that our smug self-satisfaction as a charitable and civilised community in fact conceals a festering canker. For though it would be bad enough for us to have amongst our midst's the abusers that are to be found in all societies – the victims in Jersey have been doubly betrayed – betrayed with indifference, betrayed with contempt, betrayed with the naked and idle self-interest of an administration that should have been protecting these - the most vulnerable of the vulnerable.
Sir, some people seem to enjoy being politicians. This is not a view I ever understood. My 17 years as a States member have, to me, been a fairly consistent period of struggle; on some occasions so Kafkaesque, so dispiriting that many times I just wished to cast it all aside and seek a civilised occupation instead. But nothing – nothing – nothing in those 17 years even begins to approach the sheer existential bleakness of this year; of trying to contact, to listen to, to help so many people whose childhoods and lives were wrecked by abuse – often abuse at the hands of the States of Jersey and its employees – and doubly wrecked by the conspiracy of cover-ups engaged in by public administration.
A few brave people – front-line staff, victims, and whistle-blowers began to bring these failings to my attention. As my understanding developed, I took extremely high-powered specialist advice on child protection issues – and I think this assembly should acknowledge with gratitude the involvement of Chris Callender, Andrew Nielson and their leader, Frances Crook of the Howard League for Penal Reform. The support and guidance of the Howard League was a great source of strength to me and those whom I was working with in Jersey.
Likewise Professor June Thoburn, who agreed to bring her world-renowned expertise to the post of Chair of the Jersey Child Protection Committee.
In particular I believe we should acknowledge the bravery, integrity and unshakable commitment to child welfare exhibited by Simon Bellwood. He alone – amongst the entire panoply of the child “protection” apparatus in Jersey - said that the way we were treating children in custody was simply wrong. He alone took a stand against the appalling ill-treatment of children who needed care – not abuse. That he was sacked for his efforts really speaks volumes, and illustrates well the ethical void within the system we are responsible for.
Sir, I repeat, we must focus upon the victims – and the friends and families who suffered along with them.
For a period of many months, I investigated these issues – and the more I investigated – the greater became my alarm and anger at what I was learning from people throughout our society. Jersey being the kind of place where many people know other people, the chains of contacts which developed – the networks of victims and witnesses simply grew and grew. Sometimes new revelations occurred - almost by the hour.
As I met, and spoke with people of all ages – young teenagers to retired people – it became clear to me that what we were facing was something far worse than occasional, isolated instances of abuse. What Jersey had tolerated in its midst was a culture of disregard, abandonment and contempt for children – especially those children in need; the vulnerable; the defenceless. During these dark days, when I contemplated how people could treat children in these ways, I was often reminded of the words of Sartre, when he said “hell is other people”.
But, the strength and bravery of the many victims was a source of strength to me as I contemplated several years of bitter struggle against the Establishment, who were clearly going to use the predictable range of oppressions against me in an effort to keep the truth concealed.
So when the States of Jersey Police Force took me into their confidence and gave me a comprehensive briefing about the work they were doing – it was as though a great burden had been lifted from my shoulders. I had been steeling myself for years of struggle to expose the truth and to seek justice for the victims. The realisation that I was not going down this road alone was a tremendous release – to me - and to the victims. So I must pay tribute to the leadership of the Police Force. This time - finally - there is no hiding place.
During my work I have had conversations with people - teenagers, parents, young adults and older people. People from all parts of society and all backgrounds. Many of these people - victims and witnesses - naturally enough found speaking about their experiences extremely difficult; and many of them were, and are, reluctant to become identified. Likewise the many brave front-line staff who still contact me regularly - notwithstanding the blocking by management of e-mails sent to me by Health & Social Services staff from their work computers.
Such is the climate of fear that victims, witnesses and decent staff experience, that very many of the meetings I have taken part in - have had to be arranged in great secrecy. For example, one brave employee who gave me very important information, made initial contact with me via a text-message sent from her daughter's mobile phone.
I went about the back-streets, the housing estates, the tenement blocks, the foul, overcrowded and exploitative "lodging houses" in which the poor in Jersey often dwell. And I listened to people opening up; often for the first time in their lives speaking of what they experienced - what they saw - and how they had been failed by everyone. For many of these people, I was the first person in authority they felt able to speak to about what happened to them.
I listened to things - things sometimes said through tears - that I hope never to have to hear again.
As time passed, I found myself moving from these dark rendezvous with witnesses - going amongst the soaked and blackened streets - experiencing encounters with victims - and clandestine meetings with brave whistle-blowing front-line staff.
In the early stages of this odyssey – this drizzle-soaked sodium-lit quest amongst the night roads and back alleys of St. Helier - in the unspoken underbelly of Jersey - I realised what I was seeking - and finding - were ghosts.
Shades and spectres – the vaporous trails of long-departed children – still haunting the outer shells of people I met. Sometimes you catch a glimpse of these ghost children - in eye – or word – or gesture – and you want to reach out to them – but these burnt and vanished phantoms disappear into the scars, the tattoos, the needle marks, the self-harm lacerations, the haunted faces and the wrecked lives.
Although many of the people I met are in their twenties, thirties, forties, fifties and sixties - I cannot but see them as children still. And many of these children have passed through the hands of the States of Jersey 'system’ - I cannot bring myself to use the phrase "care". Some of these children ended in custody for minor offences - and such was the cruelty, abuse, neglect and violence they suffered - many went on to become habitual criminals. When many of these people explained their criminal life-styles, they did so with humility, many candidly use the phrase 'we were no angels', and they have said they were not proud of the things they have done. But as a States member - I cannot look at these people - these victims - and not ask myself the awful question: "had these vulnerable, confused and angry children been treated with love and respect and care by the States, perhaps they would have avoided criminal life-styles; perhaps they would not be - in many cases - alcoholics, drug addicts - often broken and shattered beings, wrestling with mental health issues."
Could I - could any of us - say with confidence that our failures have not contributed to, or led to, such tragic outcomes for so many people?
No, we cannot say that. We must, at the last, admit the awful truth that many of our regular inmates at La Moye Prison are there because of what we - the States of Jersey - did to them as vulnerable children - in the time in their lives when they most needed love, care, support & nurturing.
Amongst our victims have been many many children who had not misbehaved; children who had to be taken into "care" for their protection; or children who had to be taken into the States-run institutions because of the death of their parent. I have met with siblings who's mother died of cancer when they were little children. I have met with several of the victims of this particular States-run institution. But when I met with the brother & sister - now adults - and listened to their experiences - all I could feel were two things: shame - that the States of Jersey allowed these things to be done to them - and anger that upon the tragedy of the death of these young children's mother from cancer - we - the States - heaped violence, cruelty, battery and abuse upon these already bereaved children who needed our care, support & love.
Towards the end of my conversation with them - they embraced tearfully, and the brother repeated a vow that no one would ever harm his sister again.
That meeting took place in a room in this building. And I confess at that moment I seriously considered walking from the door and never setting foot in this place again.
Another, older, man I met explained his experiences of being a resident in Haute de la Garenne in the mid-nineteen sixties. Even for the "standards" of the day, the treatment of the children there was barbaric & cruel - at best; for worse things happened.
What really struck me about my meeting with this man was that he was not especially bothered at the treatment he received. I was touched and moved that his overriding concern was - and still is to this day - the fate of his best friend in that institution. He gave me the name, and some details, such as he could recall, from these days far ago in his childhood.
I was able to look into what happened to this boy who was in our care in Haute de la Garenne in the mid-sixties. Little information was available, but the Office of the Deputy Viscount was able to supply me with the following facts:
Michael Bernard O'CONNELL
• Aged 14 years
• Died on 7th or 8th October 1966, by hanging from a tree, off Rue des Haies in Trinity.
• Inquest held on 17th October 1966.
The memory of this young man is kept alive by his friends - children - people who had similar experiences and who - in the midst of their own struggles with their lives - keep the flame of their friend burning.
But let no one imagine that the things of which we speak are confined to the past; an age of dark and sick attitudes. No - today we have the very same problems.
Recently, I made the appointment and accompanied a young man to the police station so he could add his experiences to the present investigations. This young man had fallen foul of the law in some very minor ways as a young child - and thus he suffered the awful fate of falling into the maw of the so-called youth "justice" system of Jersey. Such was the counter-productive barbarity of the treatment meted out to him - and others like him - that his behaviour became more angry, bitter and lawless. At various stages he passed through Les Chenes and then Greenfields. This young man was, at one stage, held in near complete isolation for two months - passages of solitary confinement which went on for weeks. Having induced - unsurprisingly - a complete mental collapse in this child through this solitary confinement - the response of the institution to his needs was to send a "councillor" from CAMHS to speak with him - for half-an-hour - once-a-week.
As I listened to him recount his experiences over about 2 hours to the police officers who were conducting the initial interview, I kept looking at the vast cross-hatchings of self-harm scars which make his left arm look like a road map of New York, and I listened to him explain how he lay bleeding from these wounds alone in his cell and untended - as a child - I looked at him and I thought "we have done this to him"; "we have wrecked his life".
It is striking just how many people who passed through the hands of the States of Jersey as innocent children emerged from the other side of that experience, bitter, angry, contemptuous and lawless. Former inmates - current inmates - and those about to become inmates - many many of them are our victims.
Society has a low regard for those who break the law, and that view is routinely echoed in this chamber. So it is not often a member asks us to reflect upon those who have crossed the law and to consider that amongst these people are many - far too many - children who were broken and betrayed in so many ways - especially by the States.
For amongst these people who find themselves imprisoned, these adults cast adrift - within them linger still the ghosts of the children they were - and the spectres of what they should have been.
So Sir - today - the expression of seasonal goodwill, the greeting, the recognition and the charity I stand to offer goes, from me at least, to all the victims of abuse, all those who have suffered - and all those whose childhood experiences have led them to become prisoners. Those who have languished in La Moye - or who are still there now - I want them to know that if their lives are wrecked, their actions driven by the nightmares of their childhoods - some of us understand. Some of us recognise them as victims - tragically and shamefully - often victims of the States of Jersey.
I wish to finish by quoting the final verse of a song by Mary Chapin Carpenter:
Somewhere in a dream like this
The light of love leads us home
Broken worlds will not be fixed
Vengeance take us as thy own
We’re just like beggars now
On our knees we hear our names
God forgives somehow
We have yet to learn the same.
Excerpt from Dead Man Walking by
Mary Chapin Carpenter
Senator Stuart Syvret
Christmas address to States of Jersey