An oral history of residential therapeutic child care
c.1930 – c.1980
Project duration: 22 months in total: 3 months preparation, 18 months full project, 1 month completion.
“Therapeutic Living With Other People’s Children: An oral history of residential therapeutic child care c. 1930 – c. 1980” was a Heritage Lottery Fund-supported project of the Planned Environment Therapy Trust, based in its Archive and Study Centre, looking into the complex area of the nation’s history and heritage around disturbed, traumatised, distressed and sometimes delinquent children and young people.
The project involved a wide range of former children and staff as well as family members and other volunteers in recording memories, gathering and preserving archives, telling stories, and generally sharing the experiences of a number of residential therapeutic schools, homes and communities for children.
The main ‘tool’ of the project were Archive ‘Weekends’, which were three to five day residential events in which members of a former community came together to help with archives and oral history, and to enjoy a kind of cross-generational family reunion, sharing meals, and sharing conversation sometimes late into the night. The key to assessment were a series of day-long Assessment, Training and Advisory Events, in which project team members, volunteers, and a wide range of interested people from outside the project came together to explore, question and reflect on specific aspects of the work (Transcription, Archives, Oral History…), examine progress and methods of the project, to share knowledge and ideas, and to discuss themes and possible new directions and questions for exploration.
One of the most exciting partnerships was with Trinity Catholic School in Leamington Spa, where some 27 students worked with the Archive and with former Community members on a performance, crystallising discoveries they made in the archives and in books; through oral history interviews, some of which they conducted; and in discussions with and feedback from former Community members into music, film, drama, installations and artwork.
During a two-day project conference, organised in partnership with the History of Medicine Unit at the University of Birmingham and the Institute for the History and Work of Therapeutic Environments, and held in the Medical School of the University of Birmingham, Trinity students worked with delegates to explore some of the themes emerging in the performance, as well as presenting papers and giving an in-progress performance. Former children and staff, as well as academics, child care professionals, archivists, oral historians and others also gave presentations and shared their experiences, in a very lively and successful conference.
Each participating Community had its own website, on which to build and share documents, photographs, digital stories, audio clips. Former children visited a current therapeutic community for emotionally and behaviourally disturbed children, as well as Trinity Catholic School, with profound effects. Oral history recordings were made in the field, Newsletters were produced. Archives were gathered. Volunteers were trained. A great deal was learned.
In applying to the Heritage Lottery Fund for a grant we said:
“The project will strengthen the sense of identity, community and value among “community” members, developing new bonds of understanding and fellowship with members of the wider community. The heritage will be strengthened and preserved, and more fully integrated with the heritage of the mainstream. The national heritage will be strengthened.”
This was a pilot project, and there is still a great deal of work to do, but the feedback from participants indicates that all that can be achieved, and more. A key in any oral history project is relationships, and relationship translates into time. In an oral history project where childhood trauma and disturbance are significant features, enough time is especially crucial. Where that trauma and disturbance may have been compounded by subsequent damaging and destructive experience in schools and childrens homes, instead of being ameliorated by it, the need for time expands exponentially. Although the difference between memories of what were clearly safe, caring and well-run communities and those that weren’t are very distinct.
A carefully thought-out project design – based on a firm understanding of the complexities of the heritage involved, with good communication among all its elements, clear lines of responsibility, and inter-connected structures, mechanisms and opportunities for support – is essential. A well-functioning project team is essential. Allowing people to speak for themselves is essential. The rewards are immense.
The involvement of young people (primarily students from Trinity Catholic School) with the older former children and staff of therapeutic schools, homes and communities, was a wonderful experience. Bringing former children and staff from different children’s communities together was exciting and enriching. Former children going in to a current therapeutic community was a powerful, positive experience.
An awareness that some, at least, of the people potentially involved in a project of this kind not only do not trust institutions and organisations (or the associated paperwork!), but have the experience to show that their lack of trust is right, is essential: Why would they trust this project? What would have to go into the project’s design and conduct to encourage, facilitate, deserve and reward trust?
An awareness that some, at least, of the people potentially involved in a project of this kind are successful actors, artists, writers, business-leaders, teachers, professors, builders, husbands, wives, parents, grandparents, surveyors, technicians, engineers, carers, entrepreneurs…and have a lot to teach you about the business of life, is also essential. How can you meet the challenge of working with people who are actually more firmly balanced and clear sighted than you are? How can the project design reward and encourage their participation?
How much adventure are you prepared for?
Project publications arising from this project:
Chris Long, “It’s not just typing – reflections of a transcriptionist”, Oral History Society e-Newsletter, Spring 2011
Digital Stories on the website
Conference: Held at the Medical School, University of Birmingham, in association with the History of Medicine Unit and the Institute for the History and Work of Therapeutic Environments
Web link to this project:
UK WebArchive: www.otherpeopleschildren.org.uk
Contact person: Craig Fees
Planned Environment Therapy Trust
Toddington near Cheltenham
Telephone: 01242 620125