Safe havens that housed cruelty

Prisoners of War
March 23, 2001

Heather Nicholson states that she was prompted to write this emotive book by her experiences of physical cruelty when she was evacuated for five years during the second world war. She advertised in dozens of local newspapers for evacuees to write to her, and this book describes the horrendous experiences of some of those.

As Sebastian Kraemer notes in his preface, Nicholson aimed to provide a set of narratives of the things that took place, rather than to explain why they occurred. The book makes no attempt either to estimate the proportion of evacuees who suffered abuse or to evaluate the ways in which the evacuation process may have predisposed to neglect and cruelty.

The book is muddled about the issues. The first chapter focuses initially on the trauma of separating children from their parents (ignoring John Bowlby's research findings showing that he had overestimated the risks stemming from separation as such), and then goes on to note some of the extraordinarily thoughtless, insensitive and cruel ways in which the evacuation process was managed (although the latter has been much better described by others). The authorities, the biological parents who were willing to send their children away and the foster parents are subjected to severe criticism. Yet the personal stories that follow mainly document the abuse, cruelties and neglect rather than the separations of the evacuation process. This approach makes it impossible to decide what lessons to draw. Of course, everyone should, and will, feel for those whose sufferings are described and there can be no doubt that people were damaged by what happened to them. But as the book acknowledges, many evacuees did not suffer from abuse. So what should we conclude?

A cynic might say that abuse and neglect are all too common in families of every kind, so what is so special about evacuees? No evidence is presented to show that cruelty to evacuees was more common than to other children. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to suppose that probably it was more frequent. The fact that the evacuation within the UK was handled so often in such an amazingly crass fashion makes that likely. Of course, our understanding now of children's needs is vastly greater than it was in 1940. It is inconceivable that any evacuation process today would be dealt with in the way it was then. We do not need this book to draw that conclusion.

One hopes, too, we will not face the same need in the United Kingdom again. Nevertheless, it is evident that wars and genocide continue throughout the world. Should we conclude that, regardless of the horrors, it is never acceptable to separate children from their parents, even when not to do so will result in their death? Surely not.

It is certainly to be hoped that alternative measures would be preferred whenever possible but to focus exclusively on the supposed evil of separation is to run completely counter to the research evidence.

It is probably to be regretted that researchers (including myself) did not seize the opportunity to undertake a systematic study of the effects of evacuation. Why did some sorts of evacuation appear to work so much better? Anecdote suggests that the evacuation to North America was much more successful despite its similar involvement of parent-child separation. But was it, and, if it was, why was that? What were the factors that predisposed to abuse of evacuees in the UK and what features protected those whose circumstances were so much more favourable?

It is entirely possible that answers to these (and other) questions about evacuation would carry important messages about the risk and protective factors associated with abuse and neglect in other children.

Nicholson is right to take society to task for not doing much more both to evaluate the evacuation process and its effects on the individuals involved, and to help those who were damaged by what happened to them. Unfortunately, however, her horror stories, moving though they are, do not help us to learn how we should do better in future.

Sir Michael Rutter is professor of developmental psychopathology, Institute of Psychiatry, London.

Prisoners of War: True Stories of Evacuees - Their Lost Childhood

Author - H. V. Nicholson
ISBN - 0 9538960 0 5
Publisher - Gordon Publishing
Price - £9.95
Pages - 8

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