In 2011 I had the honour of meeting a very special man by the name of Terry O’Neill. Terry’s brother, Dennis was killed by his foster carers in 1945. If you are in Child Protection you may be familiar these names. It was a shocking story in a war weary Britain that captured the imagination of Agatha Christie, who went on to write a short story about the case called ‘Three Blind Mice’. This would later be rewritten as a radio play and then as the now famous longest running theatre production in the West End called ‘The Mouse Trap’. Terry didn’t know the play was based on what happened to him and his brother until around 2008. His experience of seeing the play, which he had never seen before, is the subject of an award winning BBC Wales radio program that you can hear on the following link:
The connection between the story of Dennis and the story of the Mousetrap was discovered when Terry wrote a book about his experiences called ‘Someone to love us’
The story of Dennis and Terry O’Neill is harrowing. Along with their other brother Freddie they were removed from their family due to neglect and placed in foster care. Terry says that although they were poor they were not mistreated at home. After a couple of placements the brothers were split up from each other. Dennis and Terry went to Bank Farm in Hope Valley, Gwent to live with foster carers Reginald and Esther Gough. They were treated cruelly, made to do chores in freezing weather and were given very little food. Gough killed Dennis in a brutal attack in January 1945 which was witnessed by Terry. Gough and his wife received prison sentences for manslaughter, cruelty and neglect. It is of significance that it was the first time a child was given permission to give evidence in a court case. There is a very small photograph of Terry in the Express newspaper holding the hand of an official as he walked into court when he was aged 10. Terry, who is now in his 70s, explained that the police told him that by giving evidence he would help other children in the future. In interviews he often discusses how upset he becomes when he hears of child deaths that continue to happen. Yet Terry is optimistic that there may be many children who have indeed been helped as a result of what he did.
A photograph from the Daily Mirror in 1945 of Terry O' Neil on the day he gave court evidence
The case produced the first official enquiry review into a child death in 1946 known as the Curtis Report. The Children Act 1948 that followed was linked to the notion of child welfare and a new hope for children who were unable to live at home. Pressure for an inquiry though came from an often uncredited source. Lady Marjorie Allen of Hurtwood is rarely mentioned but was integral to the creation of new legislation. She had written a book, ‘Whose Children?’ (1945) where she declared being able to see the writing on the wall for child evacuees separated from their families and traumatised by war. Her initial requests for an inquiry into the case of Dennis O’Neill were rejected by the Ministries and Government committees responsible for children who would not listen to her concerns. She went on to use her influence with sympathetic MP’s who extracted embarrassing information during Prime Ministers Question Time. She then wrote an influential letter to the Times newspaper calling for a public inquiry. This puts her well ahead of her time and her influence helped to shape new kinds of child welfare in the Children Act 1948, which unbelievably was the first Act to repeal the Victorian Poor Laws in relation to children. Lady Allen is also known as the 'Godmother of Children’s Play'. She was critical of new estates being built in cities during the 1960s and created adventure playgrounds with freedom for children, disabled children and young people to explore through experience. You can see more about her pioneering play work on the following link:
Lady Allen with children in one of her adventure playgrounds.
As a student and newly qualified social worker I learned and used the Children Act 1948 in my practice. It wasn’t until 1989 that the new Children Act was made after the inquiries into the deaths of Jasmine Beckford and Maria Colwell. This Act also came about as a the result of findings from the Cleveland report where nearly 200 children were removed from their parents very quickly, in some cases overnight, on medical evidence of sexual abuse by Dr Mariata Higgs. The act addressed the emphasis for thoughtful removal of children that established the importance of the wishes and feelings of the child and their best interests. Other principles included working in partnership with immediate and extended family, as well as balancing the needs and rights of the child with family responsibilities. The Curtis review alongside other serious case reviews down the years make startlingly similar findings. Examples will be familiar to all students of social work and include; not hearing a dissenting voice expressing concerns, children seen to be frightened, thin, ill, injured and dirty but not seen or spoken to on their own and poor communications between departments and professionals. This has led to the implementation of increasingly complex child protection systems and intensified training for all professionals. We have yet to see what will be next in policy implementation for the social work education, professional development. As a lecturer though I often discuss the controversial view that there are many children who may be at severe risk, or who may have died, but for social work intervention. Successful cases are not likely to be reported in the newspaper! We are a profession with low self-esteem who have fingers wagged at them when things go wrong. Though I believe social workers alongside all other professionals involved in cases work very hard to balance the rights and responsibilities of families with a commitment to make good decisions for children.
It may be that the world of child protection has become more complex, but at its heart there is a child or children to whom there is a duty of care and that will never change. We are indebted to people like Terry O’Neill and others who have experienced trauma and abuse for being brave enough to tell their story. They in turn become our teachers. Because of this practitioners are able to share painful insights, but also able to see the hope that lives through the experience. Terry has had some tough times but he also has a family who are very dear to him. His wife Pat and his children were very welcoming to me and my colleague when we met them. We have stayed in touch over the years. In so many ways this has helped me with my practice. As a lecturer and trainer I am able to share his story with many students and social workers I meet. It also keeps me hopeful about the children I work with for their future because I know children have amazing strengths and we can help them through adversity.