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(p. 369) Evidence Given to the Home Office Committee on Children’s Homes 

(p. 369) Evidence Given to the Home Office Committee on Children’s Homes
(p. 369) Evidence Given to the Home Office Committee on Children’s Homes

Donald W. Winnicott

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Subscriber: null; date: 16 October 2018

This is an edited transcript of the oral evidence of Winnicott and Clare Britton, given at the Home Office, Monday, 17 December 1945, to the commission chaired by Myra Curtis that would deliver the Curtis Report (see the Introduction to Volume 2). Only Winnicott’s remarks have been retained. Text in square brackets conveys Winnicott’s direct agreement or disagreement with a committee member’s question. The complete transcript of the meeting is held in the UK National Archives.

On the kind of children in children’s homes during the war:

We did in this scheme deal with the children who were difficult to billet, but I think it would be giving a wrong impression to say that that was the main work that we were doing because in a sense I would suggest any child who is deprived of a home is in a difficult state unless well cared for, and we find it is so difficult to make a diagnosis on symptoms. A child may be doing awful things, yet be quite easy to manage, so I would say we do always have a sprinkling of very difficult children, but the majority of the children I would put within the limits of the word ‘normal’ except that their homes have been disturbed seriously. [They were not really abnormal.]

On introducing features from hostels into existing local authority homes:

Let us start by saying it would enable us to do our work better because the scheme being a little bigger we could have more hostels. After making a diagnosis immediately, what we could do would be to have a hostel for the really backward children: they are always a nuisance in any hostel. In such a scheme there would be more chance for sorting. For instance there could be a hostel for the very psychotic children. I do not say it is good to put them all into one group, but they are a very big problem in themselves. Then I think during the war Miss Britton has been very much in touch with children in the area who (p. 370) were billeted, and it seems to me that is not very different from being in touch too with the children in foster homes and so on. It does seem to me the only reason why it could not be just solved by enlarging is that if it enlarges too much it gets out of control; if the scheme is too big it is impossible to have one person in the centre; we think it is a big point in this scheme, and that Miss Britton is in the centre and knows all the details of the staff and the children.

On the location and composition of hostels:

[The children] leave at the school leaving age, but we have been able to make exceptions with those who would suddenly be thrown on the world at fourteen without any home. I think about twelve have been kept on and we have seen them into jobs, perhaps for a year or two or more.

[The hostels are really situated in the countryside.] I personally look at it from another point of view. My work is chiefly in London. I only go down there for three-quarters of a day a week. The London problem is so completely different. In the war nearly all our children were London children; now they are gradually changing to local children. I think our experience is that for a hostel to be near a small town is a great advantage. The children are then able to get into touch with the children in the village school or the town school and be in contact with the world while in their hostel. We did move one hostel which was right away in the country, isolated. Though there were some advantages, there were great disadvantages as well in the isolation.

On teaching the children in the hostels or in outside schools:

We have always adopted the principle that they should if possible go to the outside school. In times of difficulty we have had a school in the hostel on two or three occasions, but only as a temporary measure and we are always glad when they get back into the village school.

It is our experience that these children are not up to standard even if they have quite good brains. We have had to have special groups and special work in getting these children taught, but at the present minute they are all assimilated in the village schools. It has been quite a job getting it done. They are all going to village schools at present, and in one case one of the wardens is going to the village school and helping in the teaching.

[They have been well assimilated], but it has been very hard work, and in one case it seemed as if it was not going to happen. We had to give it up and have a local school for the time being for the children that were not wanted.

I do think [they have benefitted from their life in the hostel]. It seems as if it works both ways. If the hostel is going well, the children are more likely to fit into the surrounding school, and if the school is dealing with the children well, they are much easier in the hostel, so it either does very well or very badly.

(p. 371) On arrangements for sorting and billeting:

I find it very difficult to be able to say from looking at a child and its history whether this child is good for boarding out in a home until I have seen a child living in a hostel. We know well we find it extremely difficult to make a diagnosis on symptoms. We go all wrong. It is not a question of having a child for a week or two. Many children are deceptively good and happy for the first weeks, but in course of time we find which children we think could be sent to a home and if a good home is available I think we would say we are always in favour of it.

I should like to start off by saying [that this might take] three months. In some cases we have changed our minds after a longer time than that.

On the difficulty of finding foster homes for very difficult children under war conditions:

I think one can tell a great deal in a few weeks, but one does not want to make mistakes. It is bad for a child if you put it into a billet and it has to be changed. We have always adopted the view that we cannot say this child is now fit to billet. It is rather the other way round. If somebody comes with a good billet we say what child shall be put in it and we can usually find one, but very few children are so fit you could billet them anywhere.

On whether there should be hostels in every area for special types of children:

You could make a list of hostels that one would like to have in a group. It varies. Sometimes there is a need in our group for a hostel for adolescent girls. Then perhaps for a year there is no need for that. They are assimilated into the hostels, but there are indeed a number of others for whom special hostels are needed particularly the mentally backward and the very ill psychotics—almost insane if one could use the word. [This group would be recruited not only from amongst deprived children, but from the normal home which proves unmanageable.]

[I think an authority ought to have a place of that kind for the very mal-adjusted child to go.] I want to say in regard to these very ill children, we do not know what is the right thing to do with them. We just do not know; the very bad ones I am talking about. There is a large group of really quite seriously ill children, we simply do not know what is the right thing to do with them. [If they were all together in one hostel,] it would have to be a very strange hostel, I think perhaps that is what it ought to be; then I think it would be a very difficult job indeed to manage them and there should be intensive treatment available for the children because they would not benefit from the hostel as much as the more normal children would.

[Whether they need some special sort of hostel] I think is a matter for research. I would like to emphasise that. In comparison with the other things we know something about, we feel we do not know what is the right thing to (p. 372) do with these children. Sometimes we can assimilate one in a group and perhaps in two years’ time he or she is better, but it would be unfair to have more than one or two in any group.

On placing delinquent older boys together or splitting them up:

It is difficult because one can look at it from both points of view. Looking at it from the point of view of the anti-social boy for whom you want to do the best possible, I am sure you would say you would try to find the normal group for him to go into, but if you had a normal child of that age … [It is difficult to serve the interests of both successfully.]

I think it is also difficult to think in the abstract. If one thinks of a definite hostel that is going at a certain time, with a certain type of warden who is successful with his control and his management of the boy’s freedom, then you can see about it; but if you think in the abstract you simply find yourself coming down on one side or the other. [You cannot generalize.]

On family groups of normal children:

[In terms of size,] if the children are all quite normal and there is no question of economics at all, then a smaller group has a lot of advantages. The one disadvantage of the smaller group is that the smaller the group the less opportunity there is for games, organised games, [and I really mean indoor games within the group, because we hope the children will be able to play games with the children outside and have children in from the village and so on] but, apart from that, it has advantages although it becomes more uneconomical. To think in practical terms, one has seen wardens manage twelve children and give individual attention but that means that somebody must not say ‘Twelve; all right, jump three more in’ because twelve may be the upper limit and fifteen may be completely impossible and an entirely new type of management has to be instituted. That is really the difficulty, that if you say twelve somebody will put fifteen in.

[Twelve would be regarded as the upper limit.] If there are more than twelve then really the wardens are not doing the actual work with the children; they have assistants; then you have about twenty-five children; the warden will still be in touch with the children, but through the assistants; it makes a different problem altogether. We have two groups of twelve and we have found them fairly satisfactory.

[The age of children within the group] is a very important point only it is difficult to include in an answer all the possible variations. The difficulty in such a hostel, if you have one warden, with perhaps an assistant and so on, who is in touch with all the children, is that there may be two adolescent girls requiring a great deal of personal attention at any one moment and making it almost impossible to run the hostel. I think the thing has to be watched the whole time and the warden relieved when certain things occur in the group (p. 373) which make it impossible. You could not have an absolutely fixed number and say ‘That is always all right’.

On the choice and number of staff for a children’s home:

Without being able to answer the problem exactly, I personally do think it is a good thing [to have the arrangement of a man and his wife in charge of a children’s home, if it can be done.] It has its difficulties very distinctly, but we have staffed all but one of our five hostels in that way and thought it was good. One of the complications, of course, is that they tend to have children of their own; in two of the hostels there is a succession of babies from the wardens and that introduces great complications, but, on the whole, if the wardens can be supported and come through all right, I think it immensely enriches the life of the hostel, although there are always times of great strain and stress when one wonders whether it is a good idea or not. When it works, it is very good. Certainly one of the difficulties [is the different quality of the two people concerned.]

On moving children between hostels:

I think to move a child at the wrong moment is very bad, but we do find situations developing so that there comes a moment at which we think ‘This boy has grown out of this hostel’, or else the warden has got fed up with him, or his wife has been taking a great deal of trouble with this case and now she is taking a great deal of trouble with another one; then we move that boy; sometimes we have to move him twice, we move him to another of our hostels or else to a hostel outside our group. I think the answer is that there are moments when it is a good thing to move a child, but it is very often a bad thing. [If done with proper watchfulness and on proper grounds, it may be alright.]

[Regards discovering whether there are cases in which a boy should be moved], Miss Britton is in touch. Speaking from my point of view first, I only visit the hostels once a week and my main contact is with Miss Britton; I get informed on all points, and then very often, if there has been some crisis or some difficulty in one of the hostels, I go along. We get the whole thing discussed; very often by the time I get there it has all been discussed and we come to some conclusion about it or do something about it, but Miss Britton will speak about that.

We felt that this was an important thing; that the wardens looking after these children required—and I dare say it applies to other institutions as well—required somebody in between them and the authority above them, because it is often very exasperating work and they must be able to blow off steam to a human being at times without going straight to some authority which has to deal with the matter. We have had quite a large number of instances of major crises that have just evaporated because they could be dealt with perhaps even over the telephone and did not have to go to the Committee.

(p. 374) [We have three hostels exclusively for boys, and two mixed hostels. Demand would be the determining factor] if they were normal children, but anti-social boys we think are very often better in a group by themselves at ten, eleven or twelve. According to our work [the anti-social boys outnumber the anti-social girls], certainly; according to the numbers we have had to deal with.

On permitting corporal punishment in hostels:

The difficulty about speaking on this subject is that it is so easily thought one is in favour of corporal punishment if one does not come down on the other side. On the other hand, I know that here one can speak and be understood. We have adopted the principle that if we have chosen our wardens properly we will support them. If we do not like them we will get rid of them, and we have done that. Some of our wardens do use corporal punishment. We have always taken note of it every time we come across it. I take the trouble to be in conversation with them about corporal punishment, so that we really do know what is going on. Our Committee has actually passed a resolution that any really serious corporal punishment should be put down in the book and initialled by the psychiatrist, but the warden is given to understand that this does not mean he is to think every time he does anything exactly what people are going to think about it; he must be able to act immediately; if he is the right kind of warden I think one must be able to trust him to do that. It happens that a man who knows where he is with a group of difficult boys will sometimes use corporal punishment and he hardly ever has to do it, whereas there may be another group managed by somebody who tries not to use corporal punishment and you will find all the time there is unpleasantness going on and every now and again some vindictive kind of hit and it would be much better if that man had been the other kind and really knew where he was and the child who really tested him would know that in the end he would get something. I think actually it is bound up with the problem of the size of the warden. We find that a man who is strong and healthy and alive has to do very much less of this sort of thing. I do not want to exaggerate the point, but I feel that that man is in a strong position with boys straight away, because they are not afraid of him and it is when they are afraid that children can be destructive particularly.

I think there are occasions when a child is really testing, to see how far he can go, whether people really mean what they say, and on those occasions there comes a moment when somebody in the hostel has got to be thrashed. I think it happens very seldom. It happens very seldom in hostels at all, but I do believe that any rule that this must never be done to children is based upon a sentimental attitude to the problem without recognition of the extreme difficulty these children present when they are really out to test the community.

[In regard to applying it to girls], I think I would speak with much less knowledge of the subject and I would rather leave it. I should think probably (p. 375) not. I feel that the problem of the delinquent girl is such a different problem from the problem of the delinquent boy. I feel one should never say that corporal punishment is a good thing for a child; I do not think it is, but I think sometimes you do arrive at a situation in which it is the only solution. I think the reason why one cannot say to wardens, ‘You must never do this’, is because in dealing with really anti-social groups, there are moments of exasperation which must be allowed even to a warden who is doing a twenty-four hour job. It is an extremely wearying business and, if one allows for that and then says, as we do in our hostels, ‘If there is any other way round it, preventing the situation or dealing with it in another way, then it must be taken’. I think the effects on the child are not good except in this particular situation which arises in a community from time to time where somebody in the community tests authority.

I think there are substitutes but they are not acceptable to the community. For instance, there is the substitute which is to take the child and put him outside the front door, turn him out and let him come back if he changes his mind. That can be done, I have done that myself in such circumstances, to avoid thrashing somebody who was an anti-social child in my care, but it immediately got me into trouble with the police.

Bickering, taking away food, and sending to bed all day without anything to do [have a more detrimental effect on the nature of the child. Letting the staff have their say from time to time in a final way avoids their getting at the children with more subtle forms of cruelty.]

[If licensed freely it very definitely lends itself to great abuse in all kinds of homes where you cannot be quite sure you have got the skilled person at the head.] The end of the sentence seems to be—if you say to the people who have to deal with really difficult boys, ‘You must never thrash’, then it seems to me that in the end you lessen the number of people who are willing to undertake the task, because it is exasperating to be tested to the full by an anti-social boy who breaks up the house and destroys everything particularly of value to you. In the same way it is a matter of annoyance to the community if a boy is anti-social. Even if a doctor can say that the boy has an illness, the Home Office must say, ‘it is the community who are annoyed that this has happened’, and if one ignores that then it seems to me one misses something and one is afraid how public revenge will turn up somewhere else.

[A case of a boy being openly defiant of authority] would be not uncommon. That would be more likely to happen in a group where the wardens were uncertain of themselves. I can think of one case in which we saw that sort of thing happening. One evening I happened to be there when all this was happening and on that occasion we said to the wardens that they must find a new job and we had a new warden in there within a week; we knew then that they were unsuitable. On the other hand, with good wardens one finds them telling us that on a certain occasion there was open defiance (p. 376) and testing of authority and that they deal with it on the spot, with no recriminations. [If it was dealt with adequately at the beginning] the boys tend to feel relief.

I meant to say at that point—I realised what I was saying—I had not got the right to change the warden and, of course, it had to be all done by the Committee, but we were fortunate in having a Committee which was interested in every detail of what we did and we had their support, simply because we worked very well with them and the same Committee without any changes took us right through the whole war period. The Committee are local people who do the work voluntarily and the secretary of the Committee is the deputy clerk to the Council.

I think one advantage has been that the members of this Committee come from all over the county and when something goes wrong in a certain area there is always somebody who is interested in that hostel and visiting it and knows the children and who deals at the source with some difficulty—a boy having, say, run off with a bicycle. There is a limit to what can be done in that way, but I feel there is a relation to the county there.

On the status of hostels after the war:

[The Education Committee is considering taking over part of the hostel scheme into its permanent work; they are certainly going to keep on one hostel and possibly two. They are going to use it in connection with the Child Guidance Clinic. The other hostels] are just ceasing to function. It is a matter of balance. The houses have had to be requisitioned. One has already been closed because it was wanted for other purposes and we had not many children. We should have kept it full, but the difficulty is this. Looking at it from my point of view as a Londoner, I could keep these hostels all full from my clinic at one hospital, because the demand from London is simply terrific. But the care of London children in Oxfordshire is gradually ceasing and the Oxfordshire county council is now finding out what it wants for its own children. There is a linkage between Oxford, Berkshire and Hampshire; I think they are going to have a group of hostels belonging to five counties in the region; two of ours probably and two from the next county and so on, all in one group, [for] children that need to be referred to a hostel from the local child guidance clinics. Sometimes it is simply because they have not any home for the time being.

[In terms of the children who are already there,] we are not being hurried at all. While we have still got children from London to look after we are being allowed to keep them and they are not hurrying the closing down. It may go on for quite a long time.

On the possibility of training people in the art of managing children:

The question of training wardens is one which is very difficult to answer, but there are two points I should like to make. We find that the best way (p. 377) to train the wardens—(they have all had a lot of experience in one way and another) is on the job, and we are continually discussing with them the problems of the children under their care and they seem to gain a lot from that. The assistants we do feel we are not training as we would like, and that it is a different problem altogether. We feel sometimes that we would like to see a course we could send them to—domestic science merging into the sort of principles of psychology, i.e. assuming that psychology knows enough just to teach such people. I still think there is also a place for further education of the actual wardens after they have been in the job a certain time, but that is another problem. (p. 378)