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At the mercy of social workers

02 November 2006


ONE of the most extraordinary scandals of the 1980s and '90s was the belief in satanic child abuse. This started as a fad among American fundamentalists, a more dangerous one than believing that there were dinosaurs on Noah's Ark; but it spread over here among otherwise secularist social workers. The lesbian feminist Beatrix Campbell was one of the last (and loudest) believers.

A long piece in The Times on Tuesday gave some of the background to one of these cases, in Rochdale. What was said made clear the anguish that the children suffered; what was only hinted at made the social workers' motives clearer, too.

The first child taken into care, named only "Daniel", was six at the time. "Daniel told his teacher that he was dreaming about ghosts - apparently a mummy and daddy ghost and a baby ghost that died. He was at the time a withdrawn, disturbed child, often hiding under desks and being disruptive. His speech was poor for his age. This, says Beverley [his mother], led to him being bullied. The teacher was concerned enough to alert social services."

The social workers - who are still working with children today - interpreted his fantasies as reality, and concluded that when he talked about ghosts attacking him, he was really talking about his parents and others. So he and his three siblings were taken into care; and three months later, after they had been interviewed, another 12 children, all friends of the family, were also taken into care in early morning raids.

All those children were returned after a year, when it became apparent that there was no evidence whatsoever for the stories, and the social workers themselves had become victims of an idée fixe. The four original children, though, were kept in care for another eight years. Their parents were allowed to see them once a month, for an hour, watched from behind a mirror by social workers. They were too poor to own a car; so they could never see them on Christmas Day, when buses don't run.

This poverty supplies the first hint of a motive for the social workers' vulnerability to lunatic theories. The first child had come along when the mother was 16; both parents were in debt, and had been going to counselling sessions for four years before this. The children had watched horror videos.

None of this proves satanic abuse; none of it, probably, would shock most priests. But one can see how it might seem to inexperienced social workers to require a dramatic explanation; and it seems clear that, even after the explanation had been proved false, they all believed that the parents were utterly inadequate.

ANOTHER troubling story of contact between rich and poor worlds comes from the Toronto Globe and Mail, which described the work of some Canadian scientists in Kenyan slums, and the life of one of their subjects. It had one of the very few pyramid leads that really work: "Salome Simon doesn't have much. A one-room shack she rents in Majengo, a slum on the edge of Nairobi. A couple of kangas, the bright print wraps she wears as skirts, and a couple of blouses. A transistor radio, some aluminum pots and one little luxury, a gilded bottle of spicy perfume.

"It isn't much to show for 23 years of hard work, on the job from 7 in the morning to 7 in the evening, every day but Sunday, when she goes to church, and once a year when she visits her family in Tanzania for a few weeks. She doesn't have a house of her own, doesn't have any savings, doesn't have a plot of land to grow maize or beans.

"There is one other thing that Ms Simon doesn't have: AIDS. And this sets her apart from the thousands of other women who make a living as she does, selling sex in Nairobi. She has had sex with five or six men a day - sometimes 10 or 11 on a really good day - since she moved to Nairobi in 1982."

She is one of the prostitutes whose astonishing immunity to Aids has raised all sorts of hopes of a vaccine. She would like to retire, obviously, and feels that the Canadian researchers owe her something. So does one of the Kenyan workers on the project, Professor Elisabeth Ngugi: "This has given the world such a huge body of knowledge, but what has the world done to help them change? Quite clearly there is an imbalance," she told Stephanie Nolen, the paper's Africa correspondent, who wrote the story so well.

The trouble is that prostitution pays so much better than working on a fruit stall by the side of the road, which seems to be the only alternative. The West gives money to research, and to training Kenyan researchers. Bill Gates's foundation alone has given $10 million. But lifting their subjects out of poverty is beyond the powers even of Bill Gates.


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