Earlier today I watched Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaking about The Danger of a Single Story. This TED talk was first recorded in 2009. Ms Adichie talks about the consequences of a single story and how this can become the only story, and that this can rob people of their dignity and make our recognition of an equal humanity difficult. What she means by this is that it emphasizes difference rather than similarity, and how some stories can be used to disposess and malign. Create the single story and people as one thing, and as only one thing, over and over again and that is what they become.
The whole time I am listening to the talk, I am thinking about children in care who have to listen to one narrative, the narrative of negative statistics. The single story about children in care has been told over and over again. What happens when a single story is told and retold? It creates a stereotype and the trouble with stereotypes is that they pigeonhole people, categorise them and limit them by the single story.
The issue of stereotyping is not just in fiction, in films or on TV, as a campaigner and researcher for care leavers, I see and hear first-hand the impact of a system that often ejects children far more damaged than when they were first put into care. Far from being protected, children in care have been abused, abandoned and ultimately stereotyped, as in the case of the young girls in Rotherham who were victims of grooming gangs who were it was said, ‘making lifestyle choices’ because they were ‘bad girls from troublesome backgrounds’.
And now I am reading reports about Operation Bullfinch in Oxford, and I see the same single story where there has been a ‘culture of denial’, how again the girls have been blamed for ‘precocious and difficult behaviour’, how these girls who were in ‘care’ have been blamed for ‘putting themselves at risk of harm’.
Stories are defined by power and it is power that makes the definitive story of a person:
• How they are told
• Who tells them
• When they are told
• How many stories are told
Those in power had continually ignored the danger these young girls were in, they tolerated underage sexual activity with much older men, they failed to recognise these girls had been ‘groomed and violently controlled’. Because those in power wanted to believe, they wanted to reinforce a single story. These failures continued over a period of five years, though of course it was possibly even longer. Five years of horrific abuse, on children as young as eleven.
Maggie Blyth, the independent chairwoman of the Oxfordshire Safeguarding Children Board, has refused to say if individual police, social services or other staff should be held responsible. No police officer, social worker or health worker has been disciplined.
There is a pattern screaming out in Oxford, and in Rotherham, Sheffield, Manchester and recently in Leeds. When it came to light that a 16 year-old care leaver who had been gang-raped whilst in the care of Barnardos had received a letter in 1993: “The situation could have been avoided if you had not been party to the antics of a group of young men…Having consumed a quantity of alcohol and three Valium tablets, you were not able to maintain control or respond to the situation in a constructive and cohesive way.” The letter, written by a Barnardo’s project worker, clearly states that the situation could have been avoided if the girl had not placed herself in danger. Again the language of the single story, the story that a young girl ‘without care’ placed ‘herself’ in danger.
Here we see a malevolent power in action. Stories about children in care who are being abused and being ignored. Why? It is partly due to responsibility, or the lack of it. And in some cases something much more evil and grotesque.
In the Oxford case, a city council worker – a former policeman – tried repeatedly to raise the alarm about the danger to one of the Bullfinch victims but was dismissed “in a rather hostile and demeaning” manner. Not only were his concerns ignored, but Oxfordshire County Council complained about him to his bosses – who apologised for the concerned council worker unreservedly.
My research is about the representation of care leavers in literature. At its heart is the stereotypes plastered onto these abused children. They are abused, sexually, or psychologically, or physically before they enter ‘care’. Many of them have then been sexually, or psychologically or physically abused again within the ‘care’ system.
It is not only a severe case of misjustice; it is also very, very scary and dangerous. That the power of a single story told over and over can leave hundreds though more likely thousands of vulnerable young people at risk and traumatised for the rest of their lives. In the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: ‘…when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any[one], we regain a kind of paradise.’
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