Journal of Social Policy


Abused and Looked After Children as ‘Moral Dirt’: Child Abuse and Institutional Care in Historical Perspective

a1 Faculty of Health and Social Care, University of the West of England, Glenside Campus, Blackberry Hill, Bristol BS16 1DD email:

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ferguson h   [PubMed][Google Scholar] 


This article argues that to provide adequate historical explanations for the maltreatment of children in institutional care it is necessary to ground the analysis fully in the context of the concept of child abuse and definition of childhood that existed at the time, something that many studies fail to do. Drawing primarily on the experience of the Irish industrial schools prior to the 1970s, while most commentators suggest that children were removed into care and treated cruelly because they were poor, there were also many children who entered the industrial schools who had been abused by their parents and welcomed being protected, and the community played a key role in supporting such actions. Children were treated harshly in the industrial schools not only due to their poverty but because they were victims of parental cruelty, which was perceived to have ‘contaminated’ their childhood ‘innocence’. They were treated as the moral dirt of a social order determined to prove its purity and subjected to ethnic cleansing. Prevention of such abuse today requires a radical reconstruction of the traditional status of children in care, while justice and healing for survivors necessitates full remembrance of the totality of the abuse they experienced, and that those responsible are made fully accountable.

(Published Online December 21 2006)