Northern Ireland news

PLATFORM: Financial redress for victims of historical abuse is very good news in bad times

Brendan McAllister, Interim Advocate for Victims and Survivors of Historical Institutional Abuse. Picture by Bernie Brown

I met a woman on the road the other night. We were both out for the daily exercise.

Standing at a distance, she told me about her mother who is dying in a care home.

The family have been told that only one visitor will be allowed to sit with her.

She had not seen her mother in two weeks and was now facing the prospect of a phone call and, within a couple of days, to be among 10 people permitted into the graveyard for a burial.

There would be no time now to sit in vigil; no wake; no ritual of grieving surrounded by friends and neighbours; no funeral service.

Such stories of separation, disruption, fragmentation and loss are growing by the day in these Covid 19 times.

It is likely that since most of us live in families, and all of us in neighbourhoods and communities, we will have plenty of sad stories to tell before this crisis is over.

Strange as it may seem, we would do well to learn from people who suffered abuse or neglect as children in institutions.

This is a significant group of people.

Many got on the Liverpool boat at 16 years of age and have never come back. But most have lived their lives here, though their stories have been largely invisible to us.

Quite a few had the talent and natural ability to develop good careers. Some became successful in business. Many, many, have spent their lives in manual work – on farms, in factories, on building sites and in bars.

As children and as teenagers they were told that they were less than others and were never going to make much of themselves.

Significant numbers have struggled all their lives with depression and addiction.

Many of them now look back sadly on failed marriages and broken relationships, sometimes including their own children.

And large numbers are now proud grandparents, contented with the achievement of creating and holding their own family, in spite of growing up without being taught about family life and how to sustain close relationships.

It has been my privilege to get to know something of this community of people who are victims but also survivors.

To spend time in their company is to learn something of the wisdom they now hold – things they have learned from their own brokenness; things they have learned about how to be strong in the face of adversity; how to recover from separation and disruption; about the loss of control; about isolation and, perhaps worst of all, about what it means to live a life trying to recover from being violated in the most intimate of ways.

Wednesday's announcement by Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill that the scheme to give financial redress to victims/survivors of historical abuse in children's institutions is open was a very good day in these very bad times.

It says much that is good about the renewed ability of ministers, civil servants and officials to keep their word and deliver on promises in the most stressful of times.

And it is a matter of pride for the leaders of HIA groups that they did so much in recent months to help design a scheme that will be something for everyone to feel proud of.

Here is the essential information.

People who think they might be entitled to compensation for abuse or neglect that they experienced or witnessed while in care as children can make an application to the HIA Redress Board.

They can visit the website www.hiaredressni.uk to look at the application form and read useful guidance notes.

They should go to a solicitor and ask for help with their application.

They should know that they will get a sympathetic person answering the phone helpline at the office of the Interim Advocate. The number is 028 9089 3977.

They can also email us at info@hiaadvocate.org.uk.

However, some patience will be needed, because my colleagues are now working on mobiles from their own homes.

If people need someone to listen to their story or, even, help them make sense of it, we can put them in touch with someone who listens well.

And for the rest of you, dear readers, if you think you might know a victim/survivor of institutional childhood abuse, encourage them to ask about the new redress scheme, and maybe ask them to tell you something useful about how to dig deep into yourself and find strength to survive in a time of great stress.

:: Brendan McAllister is Interim Advocate for Victims and Survivors of Historical Institutional Abuse.

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