Alex Kane: Karen, you have a moral duty to help abuse victims

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An open letter to Secretary of State Karen Bradley

A couple of times I month I wake in the middle of the night. Everything always seems worse in those pitch-black moments. I hear breathing in the room. In the bed. I’m terrified. It takes me what seems like forever – although it’s probably only a few seconds – to identify the breathers. Kerri, my partner. Our 22-month-old baby, nine-year-old Lilah, who still likes to sneak in beside us. I relax and do my best to get back to sleep.

Thirty abuse victims have died since the publication of Sir Anthony Hart's report in January 2017

Thirty abuse victims have died since the publication of Sir Anthony Hart's report in January 2017

On other nights I just scream and whimper in my sleep. That’s when Kerri wakes me: holds me, hugs me, rubs my sweat-soaked back. Again, it can take what seems like forever to realise that I’m actually safe and loved.

I’ve no reason to believe that I was abused when I spent part of my early life in an orphanage; or before I went to it. But I do know that something bad happened. So bad, so traumatic, that I have locked down the first six years of my life. I remember nothing. No faces, places, smells, sounds, colours, or events. Not a single memory. It’s my blocking mechanism; a way of dealing with something awful. But the fact that I still wake as fear tries to hammer its way through the mechanism, is a sign that the fear will never go away. Fear is a ruthless opponent.

Yet, I’m luckier than many. I have found a way, albeit not perfect, of coping. Many others, described as ‘victims of historical institutional abuse,’ don’t have that coping mechanism. They were never successfully rescued or properly rehabilitated. They never got the security, confidence, sense of trust or love they have craved for so long. Crucially, this is more than historical abuse for them. It isn’t in their past. They continue to live with the pain and the recall every single day. Without respite. And the way they are being treated now, pushed from pillar to post, is a continuation of the abuse.

They have endured decades of not being believed. Decades of not knowing who they can fully trust. Decades of having to tell their horrors over and over again; never sure if they’re being believed. Decades of dreams that never go away. Decades of knowing that their abusers often continued to abuse. Decades of seeing those abusers hailed as ‘trusted carers’ of the helpless. Decades of having nowhere to turn. Decades of believing it was somehow their own fault they were abused. Decades of being betrayed by the state in all its forms. Decades of being ground down and made to feel useless, worthless and utterly insignificant.

Many turned to drink, drugs, self-harm, suicide, attempted suicide. They became ‘outsiders’ because they believed that’s what the state wanted them to become. Out of sight and out of mind. Left to wallow in their own relentless misery. Almost 60 years since I was rescued from the orphanage and given the chance to begin a new life from the start, I still fall into the pit of all-encompassing terror. Kerri and the children are there to pick me up and restore me.

But many of the victims of historical institutional abuse return to that pit day after day. Some have never really left it. They live with the terror day and night; in many cases trying to block the terror with a bottle, a blade, or a needle. Many never got the chance to tell their story. Others were too afraid of the consequences if they did try and tell it. So they carried the grief and terror with them; never able to come in from the cold past and live ‘normal,’ fulfilling lives with families and friends. Some took their own lives. Some had a lifestyle which made early death inevitable.

Sir Anthony Hart, who chaired the 2014-16 Northern Ireland Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry (its remit covered institutions that provided residential care for children from 1922 to 1995) spoke of the shocking levels of sexual, physical and emotional abuse the inquiry had uncovered. Huge numbers of the children involved have died in the meantime; their stories never known about; their names never known. Thirty have died since the report was published in January 2017. We’ll never know how many, for a variety of reasons, chose never to come forward, but still live with the terror. But what we do know is that every abused child, whether they’ve come forward or not, deserves, finally, to be believed. To know that what was done to them was wrong and never ever their fault.

You have a moral duty and the opportunity to help them. Help them now. Help them before any more die. You’ll never be able to stop the dreams, or the ever-present fears; but you may, before it is too late, be able to ease some of their pain. It isn’t just about financial compensation, either. No amount of money could ever make up for what the abuse did and continues to do to them. For some it will be a matter of being able to go to their graves knowing that, at long last, the truth has been told.

Six party leaders wrote to you last week: ‘The recommendations of the Hart Inquiry should be addressed without any further delay and a suitable legal and financial framework put in place to begin addressing the needs of victims by you as secretary of state.’ Not a single person or party would disagree with that conclusion, secretary of state. There is no excuse for one more day of delay or can-kicking. Time is not on the side of many of the people involved. They did nothing wrong when they were entrusted to the care of the state as children. They were the ones who were harmed, abused, serially wronged and permanently traumatised.

I know the pain and fear I live with to this day. I know what it’s like to be a terrified boy again. But I cannot even begin to comprehend the pain and fear of those who were subjected to the levels of abuse uncovered by the Hart Report. Help them, secretary of state. They deserve it.