Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry: paying the price of child migration

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For decades, Scottish care organisations sent thousands of children in their care to other countries to begin new lives. The results of that initiative are now the focus of Scotland’s child abuse inquiry, as Clyde & Co’s Graeme Watson explains

From the late 1800s to the 1960s, thousands of Scottish children in care were migrated to other countries with the stated aim of giving them better lives. While precise numbers are not known, Glasgow-based children’s charity Quarriers, for example, sent more than 7,000 children abroad between 1872 and 1938, primarily to Commonwealth countries such as Canada, South Africa and Australia. The reasons for sending these children abroad were, on the face of it, laudable. However, the reality of what many of these children experienced tells a very different story. Some were sent abroad without their parents’ consent. Others suffered physical and sexual abuse on arrival. This is why phase five of the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry, which has been sitting since 2018, is focusing on child migration.

The inquiry was launched by the Scottish government following its engagement with a range of affected individuals and support organisations to address allegations of historic child abuse in residential care—whether state-run or charitable, religious or secular. Simultaneously, the government relaxed the time bar rules for historic abuse claims—a move that resulted in an increase in claim numbers in 2019. Although there is a redress scheme already in place for child migrants, the Scottish government wanted the inquiry to investigate the nature and full extent of historic child abuse suffered by those migrated and to create a national record.

Another element of the inquiry’s work is to consider the extent to which those responsible for the care of children—including the government itself—failed to protect them. 

During the period under review, many of the organisations caring for children were under considerable pressure due to the number of children for which they were responsible. For some, there was a genuinely philanthropic view that migration offered an opportunity for children to make a fresh start in a new country. However, some were struggling to cope with the numbers of children and these Commonwealth countries were also crying out for labour. One document from the time referred to sending “the landless man to the manless land”.

There are two basic issues with which the inquiry must contend. The first is consent. Were parents asked if their children could be migrated? Were children asked? If so, were they provided with accurate information about the migration? There have been cases reported in which parents actively sought to prevent migration but to no avail. In other instances, parents and children were told about the positive opportunities that migration offered but not about how far away their child would be sent or that it was for life.

Second, some of the children who were migrated suffered both physical and sexual abuse. Others were used as little more than indentured labour on farms or in remote school settings.

To date, claims from child migration have largely been dealt with by redress schemes. Australian states set up redress schemes from 2007. The UK government established a scheme in 2019. The Scottish government itself is consulting on a wider redress scheme and on whether this should include child migrants.

Few civil claims for damages have arisen so far, the reason being that, for the vast majority of people who were migrated from Scotland, any right of action has expired and the time bar changes do not assist them.

Insurers are increasingly aware of the sensitivities surrounding all abuse claims and are working to demonstrate that they handle them correctly, sensitively and with the proper resources. That means claims handlers should be well trained in this area and there should be experienced panel firms in place. Insurers are also seeking legal advice, not just on matters of liability and coverage, but also on issues arising from the inquiry and the proposed redress scheme.

Although the inquiry will be suspended for some time, this will not halt claims. For claimants, there is no advantage in delaying their actions. The public profile of the abuse resulting from residential care, Scotland’s history of child migration, will continue to grow. This, in turn, will lead to an increase in claims and a growing pressure on the insurance sector to respond sympathetically.

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