Professor David Divine who is pursuing doctoral studies at Durham University on the resilience of young people in a care setting, shares excerpts from his recent book, Aberlour Narratives of SuccessWhile orphanages are usually portrayed grimly in popular media, David found through his ethnographic research, including interviews with former residents and staff at the Aberlour Orphanage, along with his own childhood experience there, that personal sense of resilience and community within these institutions allow young people to eventually lead successful lives as adults.

In the last of a series of posts on the subject of personal resilience, David provides some of the findings from his research that casts new light on the experience of growing up in an orphanage.

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A dormitory of Aberlour Orphanage, around 1913.
Photo courtesy of Jenny Maine from Aberlour Narratives of Success

I have cried more in the past two years of this research than I have in a lifetime prior to this, not because of the heartache, loss, hardship, thwarted potential and sheer unjustness of the circumstances surrounding the early start of the child participants, unfolded in these narratives, but because of the resilience, the strength and the refusal to be beaten by the odds lined up against them. Astonished, awed by their determination and achievements, knowing that I am part of their select company. I’m privileged to be regarded as part of their family, as they are of mine. I was not as alone as I had thought as a child. I had a family. It was all around me in Aberlour Orphanage.

We need to balance these various sources of knowledge, and ask ourselves, whose life are we addressing: our own or that of the child and young person? The child and young person takes a risk, whether known or unknown, in having us, as care staff, attempt to make life decisions which could fundamentally alter their future life outcomes. Perhaps, just perhaps, we should consider taking a balanced risk, in trusting the opinion and judgement of the child and young person. Linked with this point, are the ‘space’, opportunities, and resources, we grant children and young people to create and re-create themselves.

Aberlour Orphanage strove to occupy the residents’ lives with a variety of activities primarily geared to building health and strength and the acquisition of practical skills, independence, confidence and self-worth. It hired staff who it thought had unique and marketable talents which could be passed on to the children and young people. The leadership of the Orphanage knew that the residents would essentially be on their own on departure from Aberlour, and therefore they had to possess marketable skills to make headway in the world outside at often very young ages, 14 and 15 years old. They had no safety net. They could not come back from the late 1950s to visit and the Orphanage closed in 1967. They sank or swam. It was a hard life. It was an unsavoury reality, but true. Do we prepare children and young people for life after ‘care’?

How young people who must endure living within a care setting are able to transcend their limitations, some key findings from the work thus far:

  • Participants that lived in the Aberlour Orphange re-created ‘family’, something they did not have prior to entering.
  • They developed social bonds and friendships they had never known, providing an important foundation to their childhood. Creating ‘relationships that matter’.
  • Young people can grow ‘healthily, happily and normally’ within a range of care settings.
  • They often possess the vision necessary of what they are capable of living with.

What appears to be emerging from the research is that children and young people can grow and develop quite naturally, healthily and normally, and be prepared for active involvement in the wider society as real contributors, from a variety of settings in which they are reared.

Careful, thoughtful, sometimes risky, forward steps need to be taken in trying to forge the best available context for children and young people, to be reared in, when for whatever reason, they are unable to remain in their birth family. The children and young people wherever possible and practical, need to be involved in such placement discussions.

The research also indicates that children, sometimes at a very young age, but often far more advanced experiential age, have profound acuity and a clear sense as to what they ‘know’ they can live with; and adults who also ‘know’, from professional knowledge and some experience, find this message very difficult to deal with at times.

Daved Divine with Aunty Phylis, former Housmother at Aberlour Orphanage. Photo courtesy of Aberlour Child Care Trust

Daved Divine with Aunty Phylis, former Housmother at Aberlour Orphanage.
Photo courtesy of Aberlour Child Care Trust