The National Children's Home Story

The Curtis Report

The war had created considerable upheavals for children, especially those without families, and there was growing concern about their situation — no doubt heightened by the major welfare reforms that were in progress at the time. Action on the matter was triggered by the death of a thirteen-year-old boy, Dennis O'Neill, who in January 1945 was beaten and starved to death by his foster father. The family lived at a remote farmhouse in Shropshire where the boy had been boarded-out by his local authority. Following an inquest, which criticised the local authority's lack of supervision, an official committee was appointed, under Miss Myra Curtis, "to inquire into the existing methods of providing for children who... are deprived of a normal home life with their own parents or relatives; and to consider what further measures should be taken to ensure that these children are bought up under conditions best calculated to compensate them for the lack of parental care."

The committee, whose membership included the then National Children's Home Principal John Litten, looked at wide range of children including the destitute, the homeless, war orphans, the physically and mentally handicapped, children removed from their families by the courts, and children awaiting adoption. Its conclusions, in what became known as the Curtis Report, had a huge impact. The Report criticised the poor conditions found in many institutional homes and the general lack of training given to those taking care of children. For children without parents or a satisfactory home, adoption was proposed as the best option, with fostering the next best. If a child had to undergo institutional care, then this should be in small homes of no more than twelve children and ideally no more than eight. Children in such homes should be encouraged to maintain contact with relatives and to develop friendships outside the home. Brothers and sisters in care should be kept together. Finally, each child was to be given 'a religious upbringing appropriate to the persuasion to which he belongs.' The Curtis Report's proposals formed the basis of the 1948 Children's Act.

Under the 1948 Act, local authorities were required to set up a children's committee and appoint a Children's Officer to promote the welfare of deprived children. The Act also demanded that members or friends of the child's own family should be helped to take back a child in care. Instead of acting autonomously, charities such as the NCH now had to take their place in a national system of child care under the ultimate authority of the Home Office Children's Department.

The NCH had been involved in fostering (or 'boarding out') on a modest scale since the 1880s. By the 1930s, however, only seven per cent of its children were placed in foster care and then only up until the age of seven or eight when they were recalled into institutional care. Following the introduction of legal adoption in 1926, it had also become an approved adoption agency, although by the late 1930s it was only processing around forty adoptions a year. As regards its own homes, the NCH had pioneered the training of staff and the "family group" system was central to its philosophy. Despite the Curtis Committee's recommendations, the NCH still saw its primary role as providing residential care. This was something that was to take many years to change.

One change that did take place immediately after the war was the charity dropping the 'and Orphanage' from its name, although these words were retained for many years in the titles of certain corporate bodies associated with the Home.