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An ACE in the hole

Amongst all the column inches devoted to Prince Philip over the weekend, much has been stated about his traumatic childhood. How he was smuggled out of Greece in an orange box on a British destroyer, went to live in France until, at about the age of 8, he was packed off to live with relatives in the UK as a result of his mother’s mental illness. He was then sent to a series of boarding schools, none of which sounded very nurturing, until through the offices of his uncle Lord Louis Mountbatten he ended up at Dartmouth Naval College. After that we know the story of love that lasted until last Friday.

Described in some quarters as ‘rootless’ and having lost contact with his immediate family at an early age, Prince Philip suffered a series of what we now term ‘adverse childhood experiences’ (ACEs). We know from research that these experiences, such as bereavement, broken family ties, being physically unsettled, having a parent with a mental health issue and transient relationships can have a potentially debilitating impact on wellbeing and life chances. Prince Philip clearly benefitted from a supportive and well to do extended family network who stepped in to support him, but it is difficult to know what effect these ‘ACEs’ may have had on him. His mantra seemed to be that you just had to get on with things – ‘One does’ he said.

When child care professionals assess children who have been affected by difficult family circumstances they look to the prevalence of ACEs and either confirm how well they have coped with them or identify what therapeutic or support services may be required to heal or boost resilience and enhance life chances. To some extent that’s why the Duke of Edinburgh (DoE) Award scheme has been such a success. Millions of young people have taken part in the programme and many have testified to its value in keeping them on the straight and narrow or boosting their confidence and self esteem, often when one or more of those ACEs has knocked them for six in their earlier years.

It was through the DoE scheme that I met Prince Philip, fleetingly, at a reception for gold award holders at St James’ Palace about 10 years ago. I was the senior manager with overall responsibility for the Youth Service in the local authority where I worked and a small delegation was invited to attend, along with many others from around the country. When Prince Philip reached me in the corner of one of the state rooms assigned to the event I think he asked the usual question: what do you do?. The trouble was my job title was lengthy and didn’t explain much so before I’d finished he was off to the next person whose role may well have been described in less impenetrable local government language. And that was it.

As local church safeguarders we will probably never be asked to assess a child in the professional social work sense, but we can surely recognise one of those ACEs when we see one. As church, we can also offer to be part of any informal network of support that might just make a difference. The orange box may have been a piece of urgent improvisation, but our youth organisations in particular, uniformed or otherwise, really do offer some of the real life opportunities for personal growth that in due course Prince Philip had.

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