By the time I met Kay Carmichael in 1974 she was already a highly respected and influential leader in social policy. She had served on The Kilbrandon Committee in 1964, under whose Report recommendations the Scottish Children's Hearing System came into being under the Children's (Scotland) Act 1968. The introduction of Children's Panels not only decriminalised many of the actions of children normally taken before Juvenile Court, they moved thinking from punishment to help. The approach recognised that many childhood difficulties, including neglect, abuse, criminal activity and other situations that put children at risk, required to be addressed with support, understanding and actions taken "in the best interests of the child", and decided by trained members of the local community guided by a Children's Reporter, and in conversation with the responsible adults in the child's life. The philosophy underlying these policies was, and remains, creative, forward looking, and optimistic about the difference that can be made in young lives if good decisions and adequate resources can be put in place. The result is a way of viewing children and their families that is widely admired across the world; and one which successive Scottish Governments do well to maintain, develop and protect from those accountancy viruses that so destructively undermine in the interests of money the health of something almost unqualifiedly good.
Later in the 1970's Kay Carmichal was involved in the Lilybank project, working with those on benefits in the East End of Glasgow. Controversially she went incognito for three months, and was filmed living on the Benefit Level of £10.50 per week. She exposed the humiliation, the indignity, the sheer grinding inuhumanity, that so many people encounter in dealing with the State Welfare system. Again, what was being demonstrated and thought through was the revolutionary impact on social policy of respect for persons and humane social policy as default values in a political philosophy.
She began working with the most violent prisoners, trying to reconnect alienated people of violence to the community. It was experimental thinking like hers that would lead to the setting up of the Barlinnie Special Unit, once again encouraging at the level of policy-making, the search for understanding, relational co-operation, and how to harness the resources of the wider community in addressing social and human failings. Later in life she explored much more deeply the issues of sin and forgiveness, society's response to criminality and the deeper human questions of restorative justice and human rehabilitation. Kay Carmichael was my teacher, the best kind, who managed to combine impressive intellect, creative pragmatism and awareness of the significance of teaching young minds to look humanely forth on human life. There is therefore something deeply moving about the thought that she completed her PhD on Sin and Forgiveness at the age of 76, after a lifetime's professional, academic and political experience in the social implications of human failure and community response, sin and forgiveness.
More could be said - her lifelong anti-nuclear activism as a peace delinquent (her word), her work on behalf of those ensnared in prostitution, her instinctive resistance to all kinds of social discrimination, her support for schemes to give disabled people the right to as much independent living as they could manage, and her deep moral antipathy to poverty that in her view is not inevitable, if only we could develop a more humane politics and a less ruthless economics.
Social work is a hard place to be now. Seldom are those who work within the systems rewarded by public respect, moral support, and a wider awareness of just how hard it is to get everything right all of the time. And I do have a troubling suspicion that future Kay Carmichaels may be unable to break free of the current love affair in large service providers, with micro-managed constraints that discourage creative reflection, and avoid the risk of experiment. Which in turn suppresses (as by product or deliberate policy the result is the same) the expression in professional theory and practice of that social compassion, those imaginative ideas that are building blocks of vision.
For now I salute this woman whose articulate and passionate voice spoke for so many whose voices were seldom listened to. And time spent in her class was as important in the formation of my understanding of a truly pastoral and good news ministry as love for others, as any other course I took - including an intense theological training in our own College.
There is a fine Obituary in the Scotsman here. I haven't found an online photo of Kay. Her funeral service will take place in Glasgow later today. I greatly regret I won't be able to be there, so this post is intended as a modest acknowledgement of an immodest personal debt - by the way her funeral is to be followed by champagne and sausage rolls at a local hotel - how characteristic is that!