I wonder sometimes whether the police officers involved in my daughter’s case ever think of her? Or is this something they are trained and counselled to avoid – thinking about past victims and how their lives have progressed?
Too often, through my professional work for a mental health trust and endlessly as the founder of Restitute, I come across professional staffing strategies encouraging members of staff to maintain boundaries, focus on their own mental health, and acknowledge that their work is emotionally demanding and can evoke feelings of frustration, anxiety or stress.
And I get that. Working with survivors and families who are living with the impact of serious sexual violence is distressing, particularly when children are involved. Maintaining professional boundaries ensures that people can continue to do their job without it seriously impacting on their mental or physical health. Work is divided into bite-sized projects – a six week ‘intervention’ followed by a re-evaluation, maintaining control to ensure that no-one gets too involved or emotionally overwhelmed.
Those feelings that professionals are trained and supported to manage, such as anger, frustration, stress, fear and distress, never go away.
What I rarely encounter is an insight or even acknowledgement (beyond a few key phrases within mission statements) of the impact that caring for someone who has survived serious sexual violence every day and every night – often for decades – has on family members.
Those feelings that professionals are trained and supported to manage, such as anger, frustration, stress, fear and distress, never go away. Family carers have no opportunity to debrief, and no access to occupational health, risk assessments, workplace counselling or even sick leave. Carer’s Allowance of less than £70 a week if they are earning no more than £115 a week means carers often live in poverty. Getting a job outside the home relies on finding suitable care for our loved ones, or risking leaving them home alone when it is simply not safe to do so.
Finding childcare for a survivor of childhood sexual abuse is incredibly difficult. Such children develop significant coping strategies or challenging behaviour; they are terrified of being left. Guilt, shame and anxiety felt by carers and the potential fallout means that carers constantly walk on eggshells, desperately trying to avoid the next crisis. After weeks of no sleep with a traumatised eight year old, a spate of cutting by a teenager, or relapse into harmful drinking, drug abuse or worse by an adult, asking a carer to take time out for themselves or to think about getting a job is almost laughable. People who suggest it often find themselves on the wrong end of a tirade of cynical abuse. Friends fall away, professionals who are well-meaning are labelled clueless and ‘all the same’, making it even harder for the next doctor, teacher, police officer or social worker to make any progress.
The ‘Toxic Trio’
There is a huge amount of talk nowadays about the ‘Toxic Trio’ of domestic violence, poor mental health and substance misuse. Resources are piled into reducing the risk to children living in the midst of such adverse childhood experiences. Public health, mental health services, voluntary organisations focusing on the specific issues, family support workers, the police and criminal justice service as well as social care spend vast swathes of their budgets on either dealing with the crises such families suffer, or attempting to prevent children growing up to perpetuate the damage of their own childhood experiences onto their own families.
Services react when a family is identified as being ‘in need.’ But their preventative work only begins long after much of the damage has been done, hidden behind the closed doors of families deemed ‘good enough’ as the police case is closed, the child protection orders are removed or stepped down to the level of no active involvement. Social services will say that health visitors, children’s schools and GPs are told the details of the children who have survived childhood sexual abuse or domestic violence. There is a ‘watch and wait’ policy but in reality the only people ‘watching’ are the exhausted carers who are too tired, too traumatised and have been let down too many times to have any faith that their observations will be taken seriously, even if they know who to ask for help.
A social worker turned up on the door, talked to Sarah alone for 40 minutes and later to us. He confirmed that she had undoubtedly been sexually abused, that her language and explanations were completely in line with what he had heard numerous times before.
We were already known to mental health services by the time my daughter’s protracted disclosure over many years reached its fruition. First, it was “I’ve got a secret I’m never going to tell.” Eventually, in her first term at High School, she told a friend that she had been raped. Unfortunately, the friend then told everyone else and appallingly a support teacher at her school phoned me up to say that Sarah had been telling fibs and I really needed to do more to manage her behaviour or she would find herself very unpopular.
What happened next was farcical. I remember shouting at the support teacher that there was a protocol she should be following, that she should be contacting the Designated Safeguarding Lead at the school and not disclosing this to me as either Mike or I could be her abuser. One assumes that she did because later that night, a social worker turned up on the door, talked to Sarah alone for 40 minutes and later to us. He confirmed that she had undoubtedly been sexually abused, that her language and explanations were completely in line with what he had heard numerous times before. He also confirmed that it had now stopped and most importantly for me, it wasn’t anyone within our family. But that was as far as our daughter would go. She still was not prepared to name the perpetrator and we were advised to not attempt to coax it out of her as it would likely make it even harder for her to disclose in the longer term.
From disclosure to despair
Teenage hormones, half-disclosed sexual abuse and the relentless bullying at school led to self-harm – first by scratching or scraping and then eventually with blades. Endless overdoses saw us revolving in and out of A&E on a monthly basis and increasing CAMHS involvement with a designated care co-ordinator who appeared to co-ordinate very little but spent most of the time cancelling appointments or asking Sarah how she was feeling. We were offered no treatment, just monitoring. As a good enough family, we had no social worker input; Sarah was identified as a child in need but not as a child at risk. And apart from police coming to the house to help calm her down, or stop Mike from having to sit on her to stop her burning or cutting herself, we were left alone to cope. A crisis, followed by a period of calm that slowly built to a crescendo of cutting, overdose, suicide attempt or other risky behaviour, only to be repeated six weeks later.
In my daughter’s case, our family ticked plenty of the boxes to receive minimal statutory involvement. But even as a ‘good enough’ family, we floundered. We nearly lost her in so many ways, so many times.
Finally, three years later, she gave the police a suspect who they could arrest, interview and then decide that there wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute. Worse, my active involvement in my daughter’s education and pleas for help to deal with her challenging behaviour meant that some of the correspondence I’d written to her primary school were considered evidence that she would make a poor witness; I was scolded by the police for writing things down and the strong implication was that I’d ruined their case. The fact that these had been written a decade beforehand seemed to pass them by. Ironically, those same letters proved last year at the grand old age of 22, that she had been living with a missed diagnosis of ADHD all throughout her childhood, something that undoubtedly contributed to her low self-esteem, poor attachments and may have ultimately meant that she was more easily groomed by her abuser. I live with the guilt, trauma and shame that I failed my little girl daily.
In my daughter’s case, our family ticked plenty of the boxes to receive minimal statutory involvement. I was a qualified teacher, my husband a skilled tradesman. We had stable and secure housing and the perpetrator of my daughter’s horrific abuse was not a family member. But even as a ‘good enough’ family, we floundered. We nearly lost her in so many ways, so many times. Suicide attempts and significant self-harm injuries that have been disabling and life threatening. Destitution and homelessness when she developed a substance abuse problem that put her at significant risk of sexual exploitation. Serious mental illness that led to dissociation and a fire started within our house, which then resulted in her living miles from home and ultimately in an abusive relationship.
Too many professionals from the police and mental health services said that she was old enough to make her own decisions and she should have to learn to live with her mistakes and the consequences, effectively giving me permission to abandon her and create a first generation ‘toxic trio’ family, right down to the unplanned pregnancy that unknown to me at the time, she miscarried alone. We learned to cope by living with the expectation that she would not make it past her 21st birthday, steeling ourselves for the inevitable. It took all my strength and nearly finished my marriage when I dragged her back into our lives six months later – and despite the fact that she’d stolen from us and threatened us physically – after she let slip in a phone call about domestic abuse issues she was facing.
Homelessness, prison or prostitution?
I wonder, occasionally, had I followed the advice of police and mental health services and walked away like so many exhausted and destroyed families do, what her life path would have been. Would she have ended up homeless, or in prison or dragged into prostitution? Would she have ever come home of her own volition when police picked her up or mental health services rediscovered her? How hard they would have worked to attempt to contact us? My experience suggests that with little knowledge of us and living miles away from her family, they would not have probed that deeply.
There are far too many people in mental health inpatient units who receive no visitors and have no family support. Most likely, she would have been pregnant again with services stepping in to offer ‘early intervention’ into a developing ‘troubled family’, when of course, that early intervention should have happened a decade ago, regardless of the protective factors our ‘good enough’ family offered.
We would have worked like mad to prevent the terrible layers of trauma that have been piled on my bright, beautiful and oh, so brave child since that horrific abuse back when she was a eight. But we were never given the opportunity.
Because what we were not offered throughout all our dutiful and diligent appointment keeping with schools and mental health services was any warning. We had no idea of the chaos to come. We had no information – mental health services and education assessed and offered art therapy, but no-one said to us right at the beginning, when there was the first mention of sexual violence aged about 11: “Your daughter is at risk of developing self-harming coping strategies, she is at increased risk of addiction and impulsive behaviour, you will have to fight the battle of your life to simply keep her alive.” Most importantly, no-one said: “…and here are the tools you will need, here are the services that will support you to keep it together, and here is the money you need to allow you to care for her without falling into poverty.”
We were a ‘good enough’ family and we would have worked like mad to prevent the terrible layers of trauma that have been piled on my bright, beautiful and oh, so brave child since that horrific abuse back when she was a eight. But we were never given the opportunity. We didn’t even know what self-harm was, until we started seeing the scratches on our ten-year-old daughter’s arms. Putting aside the human cost, the financial cost is enormous and it travels well beyond the primary victim but to carers and other siblings who miss out on so much, living on the periphery of such unpredictable chaos. The financial cost of a lifetime of benefits, housing, care, increased medical provision, and the loss of earnings from carers for one badly served abuse survivor would fund ten families not only to survive, but possibly thrive, if there was some real early intervention.
The genuine chance of ‘early intervention’
Nowadays, our daughter Sarah is very much alive. Despite living with a significant mental and physical disability she has a place at Durham University that – should COVID ever go far enough away – she will take up next year. And she has consented to this article describing our experiences. Consent and empowerment are vital for survivors of sexual violence as are control and decision-making. We learnt about this through desperate searches on the internet at 2am while we waited for her to finally fall asleep. It would have been useful to know about it when she was 13 and certainly would have informed our parenting style, but no-one thought it important to tell us.
Today, through Restitute, we support third-party victims of crime. Our lived experience means that our clients feel safe enough to share their anxieties and fears, and are courageous enough to act on the advice we offer. It is humbling to see families with far fewer resources than we had begin to gain self-confidence, take control of their lives, work to an action plan and start to thrive.
What we offer is bespoke to each client – you would be amazed at how much benefit a skip, or a cat flap or a deep-clean of a family home can make to families living daily with trauma, guilt and shame. We offer traditional counselling services to those that need it, a listening ear and proactive contact with a support worker with lived experience of caring for someone who has survived sexual violence. We offer what professionals receive automatically – a chance to debrief, reflect and regroup – and we aim to give parents and carers the genuine chance of ‘early intervention’, empowerment and hope that we were denied. It is the very least that they deserve.
Restitute is a community interest company set up to support those who care for survivors of sexual or violent crime – the parents, carers, children, close friends and partners who are ‘third-party’ victims of crime, who experience the devastating psychological, financial and practical impact of providing care, often over many years.
CEO Cath Pickles has worked as a teacher, a senior manager for a county council and served for four years as a district councillor. As well as leading Restitute, she is an expert public speaker, trainer and project manager.
If you would like to find out more about the work of Restitute, please get in touch with Cath at [email protected]