I read an article on the BBC news site yesterday and it made me really angry. It's a piece about how intervening adults don't listen carefully enough to children they are concerned about. Nor do they pay enough attention to the concerns voiced by other adults about those children. There is so much emphasis on supporting the parents that the voices that need to be heard are often sidelined... and that is just not okay.
I understand the need to provide help to the parents or guardians of the children about whom concerns have been raised, but surely it is more important to listen to the needs of the child? When I was growing up, a number of people contacted Social Services because they were concerned about the welfare of my siblings and I. I'm not sure who exactly reported things, or what was said (except in one case where a family member raised their concerns)... but nobody ever did anything to help... nobody ever listened. I still feel hurt by that today.
The thing is, people investigating possible child abuse/neglect cases need to listen much more carefully and not just listen with their ears. Every time a social worker came to our house, I begged silently with all of my heart that they would 'hear' my voice and that they would help us. But my voice was truly silent to them. I tried to tell them in other ways. They didn't hear. There are a few things that social workers and other investigating forces really, really need to know and understand...
1. An abused child is NOT going to tell you flat-out that they're being abused.
There are several reasons for this. The most obvious being they've been told never to tell ...and the fear of what will be done to them or the people they love if they do is more than enough to keep their lips sealed. Kids aren't stupid. Telling something without a guarantee that they'll be safe after telling is a really, really bad idea.
2. The 'family' you see when you visit is very possibly a total act.
In an abusive family, there are unspoken and spoken rules that require its members to behave in certain ways in order to present a 'normal' front. But please, use your eyes! When social workers visited my house, everything on the inside of me was screaming for them to see beneath the surface. Watch the subtle reactions of the children and the adults in that house when they act out their interactions. Please, please don't just listen to the obvious communications. Please don't assume that if a parent is appearing to be affectionate, that all is well. Look for signs of repulsion underneath the smiles. Look for well hidden flinching. Check for the looks, body language and cues between family members and trust your gut.
3. Talking to family members together and expecting to hear the truth is foolish.
The dynamics of an abusive family are incredibly complex and if you think that discussing things all together is going to give you the information you need, you're wrong. Be assured that every move the abused person/people in that family make will be heavily under guard of the abuser(s). An abused child cannot tell you what is happening when they know they are being closely watched by the one hurting them. Even if you separate the children from the adults and try to speak to them that way, it's not likely to work. The family dynamics are far too powerful, even if you have just two family members together. Do not underestimate the power that the presence of another family member can have.
4. Don't expect all the children in the household to be in the same situation.
I remember one time a social worker tried to get me and my siblings to tell them what was happening, through drawing pictures on a big piece of paper all together. I can tell you now, if you'd have done that with me on my own away from my siblings, you'd have seen something very different. There were things being done to me that I was trying to protect them from knowing. There were things done to me that weren't done to all of them because they were 'good' and I was different. They knew that and even they were monitoring what I 'said' or drew. Even with my parents out of the room, I was not safe or free to say what my insides were screaming. Please, speak to the children individually. I cannot stress enough how much of a difference that might make!!
5. Be aware of the consequences of your visit.
Every time a social worker or other investigator visits an abusive home, there will be consequences for the abused. The very fact that you are there, means that someone said something. It doesn't matter if it was the person being abused or not, the abuser(s) will assume it was ...or that the abused child was somehow careless at covering things up. There will be consequences. Please, don't just file away your report and forget about the case, even if you didn't manage to get enough evidence to take action. Please check on the child... even if it's away from the home. If you don't, they'll feel like you're someone who just came and made things worse and didn't care enough to come back.
6. Little things can make a difference.
There was only one social worker who visited, who came back. She didn't take any action but I get the feeling that she suspected something. After her first visit, I wanted to die. Literally. The consequences were bad and I felt as though no-one would ever hear my silent cries for help. I felt abandoned and ready to give up. Even though that social worker obviously didn't get the evidence she needed to take action (and I could tell you exactly why she didn't), she came back one last time to give me a teddy bear. She probably will never realise the difference that made. Okay so it didn't stop the abuse. It didn't get me out of there. It didn't make the pain go away. But for a child who was at the point of wanting to just curl up and die, it was a flicker of hope. A simple act that said "I care". It was one of the only things that ever said to me that someone might have noticed something.
Finally, please remember that children are not stupid. They need to know what's going on. If they're anything like I was, they want to be prepared for what's coming next and to do that they need information. Explain what's happened and what's going to happen. Don't just leave them and move onto your next case. Tell them if you're going to come back or not. They might be holding on in the hope that you'll come back and rescue them. I know I did... but no-one came. No-one heard. No-one made it stop.
I wasn't able to speak then, but I am speaking now... and I hope that my voice will speak for the children who can't speak for themselves today.