Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Things Social Workers Investigating Possible Abuse Need to Know

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.  

Silence - 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. 

Fake family - 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. 

If you talk to family members together, the kids won't feel free to speak the truth

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.

Odd one out - remember not all the children might be treated the same by the parents

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.

Your visit will have consequences for the children and they might be holding on in the hope you'll return to help

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. 

little caring acts can make a huge difference for the child

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.

Look for non-verbal communication

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.


  1. Thank for sharing this information. I always thought if someone asked that I would have told them about the incest. Several people had the opportunity but no one ever asked.

  2. Well written and thoughtful, thank you! If anyone had listened I think things for me would have been very different. Silent no more!

  3. This is really great information and so necessary in the professional community as there is such a shortage of information from the ones that it happened to. We are the one's that know what was missed. I am really glad that I found your blog and your work today and I will also be sharing it with my community.

  4. Hi Patricia, I'm really sorry no-one ever asked you. I think sometimes people expect abused kids to just come out and say whats happening. They might try to, in their own way but I don't think people generally are listening in the kinds of ways that they need to in order to hear those cries for help.

    Hi Mystic_Mom! Glad to meet you! :) I'm sorry no-one listened to you either. I guess part of the problem may have been that people weren't as aware of abuse a few years ago. But I also think that sometimes the professionals involved in investigating suspected abuse cases don't really know how to listen properly. Speech isn't the only form of communication and I know I tried to communicate in other ways but no-one seemed to be listening properly. At least now we can speak up and maybe help raise awareness so the next generation is heard more easily!

    Hi Darlene! I'm glad you found my blog helpful - thank you so much for sharing it. :) You're right - those of us who were not heard when we were going through it... we know only too well what was missed. I hope that more of us will speak up and maybe help change the way professionals approach investigations, and more importantly how they listen to the children involved.

  5. i tried and tried 2 tell in my own way ......... but no one ever listened ....... and there was ALWAYS consequenses ........ silence was as easier road 2 take .......

  6. Hi Anonymous :) I can really relate to what you just said. In the end, when you realise that no-one is listening, it's much easier to just keep silent. The only thing that kept me trying to tell was that I had younger siblings I was desperate to protect. I'm sorry you suffered the consequences of telling. I understand only too well what that's like. You deserved to be listened to and I'm sorry you weren't.

    PH x

  7. Though I'm not a survivor of child abuse, this really hits hard and I'm sorry that no one ever listened. I can only imagine how hard it was and I'm truly amazed by your courage to speak out. This was so well written and something that should definitely be discussed. I was wondering if you would like to share this on my blog as a guest post? I think this would be really great to get out there and I would love to feature it. Let me know!

    Take care,


  8. Hi Sarah,
    Thanks for your kind words... and I would be so honoured to share this on your blog as a guest post! :) I actually was asked to post it on another blog as a guest post tonight, so it's all ready to go. I think the more people that discuss these things the better, because maybe that way, the more people who need to know will hear it!

    PH x

  9. I wanted to stop by and say what a wonderful post this was ... and how honoured I am that you came and posted it as a guest on my blog. I'm just so sorry that you had to go through what you did, and that no adults in your past were brave enough to actually ask you! :(

    I hope between us all, we can get this information out to those who most need to hear it!

  10. I"m glad you're speaking now...your words are so right on. No one helped me or my sister either. Relatives now say they knew but didn't want to get involved. What you wrote here is what professionals need to learn before they go investigate. Stay strong okay....

  11. Thank you so much for sharing this with the Blog Carnival Against Child Abuse! This is what speaking out is all about, not just telling our stories (which is SO important) but also educating and teaching, that is powerful.

    I never told anyone about the abuse when I was a child, but there were "signs". I remember that once a teacher tried to raise the conversation with my parents that she was concerned, but my family laughed it off (not realizing that even though at home I was acting the same way I always had, in school and away from home, I was retreating into myself and having problems that were noticeable to people outside of my family). Once I was an adult, and at the place where I was no longer in denial about the abuse, I remembered that 'family joke' about the teacher who was concerned about me....and I felt thankful that she noticed. Of course, I wish she would have reported it, but just for my own self, it was somehow comforting for me to know that back then there was at least one person who looked at me and could see, even just a bit, through the facade I put up and knew that there was something wrong.

  12. Thank you for your post! I particularly related to your sentence..."I begged silently with all of my heart that they would 'hear' my voice and that they would help us.''

    I also begged silently from my shame filled and swollen heart to be heard, for someone, anyone to help me and my siblings also. Teachers, doctors, relatives, heard my silent screams. If only ONE person had...

    Would love to repost this on my blog if okay.

  13. Thank you for writing this. You did a great job conveying this important information. I related so much. I also wrote a blog post about my experience of people trying to help, but not knowing what to do. There were times when I was a child that people said they almost called, but they never did make that call for outside help. They just hoped everything would turn out alright, but it was not alright. I know they tried their best and just didn't know what to do. It mattered to me that they at least tried to help. A lot of social workers don't know how to hear kids, so there is often a need for different social workers to become involved. I just hope people are becoming more educated now.

  14. This is so well written and powerful. I hope that not only Social Workers, but other adults that work with children will listen to your words!

  15. I am glad that you shared this with Blog Carnival Against Child Abuse. Everyone needs to know this information about how children will probably react when asked if they are being abused. Thank you for sharing.

  16. I admire your bravery for speaking out to deliver this important message, "pay attention, pay attention, and then turn around and pay attention again! Can you feel it? I'm sending you a hug because I care!

  17. This is a wonderful, well-thought out and well-written post. Thanks for sharing this important information to raise awareness. And thanks for being a part of The Blog Carnival Against Child Abuse.

  18. Thanks all of you for all of your comments. I'm glad my post was helpful. It seems as though a lot of us have had similar experiences, which makes me sad because of all the missed opportunities for social workers etc. to have done something to help us.

    Gail, you're more than welcome to repost this post on your blog - I'd be honoured! :)

  19. Hi, Totally relate to what you all say. Not just social workers either, but GP's, Teachers, well...anyone will a duty of care for a child really...I wouldn't have minded if ANYONE had noticed.

  20. Your blog is simply fabulous. I have seen and tried to read through many and I just lose interest. I appreciate them and understand their missions, but with your writings, i truly connect. thank you for the invaluable resources and information and general reminders to stay focused.
    I feel kindred to you. Here is my blog- it is a series of interwoven stories about my childhood abuse. i am trying to raise awareness and give words to the horrific and specific things that happen in the lives of abused children and in the survival as adults and all of the madness in between. Thank you for your courageous work.
    Also, may I put your blog on my blog list? :) Cairn Grow


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