New Beginnings of an ASYE social worker with lived experience

As I begin to start my AYSE in as a children’s social worker I have written down some reflections, based on my personal experience of childhood abuse and social work involvement.  

I was let down as a child by many professionals; social workers, police, doctors, mental health services and teachers. My signs of distress due to abuse ignored or overlooked, and the needs of my parents prioritised. As a very soon to be ASYE social worker I am determined to listen to children. Listen to them with genuine interest, validate their worries, and not dismiss cues for help as ‘difficult/challenging’ behaviour. Children behave in a way which reflects their experiences and context, no child is responsible for asking for help. How can we expect that of children experiencing this, when as adults sexual abuse is still such an uncomfortable subject to address (myself included!)?

Remembering your childhood should be a good thing, but for many, more than most realise I am sure, it is not. Personally, pretending mine was different, or not real, has always been a way to manage. In fact, speaking about my childhood is an extremely difficult thing to do. As a child I was mostly mute amongst other ‘bizarre’ behaviours (yes, that is how I am described at aged 9/10 in my recently requested social care files). I have always denied and kept my history hidden, but with the recent help of a therapist I have started writing some of my experiences down. This is helping quite a lot and I am beginning to come to terms with my own story (30 ish years late!).

I know as an adult what happened to me for many years of my childhood was not my fault, I was a child so why do I accept and let myself feel the shame, embarrassment, disgust and everything else negative I feel relating to my experiences. I ask myself this a lot, I would never feel this way towards another person, but for whatever reason I do towards myself. The truth is, to me it is still disgusting. The flashbacks/memories, however these are supposed to be termed, tell me this. I am stuck with this shame, the people that did this made sure of that.

For me the most difficult part is to believe/accept this is even me. More often than not that girl I see, what happened to her, is not even me. I know it is now, I have been working on this! It is my reality. All my life I have worked hard to separate myself from this, the memories, the pain, the smells, the feeling; all of these experiences that come when I least want them.

At times I find it painful for people to even look at me, the worry that people will find out what happened and how this makes me ‘look’. Like its written on my face the things I did. I don’t want to be that person who experienced abuse. It’s almost as if she is stuck at that age, still a child in my memories and not a real person. That stubborn, strong little girl, who secretly was crying. She couldn’t speak or share what life was like, she didn’t let anybody see her cry. Nobody asked her, or maybe they did, and this was pushed aside like so many other memories. If I think about her now, I wish I could tell her it would be ok, that she would get through this, I want to cuddle her and take her away from it all.

It is a sad story and maybe I shouldn’t be the person I am now; about to start my first year as a qualified social worker. That seems unfair when so many other people are still trapped in their past, buried by it. I feel bad about this, almost like a fake. There is nothing special about what I have done to manage the effect of my experiences, it really all comes down to ‘situational luck’. I was ‘lucky’ to have met a stable, quiet, predictable partner, who was the opposite to all other men in my life. I was ‘lucky’ to have my perfect children. Or maybe it was moving away from it all and keeping myself to myself, separating myself from her. I have been working on this recently, how I have separated myself from my past. This is supposed to be ‘dissociation’ as part of complex PTSD, but to me it is a skill which has served me well at times, although admittedly not in very helpful or wanted ways! But does it need to be a disorder?

I don’t want a disorder, so why should I have to. If anything the idea of this just adds further shame and embarrassment. It shouldn’t I know, and I do not dismiss mental health difficulties, but I do not agree on labelling a person who has had to grow up around abuse with a disorder. Let’s think about who really is ‘disordered’, my first thought would be the perpetrators! I don’t have a suggestion right now for alternative narrative around victims of trauma, but surely one which adds to shame, guilt and embarrassment is not helpful and just serves to further oppress. To say those who experience abuse are ‘disordered’, means there is something wrong, something broken. I know this may come from well-intention in mental health services, but language and the meanings attached to it are important. Having that written down fills me with worry about how I might be judged, as a person and a professional.

For me now what I think is most important is to be listened to, to be asked what happened without judgement. No label needed, just a listening ear. As difficult as it is, I want people to be brave enough to be uncomfortable, its not nice but it was my reality and so many others too. I don’t want sympathy or anyone to feel bad or sorry, or suggest I am something I am not. I am not a ‘warrior’, ‘brave’ or ‘resilient’.

Unfortunately for me I grew up with a mother with severe mental health difficulties, who I had to protect from a ‘father’ who was physically and sexually abusive to us all. This was our life, how it was. Part of a family where sexual abuse was systemic and a ‘way of life’ from grandfather through to father. To call me a ‘survivor’ or ‘resilient’ would detract from other people who have experienced abuse and are not seen as ‘resilient’. Fragile, vulnerable and weak, this is the opposite to ‘resilient’; by using these terms this is what is suggested. That is wrong.  Furthermore, using superhero terms like ‘resilient’ and ‘warrior’ suggests that a person can control or direct their response to trauma, adding blame to those who are not able to be a ‘resilient warrior’.

I defy anyone to experience years of sexual abuse and come out of it feeling like a warrior emerging from a triumphant battle. This is wrong, sensationalist and serves to help others feel better about another’s trauma, like there is some sort of happy ending. There isn’t, each response is individual, and none are right or wrong, better or worse. It’s a case of surviving trauma in the only way you can.

As a social worker I think this is important: consider that those children who push you away need you the most, be curious and remember that if a child’s voice is not heard, it can be observed – keep looking and don’t give up on them. Be there, sit next to them, play football, listen to music, be silly, prove you are not going anywhere, that you will wait. Expecting a child to trust an adult, when those around them cause them so much pain, takes time.

I am just beginning my social work journey and I cant wait to work alongside the most amazing children and their families.

Requesting historic files, a lesson learnt…

When thinking about files this can represent many different things depending on your context or experiences – past and present. A way of storing information, categorising facts or holding onto important information to be recalled one day. For some keeping files is just a process, a bureaucratic part of the day job needing to be ticked off.

Up until recently I had never considered requesting my ‘files’, by this I mean the historic information held on me by children’s social care. In fact, oddly, it never occurred to me that there would be this type of information available to me. I think this is partly due to my way of managing, which was to ignore my experiences and not acknowledging them as my own. So, in a way I didn’t have any files to request –  as I did not accept my past experiences as relating to me. This is until recently.

I was finding that since I had begun to share some of my past, I was also becoming more confused as to what happened and why certain decisions were made about my care. In a moment of frustration, I decided to contact all the local authorities I knew my family had moved into and request any information they held. At the time I felt this would provide some of the answers and fill in the blanks in memory I had. Furthermore, I wanted to know what was understood of my family situation by services. I was hoping that with the current support I have in place and alongside this new information, I would be able to have a clearer understanding and therefore put it aside and ‘move on’ more quickly.

I am not sure what I was expecting after requesting my files, but I certainly wasn’t expecting the process to be so simple and quick. I sent the same email to each local authority, attached some identification and that was it! I received replies almost straight away informing me that I would have this information within 30 days. That gave me a mini panic. Anyway, I brushed that aside for a while and carried on with my work and studies, which at this point were nearing the end so I had a lot to be busy with. The first response I received was via an email with a link to download a file, containing my files from one of the local authorities. I thought great, this is easier as I will not have to try and explain to my partner why I am all of a sudden collecting large amounts of paperwork, as well as having to think of a place to store these.

I have to say I was very disappointed after a first glance through. It was quite upsetting to read and see my family spoken about and detailed in the way they were, myself included. More confusing was the nature the information was ordered, my files did not come in a nice neat chronological order. The information was jumbled and had huge sections of reports redacted, some full pages just blocked out in black. The information I could read was mostly child protection conference reports and medical examinations, which reading through repeated similar concerns over and over, without any evidence of meaningful support being offered. A repeating pattern of concerns received, investigations or medicals carried out and a meeting held. Almost as a list of ‘problems’ to be checked at again during the next meeting, in the meantime we just continued to live this way. But most upsetting was the language used when describing our situation and who’s responsibility the abuse we faced was; it seemed that the main ‘culprit’ was labelled as my mother, her mental health a cause of abuse.

In the early reports my father was initially painted as a victim, a person who had to manage children who were ‘unruly’ and a wife who was mentally unwell; his use of ‘overzealous’ chastisement a way of managing a stressful home. This could not be further from the reality. As far back as I can remember my dad was a controlling, violent man. I can reflect back now on everyday events in my childhood and see how this control played out. For example, I remember well the rules we had around who could be in the living room and watch the TV. The TV we had in our house must have been a rental type, as I remember you had to put money in the side of the TV for it to work. After a certain amount of time this would run out and you would have to put more money it for it to work again. I don’t think this even exits now, but back in the 90s it certainly did!  Usually myself and my siblings would not go into the living room as he would be in there, either watching TV or asleep on the sofa drunk having often wet himself, we tended to just avoid him. I can see now how my dad used the TV as a way of controlling my mum and us children. We would have to ask for money to watch the TV, I have a strong feeling this would not have been something I was willing to do. I cannot recall a time where I would have asked and sat in the living room to watch TV, nor my mum, it was his TV and his smelly sofa – we just accepted that.

It angered me reading through my files that he was not understood for the person he was; an abusive, violent controlling man who we were all scared of. Instead my mother was described as being difficult by ‘blocking access’ to the family for assessments, as well as  being ‘hysterical’ and ‘rude’ (to name a few descriptions!). I decided that reading through these files was not going to help me in the way I first imagined. They were incomplete, worded badly and proved to me that a decision had been made about my family situation and that was that. Job done! No further exploration, no relationship built with my mum to offer her a sense of hope, no work with us children, our words and wishes not sought. That cost me and my siblings greatly. We lived in that same local authority for the first 8 years of my life. Constantly in and out of support services under a category of child protection, but no protection offered.

In the year before we moved into our first refuge there are 4 medical examinations recorded for myself. I can only read the report fully of the last one before we moved, which shows injures to me identified as non-accidental in nature. The doctor stating my mother was “unable to protect” and that I was at “risk of harm if left in the care of her mother”.  Shocking considering the injuries were inflicted by my father. Shortly around this time we moved into a refuge some 170 miles away – only for him to follow at a later date.

What I hoped I would get from my files did not come to fruition. Naively, I hoped this would give me some answers, help me understand decision making and see if the whereabouts or decisions relating to my younger siblings (who were removed at a much younger age) would be documented. Instead I was just left angered at a lack of answers, use of unhelpful language and the reality that my family situation was never understood – the risks left unknown. On reflection, I think I knew this really, hence it has always been easier to ignore/forget. Since this first lots of files, I have saved and left the others unopened. In a way I almost regret that day I sent off the requests, I don’t think I was ready to receive so many responses and then what to do with all this information. I was not prepared for the impersonal, procedural nature my story has been told in. At the moment my files are not helpful, but I am keeping them, just in case!

I really hope that while I am writing for a family, be that general recordings or assessments, that I hold in mind my experiences of receiving historic files. What would I hope to read if it were me? I would have liked to read that I had been spoken to and my views sought, that somebody spent the time to get to know me as [name] the little girl.  I would have liked the social worker to have spent time with my mum and given her a sense of hope, that she could be supported to leave him. I would have liked to see the social worker had worked with my mum, remaining curious about the difficulties we were facing. This must be a social workers responsibility, to hold this in mind; What if one day these files are able to provide answers for a person who has none? What if they can tell the story which is otherwise ‘forgotten’ – unable to be pieced together by themselves?

I think it’s so important to remember that; being able to write for a family is a very privileged position to be in.

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