Identity and Change

This was the blog I wrote a few days before the US election. After the election I felt like the other stuff was more pressing, so that skipped the queue. I’d be interested in feedback about the topics and intervals of this blog, and whether the pot-luck and intermittent nature of it is disconcerting for readers. So do feel free to tweet or comment to let me know. Anyway…

My kids were given brass instruments at school recently, that they will get to use for the next 4 years. Every child in the school gets the use of a brass instrument for free, along with the group lessons to learn how to play it. One chose a trumpet, the other a baritone. It seemed like a nice idea, but I wondered why there was a scheme to learn brass instruments in particular, rather than woodwind, strings or percussion. The penny finally dropped when I searched for clips of brass bands on youtube and ended up with colliery bands and a poignant scene from Brassed Off! We now live in an area in which the coal mining industry was a major employer until the 1980s. There were nearly 200 mines in the county at the turn of the last century, and there are none now. So presumably the brass music scheme is linked with the idea of preserving local cultural heritage.

It made me think about other disappearing parts of British culture, from learning Gaelic and Welsh to Morris dancing, and how each culture around the world has different bits of heritage and culture to keep alive. There are stories told through the generations, losses to commemorate, celebrations to mark particular dates and events, rituals and arts to keep alive. Language and history seem to be bound into our identity. But why do we want to keep some parts of the past alive, and does it have any value? I’d hope that at least we can learn from our collective experiences, avoid repeating problems and continue the things that give us joy and bring us together. Which brings me back to music.

Music has been an integral part of human existence for an extraordinarily long time. Wikipedia tells me that “Music is found in every known culture, past and present, varying widely between times and places. Since all people of the world, including the most isolated tribal groups, have a form of music, it may be concluded that music is likely to have been present in the ancestral population prior to the dispersal of humans around the world. Consequently, music may have been in existence for at least 55,000 years and has evolved to become a fundamental constituent of human life”. Maybe that is why it is such an enjoyable thing to participate in. I know I value the half hour of singing I do with the children each night before bed as a time to wind down, but it also reconnects me to past experiences and brings out particular emotions dependent on the songs I choose.

I think there are loads of skills to be gained from being part of playing music with others. These include patience, persistence, co-operation, and other aspects of social skills and executive functioning. It reminded me how powerful various musical projects have been in changing the identity of people in socioeconomically deprived situations. The El Sistema project in Venezuela, although criticised for its strict regime and some examples of exploitation, has been praised for opening opportunities for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and getting over 2 million children involved in orchestras. The Landfill Harmonic helped children living in a slum community on a rubbish dump to learn to play classical music and to have aspirations that were previously unthinkable to them.

The Big Noise project in Scotland has drawn on El Sistema but applied it to deprived Scottish communities. Independent evaluations cite positive impacts on different facets of the children’s lives, beyond just the gains in musical skills. Their education shows improvements in concentration, listening, co-ordination, language development, school attendance and school outcomes. Their life skills show improvements in the domains of problem solving, decision-making, creativity, determination, self-discipline and leadership. Their emotional wellbeing shows increased happiness, security, pride, self-esteem, emotional intelligence, an emotional outlet, resilience. Their social skills have improved along with increased mixing, cultural awareness, strong and diverse friendships and support networks. The project also has wider benefits to health, as there has been encouragement for healthy diet and lifestyle choices. The children have also had additional adults to confide in, a calm, safe environment and report reduced stress.

What I like about all these projects is that they help people to learn new skills and change their own identity to reflect that. Instead of being members of a deprived and devalued community pervaded with hopelessness, they have a new identity as musicians who can enjoy the process of creating, sharing and performing and gain aspirations outside of their previous horizons. Even the sense of belonging when singing along to a well-known track being performed live at a festival is up-lifting. How much more so to be performing music in front of an audience, and to travel to new places to perform.

But music isn’t the only thing that inspires change. We are all changing all the time. Life changes move us from being a child to an adult, through education and into professional or employment roles, bring changes in living arrangements and new relationships. In turn, aspects of our identity are sometimes defined by our role within those relationships and settings. We take on certain expectations and responsibilities when we become a being a partner, parent, aunt/uncle, grandparent. Our educational or work experiences can similarly add a facet to our identity (I am very much a psychologist as part of my core identity, even outside of work). So can being part of many different positive community projects or group activities, or even the act of learning new skills or trying new things at an individual level. I learnt to scuba dive a few years ago, and gained a new identity as a diver and a new world to explore. Likewise, the random act of supporting a friend who wanted to set up as a personal trainer introduced me to weight lifting, and for a couple of years that became part of my identity too (frustratingly since an RTA injured my shoulder I have not been able to lift for over a year, though I do hope to get back to it soon). I also like to grow fruit and vegetables, and to make preserves and bake, adding gardening and cooking to my repertoire and identity. And of course I am now a writer and blogger! Likewise I watch other members of my family gain new skills. This year we moved to a dilapidated farmhouse, and my husband has gained a new identity from learning to cut wood, keep chickens, and mow the fields with a tractor. As well as learning their brass instruments, my kids are learning to swim, ride bikes, write stories and poems, make art, and take part in outdoor activities. Their identities have expanded to include facets of artist, poet, writer, scientist, explorer and many more.

Changes to our identity can also be out of our control, and negative as well as positive. Many of us survive traumas, or difficult relationships, or experience rejection or failure. From redundancy to car accidents, cancer to infertility, losses of people we care about, changes of home, job and relationships, we are each shaped by our experiences even as adults. I have blogged before about the impact of adverse childhood experiences, but how we recover from these also forms part of our identity. Do we remain wary and cynical, or learn to trust again. Do we try to shut out the past, or work through it. Do we aim to get closure. These questions have never been more live than in the aftermath of institutional abuse, and in the wake of the historic sexual abuse cases that were triggered by Savile and other cases coming to public attention.

Over the last few years I have been talking to a man in my extended social network who was groomed and then raped as a child by a member of the Catholic church, whilst at a Catholic school. He has had to make a series of decisions about whether to disclose his experiences to anyone at all, whether to share them with members of his family, with his therapist, with his partner, and with friends. Then he has had to decide whether to come forward as a witness and victim in a public enquiry, and whether to seek compensation from the government and/or church. Each decision has an impact on his sense of identity, which has been slowly evolving from a victim hiding the shame of his experiences into a survivor who is able to look back and place the blame firmly where it belongs and manage the consequences on his life successfully. That isn’t an easy journey.

Over the time I have known him, he has talked very movingly about how his childhood experiences made him question his gender identity, sexuality, sanity, and whether he would in turn present a risk to others (something I know not to be the case, but which has been his darkest fear, based on the fact that many perpetrators report having been abused themselves in childhood, despite the fact that the majority of survivors do not go on to perpetuate the cycle of harm). He felt that he did not want additional sympathy or allowances making, and said that other people had been through much worse. Nonetheless, his experiences have had a considerable impact on his well-being. He has experienced intrusive flashbacks and images, panic attacks, stress, depression, time off work sick, and at times coped through self-harm. He has struggled to have enough self-belief to assert himself appropriately, and always tries extra hard to please others even at great personal cost – a trait that has been exploited by some members of his network and employers. I know he has had mixed feelings about giving evidence in an enquiry; wanting to come forward to represent and protect others and to ensure that concerns are not dismissed or covered up, but knowing this will be at some personal cost. And he has had very contradictory thoughts about applying for any form of redress, whether an official acknowledgement and apology from the church, or compensation from the fund for victims.

I can empathise with the ambivalence about accepting money. I can understand that survivors don’t want paying off and that money doesn’t make their abuse go away. And yes, possibly things could have been worse, there are people who have crappier experiences or less positive aspects to their lives in mitigation. I get that the people who are in the lucky position of considering claims are already survivors, and probably don’t want to look backwards to the time when they were victim and to have to relive that experience for another second, let alone in statements and testimony and the flashbacks that will bring. I also know there is a discomfort with the idea of financial settlements as a panacea, and that it feels wrong to benefit in any way from the harm that was done to them.

But when we look at the population level we can see that experiencing abuse changes the path of people’s lives. There is impact to the person’s sense of self, their ability to form healthy relationships and to be happy. People who are abused in childhood have their norms and expectations about themselves, other people and the world changed compared to those who aren’t. They have neurochemical pathways that are more primed for fight or flight, and perceive threat that others do not see. As a result they are less able to concentrate and focus, more likely to switch to anxiety or anger, less able to aim high and achieve in school and employment, less able to trust in relationships. Their self-esteem and sense of identity is damaged, and this permeates their ability to enjoy life in the present and to plan for the future. So whilst that doesn’t have a monetary value, there is a quantifiable loss to their earning power and quality of life, and the compensation is just making a nod towards acknowledging that.

Those responsible for compensation are also massive organisations, and in the case of the Catholic church, organisations that have accumulated massive wealth that for the most part they are not using to benefit the needy – it is kept in stocks, shares and property, and some is used to fund the legal defence of the perpetrators and those who knew about the abuse within the church. That is one of many reasons that lead me to say that victims should always apply for any compensation on offer. My general advice is to “take what you can get, use it for whatever feels right, and build upwards from where you are”.

It seems there is a good message in that for us all: Don’t let your past define you. Build your identity on who you are now, your values and aspirations, and the things that you enjoy. Then find a pathway towards self-actualisation and happiness in the future. Take on new facets to your identity. Become the diver, the weightlifter, the mother, the partner, the poet, the film buff, the cook, the gardener, the video gamer, the artist, the builder, the bookworm, the collector or whatever combination of roles and interests makes you happy. And seek out personal and professional allies for the journey to support you until the wounds of the past heal to become scars that don’t stop you from doing the things you enjoy.

Hiding in plain sight: On Louis Theroux and Jimmy Savile

I watched the Louis Theroux documentary on Jimmy Savile tonight, and I wondered why it wasn’t obvious to Louis how slimy and two-faced Jimmy was. It stood out for me from the original documentary, let alone from the rushes shown in the update, how clear it was that he was inappropriate about personal space and made a number of particular types of comments – normalising sexual content, implying connections to power and influence, and schmoozing/bestowing favour – that I associate with people who sexually abuse children that I have met through work. He also behaved differently when he wasn’t on show, and was with someone he didn’t perceive as having influence, in the unguarded footage shot by the producer late at night. I’ve learnt to take note of that too, from bitter experience.

It reminded me that my initial gut reaction to the original documentary was “ugh, my sense of him being creepy as a kid was right – it appears he has a sexual interest in children, and from the way he talks about enjoying his time with her body it seems likely he had sex with his mother’s corpse”. Yet that response at the time was unspeakable, except to my husband. After all, you can’t just say someone is a criminal, a necrophiliac, an abuser and a risk to children without proof and based purely on second hand information. That would be inappropriate, and potentially defamatory, particularly for a professional.

But Louis was there with Savile and heard his entirely unsatisfactory responses to questions, his jokes and inappropriate behaviour, saw his invasion of people’s personal space, heard him made threats to sue and name drop his connections to both establishment and underworld power. Yet, despite being an intelligent guy with suspicions about Savile, Theroux’s reaction wasn’t one of repulsion and scepticism. He was won over by Savile’s charm, and carried along by the fiction Savile had created that he was some odd relic of the 70s with his own rules not quite being in sync with the present overly PC world, and being inappropriate was harmless and par for the course. He probably felt flattered by the attention, and tantalisingly close to being the confidant that would get the big scoop when Jimmy was ready to tell his story. But he stopped being a critical observer and started to consider him a friend, and was present when he continued to behave in inappropriate ways and failed to remark on it. And that shows how easily it is done.

Because if it is your mate, and they just go one step further than you are comfortable about as if that is perfectly normal, then perhaps that is just the way that they are, and you can start thinking that maybe they are too old and odd to have to conform to social norms. And once you start to think that, your own boundaries shift and you become complicit. Something you would instantly baulk at from a stranger, is somehow normalised. You turn a blind eye without realising you have done so. Louis said that he didn’t feel he had been groomed, but I think he was wrong. Sure, he hadn’t been targeted as a potential victim of Savile’s sexual advances, but he had been drip-fed the self-crafted story of the harmless oddball doing so many wonderful things for charity. And he had been slowly habituated to be complicit in accepting the small infringements into the unacceptable, the misogyny, the recurrent sexualised content of his interactions, the invasions of personal space. And he tolerated the evasion, the flattery, the name-dropping, the sinister undertones as part of the special relationship they had developed. And that, to me, is grooming.

I’m not implying Louis is to blame for that. He has shown his intelligence, empathy and insight in other documentaries, so my expectations are high. But it is easy to be groomed. By definition, recurrent sexual abusers who have not been caught are devious and effective in fooling those around them. Plus Savile had a lifetime of practise and an enormous reputation and network to carry him. Nonetheless, I can see why Louis has been looking back and wondering what he should have noticed. I’ve been there and done that.

The first child sex abuser that fooled me (that I know of) was more than 15 years ago now*. He shook my hand, spoke politely, seemed to have a benevolent interest in the wellbeing of the children in the family and always agreed with what the professionals said. He was well educated, middle class, and married with adult children. He was the one who reported concerns about the grandchild who was referred, and was critical of the parents. The child was developmentally delayed, but also underweight and unkempt, with no sense of personal space. In retrospect, I can see that this idealised grandfather was remarkably unsympathetic to his daughter, whose lifestyle of alcoholism and domestic violence punctuated with inpatient stays after self-harm didn’t match up with the facade of happy families he portrayed. But at the time he seemed very concerned about the wellbeing of the child. The receptionist took me aside to mention that he spoke to his wife “like a dog” in the waiting room, but turned on the charm in the presence of clinicians. I didn’t even make a note in the file. I only remembered the comment 6 months later when the social worker said to a case conference that just prior to proceedings to move the child to the residence of these grandparents, the mother had disclosed childhood sexual abuse from her father, along with sadistic punishments like having her hands held against the hot oven door if she didn’t do as she was told quickly enough. This had then been corroborated by another family member, and her records showed the school had reported the burns to her hands. The child was placed in foster care instead.

I remember how stupid I felt. The clues were right there in front of me. The child was vulnerable to abuse, and the developmental delay and unusual behaviour with no sign of organic cause showed that something was going wrong in their life. But it was too easy to attribute it all to the ‘bad’ parents and not the ‘good’ grandparents, falling into the polarised thinking of the family, despite normally having more nuanced formulations. The mother’s story didn’t match the grandparents, and her lifestyle didn’t fit with their descriptions of her upbringing, but she had been branded an unreliable reporter. So why did someone from such a happy middle class home get into such a mess? The answer was given to me on a plate – she had fallen into a bad crowd as a teenager, and ended up drinking and in a destructive relationship – so I didn’t look at other contributory factors. It wasn’t my job to pry, I was just doing a developmental assessment of the child. Yet I know that severely troubled adults have rarely had idyllic childhoods, and have often experienced multiple adverse childhood events, and that attachment styles are often carried through the generations. Likewise I know that trying to charm professionals can be a warning sign, but nonetheless numerous small compliments on your insight, empathy and skill as a clinician can flatter your ego without being so excessive as to raise a red flag. And the receptionist’s comments were given outside of the clinic room, and whilst I didn’t have the file open to take notes. Plus she wasn’t a clinician and may not have heard the full context of the comment, so the team didn’t give it much credence.

Thankfully, the disclosure came in time to protect the child from being placed with someone with a history of abusing children, but it wasn’t thanks to my skill as a clinician. Sure, I was quite early in my career and still quite naive, but I suspect most clinicians think we have uniquely sensitive radar to pick up on abuse and abusers. Sadly, we don’t. Whilst we might not rely on the stereotypes that the public are fed, of dirty old men in trench coats exposing themselves at the park, or strangers trying to tempt children into their car with sweets or puppies, I do think we have some internal stereotypes. The abusers that are easily caught are often socially gauche, lower in intellectual ability and/or socioeconomic status, and we tend to think of men who are unsuccessful in adult relationships and are prolific and opportunistic in their offending, but abusers are a highly heterogeneous group. Few have overt mental health problems, some may appear to be morally upstanding citizens, some are female, they come from all walks of life, cultures and religions, they may have functional adult relationships, and most are known to the child. about a quarter of perpetrators are under the age of 18. The majority of abusers have a single victim or a small number within their immediate network. A tiny minority with a primary inclination towards children are prolific abusers like Savile, but the damage is so wide ranging and the cases more newsworthy and memorable, which is why people are more aware of them. So there is no clear alarm bell, apart from the inappropriate interest in or behaviour towards children itself, the presence of child pornography, or sexualised behaviour or disclosures from the child.

In hindsight, it is easy to recognise signs you may have missed, and if you know there is a history of sexual offences against children certain behaviours show in a different light. And I have learnt to be both more observant and more wary. Those flirtatious comments to the receptionist, or the attempts to find common ground with or flatter the assessing clinician stand out, just like the cringe-inducing examples of Savile’s behaviour we saw in the edited highlights from the rushes that Theroux had of his time with Savile. We can only hope that we learn from experience and aren’t so easily fooled next time.

*all case details have been suitably anonymised

Is empathy finite? Part One: Richard Huckle

There have been two challenging stories in the news this week. In the UK Richard Huckle was given 22 life sentences for sexually abusing around 200 Malaysian children, and in the USA Brock Turner was given 6 months in county jail for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman outside a frat party. Each of them has been hard to read and aspects of each case have brought me to tears. The stories have made me feel grief for the victims and anger at the perpetrators, frustration about the cultural norms that gave them opportunity and in their mind justification for their actions, and vexed at the justice systems that somehow seemed inadequate in the face of each situation. And in each case, it has been really hard to hold on to any empathy for the perpetrator, despite my strongly held belief that people are the product of their experiences and influenced by the context, rather than ‘born evil’.

Because I have read and thought so much about these two cases, and discussed them online, I thought I would write a blog post about each. This is the first of those two blogs, and is about Richard Huckle.

Make no mistake, what he has done is unthinkably awful. Genuinely evil, to the point it is hard to even comprehend. He deliberately targeted vulnerable children and babies in deprived communities for his own gratification, and shared his activities with others for financial gain through the dark web. He even wrote a manual advising other paedophiles how to sexually abuse children in less developed countries. He was clearly without conscience or empathy, or able to override any remaining scraps of either in favour of sexual gratification. The psychiatric assessments were reported to say that he justified his actions and showed no remorse. His ledger and writings on the dark web boasted about his activities. So I can understand why he got such a hefty sentence, and why many people feel he should have been tried in Malaysia where he could have got a death sentence. He has harmed hundreds of children and families, and changed the course of their lives for the worse. No sentence can ever compensate for that.

I found myself thinking that if he committed suicide or was killed by other inmates very few people would be sorry to hear the news. In fact many would argue that the cost of 25+ years in prison is money that will be wasted on an individual that is beyond rehabilitation. Comments on the internet below the breaking news stories said things like:

“Hope he rots in hell he doesn’t deserve to breath air”

“It’s time to bring in capital punishment for paedophiles. Why should we pay for his upkeep? Death is the only appropriate punishment for this creep”.

“How tragic for his father and mother, who were obviously conscientious and committed parents. It just goes to show, you can give your children a good upbringing but you simply can’t control how they turn out. This guy is a slave to his perverted sexuality and his condition is incurable. He really should be locked up for the rest of his life because he will always be a danger to children. What a terrible affliction for any human being to be born with”.

And a woman in the public gallery shouted “a thousand deaths is too good for you” as he was led away from court.

Despite all of my psychology and experience with child protection issues and knowledge that most people who harm children have been harmed themselves, I found myself hating him and feeling no empathy whatsoever. It was as if he had stepped outside of the range that my empathy could stretch. I wanted him to suffer because he had made others suffer. If I’m honest, I’m still very conflicted about it.

However, like the awesome film Arlington Road illustrates, there is rarely a lone gunman. As much as it is an attractive narrative that distances us from responsibility, I don’t think that one person in a million is randomly born evil and will inevitably do things like this. I believe there are things we can do to make such events less likely to recur over time, and it is that belief that stops me feeling hopeless and helpless when the news constantly bombards me with all the evil in the world.

When I took a step back from the emotions raised by the awfulness of what this man did and thought about what I have learned from both research and practice, I found that there are in fact lots of pieces of knowledge that can help us to make sense of what happened and what we can do to reduce the chances of it happening again. In other words, I started to think like a psychologist again, and I wanted a formulation that would help me to reach some understanding of how he got to the position of doing such evil things. Such an understanding would let me sidestep my helplessness, anger and desire for retribution, and instead focus on something constructive; doing something positive to prevent similar cases from occurring again in the future.

As I mentioned earlier, I believe that people like Huckle are a product of their experiences as well as their innate character, and their offending happens within a context. Of course I still believe in free will, and that people are culpable for the outcomes of the choices they made, and clearly Huckle made very very bad choices again and again and deserves to face the consequences of that. But we don’t make those choices in isolation. Although he was particularly prolific in his offending, Huckle was far from the only person to perpetrate child sexual abuse in the UK. In fact, there are over 100,000 people in the UK who have committed a sexual offence against a child and around 5000 new convictions are made each year. About a fifth of the population have experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact before they reach adulthood. Police recorded 36,429 sexual offences against children in the UK in 2013-14, and estimates suggest that only one in eight offences are reported. So this is a massive problem. (To put it into context, 1600 children per year are diagnosed with cancer, so sexual abuse is more than 20-180 times as prevalent). I believe that when it comes to any form of antisocial behaviour, violent or sexual crime, particularly on this scale, such actions are also an indication something is wrong in our society. It doesn’t surprise me that numbers on the child protection register are rising during this decade of ideological austerity that is widening the wealth gap in the UK. Just as suicide rates, substance use, homelessness and the incidence of mental health problems are increasing as a result of political decisions, so domestic violence and child maltreatment is rising as people fail to cope with the additional stressors imposed by benefit cuts, sanctions and reductions in public services.

There are several likely risk factors that relate to the abuser. First we know that whilst experiencing sexual abuse is neither necessary nor sufficient to create a perpetrator, the chance of sexually abusing children is increased threefold if he was sexually abused in his own childhood, and that experiencing sadistic emotional or physical abuse can also increase risk. We know little about Huckle’s family, but attachment disorganisation and the absence of any secure attachment figures seems much more prevalent amongst abusers. It is known that many sex offenders have sexual dysfunction. Isolation, low mood, loneliness and lack of social skill seems to also contribute, as do neuropsychological impairments – and Huckle was described as a loner who spent most of his time on the computer, as well as “uncharismatic” and on the periphery of things. Finally, the majority of people who sexually abuse children are religious (studies show 93% of abusers to report a strong religious identity, and around 5% of priests have been named in disclosures of sexual abuse). In between trips to Malaysia to abuse children Huckle was actively involved in the church and described himself as a devout Christian. Was that just an act, designed to gain the language and credibility to access children, or was there another motivation? Was he perhaps conflicted about his actions and trying to compensate or seek forgiveness? Or did he believe he was already going to hell, so he might as well do what he wanted in the meanwhile? Or did he have outwardly strong morals as compensation for lacking an internalised moral code? I suspect we will never know.

The part of this picture that is less often a focus of attention is the contribution of online communities to the normalising and even encouragement of abusive activities. However, we know that using the internet gives people an (often false) sense of anonymity and privacy, that brings out certain traits in their behaviour that might otherwise be inhibited because of the social consequences. On top of that certain communities have developed that collect and exaggerate certain types of behaviour. For example, the notorious bulletin board 4chan has boards within which particular patterns of behaviour from trolling to internet vigilantism (such as the hacker group Anonymous) have become the norm. Likewise certain boards have allowed the gathering of gamergaters, men’s rights activists, furries (people who like to role play anthropomorphised animals), bronies (adult male fans of the children’s cartoon My Little Pony), otaku (Japanese nerds), toonphiles (people who want to have sex with cartoon characters), adult babies, truthers (people who believe in elaborate government conspiracies, such as that 9/11 didn’t happen), those trying to give up masturbating to pornography, and many other quirky groups that would not be able to express themselves within a mainstream community. There are groups that advocate in favour of all kinds of risky behaviour from anorexia to suicide, drink-driving to barebacking (unprotected sex between men, which includes “bug-chasing” – having unprotected sex with men who are HIV positive with the intention of gaining HIV positive status). Online people can present with whatever persona they want to create. Instead of being lonely and powerless they can be charming and popular. In that context, it is not surprising that there are websites that normalise and encourage child pornography, and create demand for more content (including a financial incentive, which Huckle had used to seek crowd-funding for pornographic material he had made related to his abuse of a 3-year-old girl).

However, there is much that is unknown about the relationship between use of the internet, viewing child pornography and sexual abuse of children. Does the availability of “edgy” content pull users of legal pornography towards more extreme material that they would not otherwise access? Does the market create an increase in abuse to provide the materials that can be sold? Does viewing child pornography online become a stepping stone to contact abuse? Or does it allow potential contact abusers to meet their needs without harming additional children? Is it related to the grooming of children online? One in eight people convicted of viewing child pornography on the internet had a known history of offending against children in person but it is still unclear which is chicken and which is egg when it comes to a sexual interest in children and viewing of child pornography. But it is clear that law enforcement resources are totally outnumbered by the prevalence of child pornography online.

Finally, there are factors which make some children more vulnerable to become victims of child sexual abuse than others. These include the lack of a secure attachment figure, shame, isolation, neglect, disability, the presence of other forms of child abuse, socioeconomic deprivation, stressors placed on the family (eg unemployment, bereavement, divorce), cultures in which secrecy is encouraged or permitted, prior sexual abuse in the family (particularly if this was not reported and discussed), alcohol or substance misuse, domestic violence, and settings in which there is sexual language, pornography or exposure to adult sexual activities. These same factors make it harder for children to disclose what has happened to them, and for such a disclosure to lead to suitable protective action. Only one in eight children who experiences abuse receives any professional input to assess or intervene with it.

So there are things that we can do to mitigate the risk of future harm. We can protect future children by addressing inequality, providing more support for parenting and attachment, providing more prosocial opportunities for engagement for disenfranchised young people, being more proactive about responding to child abuse, having more investment in policing the internet so that access to child pornography reduces or is perceived as more risky. We can help victims of abuse to speak up early, to the right people, and to be believed. We can encourage the investigation and prosecution of sexual offences against children, and ensure that conviction rates and sentences are sufficient to act as a deterrent. We can specifically develop international policing solutions to address sex tourism. And most importantly of all, we can also help victims to recover from the abuse they have experienced, to feel safe and protected and develop healthy norms about relationships.

Huckle has done evil and unforgivable things. I still can’t find much empathy for the person he is now. However, if I think back to him being born, and the experiences that must have taken place to take him to the point at which he could abuse children, I am able to feel sad for that baby and angry at those who harmed him and failed to protect him or to intervene much earlier to divert him from his path and recognise their contribution to his development and the harm that he then perpetrated. And if behaviour is learnt, then no matter how unlikely, there may be a future point at which it can change. So maybe in 25 years from now it is worth reconsidering whether he still presents a risk, or whether he has gained insight and empathy that he is currently lacking. Perhaps new treatments will have emerged by then to make it possible. It seems hard to imagine that being the case. I’m usually an optimist, but for Huckle, I can’t foresee a happy ending – and I’m not sure I want to.

But there is a note of optimism in the bigger picture. Despite all the evils of austerity, and the massive burden that is creating on the wellbeing of the world population, and a few horrific cases that have been well-publicised in the media there is some progress. Sexual abuse is being talked about more, and more resources are being targeted at prevention and intervention. And there is fairly solid evidence that although there has been a dramatic spike of reports of abuse in the UK over the last two years, the overall prevalence of sexual abuse in the western world appears to be decreasing over time. Hopefully, that decrease will continue to accelerate over time, until sexual abuse really is the one in a million exception, rather than an all too present reality for a significant proportion of children.

 

Where have all the flowers gone?

This week Liam Fee’s name was added to the list of toddlers killed by their caregivers, alongside Peter Connolly, Victoria Climbie, Daniel Pelka, Ayeeshia Smith and Keegan Downer. And the newspapers have turned their gaze to their favourite post-mortem task of placing the blame. The conclusion, as ever, will be the ‘born evil’ women who killed him, and social workers who ‘failed to prevent’ the death. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.

Firstly, how can social workers prevent child deaths when their services have been cut back so much that thresholds for intervention have risen ever higher?  Social workers are over stretched and morale is at an all time low. When they intervene too much they are demonised by the press as baby-snatchers. When they don’t intervene enough they are demonised as failures who didn’t protect children. Since legal aid was slashed, court proceedings expect them to be both case worker and to cover the role of expert to the court. The social workers I know are amazing people, dedicated to helping make a difference with families, but tell me that some workplace cultures focus on form-filling and don’t allow as much time out in the field intervening with families as they would want.

Personally, I think prevention takes more than reactive services like the current remit of social work. We need proactive screening services to spot where there is need much earlier, when interventions for families are cheaper and more effective. In my opinion we need universal health visiting back, for every birth registered to be followed by mandatory visits twice a year until the kid starts school and for that to include weighing and measuring the child and seeing them in just their pants. It will also see the home environment and the relationship between parent and child. Old fashioned, maybe, but it would hopefully catch malnutrition and serious injuries earlier, and save lives in cases like these.

Secondly, what kind of lives must those two women have had that they were so un-empathic that they could witness and ignore such suffering, let alone create it? There must have been great trauma to end up like that, and a total absence of nurture. Of course no experiences are an excuse for the sadistic things they did to the children in their care. But they can help us to understand what happened, and in doing so to help prevent a future recurrence of similar issues. If we just blame it on innate characteristics of the individual perpetrators there is little we can learn to prevent the same thing happening again (except perhaps chase the fallacy of a genetic marker for evil, which I’m almost surprised is not already being done, given the overly biological focus of research topics that are clearly more influenced by experience).

I’m not convinced that anybody is ‘born evil’. I think people are born with the capacity to be a wide range of things, and their experiences (particularly their early experiences with their caregivers) determine the direction of travel, the types of skills they develop and the behaviours that are in their repertoire. Given exposure to enough trauma, a total lack of safe attachment figures, few skills and loads of dysfunctional strategies, people can end up doing awful things, particularly with a hair-trigger tendency to fight or flight under stress.

This is an evidence based position, not just my opinion as a clinician. We have known for at least a decade that childhood experience is the leading predictor of the health and social well-being, and that this applies on the individual level as well as for the nation. But as well as the self-evident human cost, there is also a huge economic cost to society. Studies show that the financial impact of child maltreatment on the economy amounts to billions of pounds per year, and the impact on lifetime health and employment is equivalent to a diagnosis of diabetes. However, the costs are hard to measure, and occur throughout the person’s lifetime so they are not as obvious.

Violence in society is neither universal nor inevitable (in fact it is almost absent amongst central Thai or Lapp society). Violence is a behaviour that is caused and can be prevented. When it comes to predicting violence, it is clear that the propensity is hugely influenced by experiences in the home before the age of 3. We also know that various interventions to improve care and the quality of the attachment relationship, or the more drastic intervention of removing the child and placing them in a household with better care are highly effective. However, there are also sociopolitical factors at play. Once the use of violence is established in a society, the levels are influenced by many factors, including:

  • Economic inequality
  • Unemployment
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Violence in the media
  • Poor housing
  • Availability of weapons

And yet, over the last decade economic inequality has increased, social housing has been sold off, and more violence has been shown in the media. More hopelessness has been created by the cuts to benefits for people with disabilities, or living in homes with an extra room. Services for people using drugs and alcohol have been cut by austerity measures whilst the need for them has increased. So the government has increased the risk of violence, whilst (as with immigration, single parents or benefit fraud) blame is being directed onto vulnerable individuals and public services.

Liam Fee, Peter Connolly, Victoria Climbie, Daniel Pelka, Ayeeshia Smith and Keegan Downer are the tip of the iceberg. There are many child deaths from maltreatment that never make the news. Best estimates based on serious case reviews suggest 40-80 deaths of preschool children are caused by their caregivers per year. And of course, many more children are injured physically or emotionally every day. For every child experiencing abuse who is known to services, eight more are going unseen. But this is not down to individuals who are born evil, and it is not down to negligent social workers. It is a socioeconomic and political problem. And whilst the media propagates the narrative of individual blame and politicians turn a blind eye, children will continue to die.

Where have all these children gone, long time passing?
Where have all these children gone, long time ago?
Where have all these children gone?
Gone to graveyards every one.
Oh, when will we ever learn?
Oh, when will we ever learn?

Reflecting back

I’ve been archiving the files for a lot of my past court work this week. I moved office base and I don’t want to be cluttering up my new space with lots of old case information I don’t need any more, when it can be securely stored and eventually shredded. So far I’ve boxed up the files for 115 family court cases for which I completed an assessment and wrote a report, leaving only records that have been updated since the start of 2013 in my filing cabinet. As I check that each of the newer cases has been completed and invoiced, I will put those into storage too, and use my filing space for other things. It is another step in letting go of my role as an expert witness, and the huge weight of responsibility and emotional demand that entails.

As I put each case away, I added the family names to an index in order that I could locate them if it is ever required. I am supposed to keep files for seven years, or until the child is 21, so they stay with me a long time. As I record the names I realise I can remember the stories of many of the families, and I wondered how they were doing now. There were lots of traumas in those stories, that I heard and described in my reports, and felt in my bones. Many parents whose own childhoods meant that they couldn’t parent in a safe and nurturing way. Many of them dealt a hand full of adversity, who had no resources to cope with the stresses of their chaotic lives. Over and over again I saw children who were harmed by the care they were given, both in the children I had to assess, and in the histories of their parents and grandparents. Themes repeating across two or more generations.

It has always felt terribly sad that in order to give their children a chance at a better life, the courts have to intervene in ways that further wound the parents. But an expert’s job is to advise on what is best for the child, and sadly that is often contradictory with what is in the best interest of their parent. And I hope that I have always kept what would be best for the child paramount in my thinking, but whilst holding some compassion for the other family members. I think about the cases where I didn’t do the story justice, and the courts made decisions that I didn’t agree with. I worry about the cases where greater experience or new knowledge from the literature would have given me a slightly different perspective. I think about times I was threatened, or parents refused to talk to me, or I was cross-examined for five hours straight. Then I remember a time when a parent I assessed approaching me after I gave evidence, and feeling wary she was going to be angry that I recommended her child was removed. Instead she said thank you to me. “You were the only person I’ve met in all this that was always honest with me, and understood how I got here. I can see why you said what you did about me, and I think you are right that he will do better being adopted”. I’m still blown away by that. What an amazing gift to give me at a time that was so painful for her. I hope that she got the therapy she needed to put that reflection, empathy and kindness into practise in her life, and get out of the run of destructive relationships that had dominated her life.

I put the files into the box and lock them away. I am glad to let them go. It isn’t just physical space they take up, but mental space. Being an expert witness for the family court is a tough job. The hourly rates might seem high, but there are other ways to earn the same without the emotional burden. There have been pros and cons for me. I’m a different person now than I was when I began doing that work. I’m more observant and analytical, better able to ask the right questions, to deal with uncertainties, and to spot inconsistencies and triangulate sources. There have been rewarding moments too. I have had a lot of positive feedback about the quality of my assessments and evidence, and thanks for the impact of my work. But I’m also more cynical and I’ve seen a very dark side to the world. I’m more aware of the risks, and of how prevalent maltreatment and poor care are, even in our supposedly developed nation. I think I’m less trusting of people as a result of doing this type of work, and my norms for what levels of problems require professional help have shifted towards the more severe end of the spectrum, making me less sympathetic to people who feel very disadvantaged by more minor difficulties. I’ve also acquired the bad habits of work that has a strong pattern of boom-and-bust in demand – working through the night to make deadlines, putting in 80 hour weeks to meet demand, and generally taking on too much to leave enough of myself for other tasks and life outside work. It has also shown me that I can be a total control freak about the standards of work contributed by other members of my team, because my own standards are meticulous and I take this type of work – that can change the course of people’s lives – particularly seriously.

Letting go of court work is difficult, because it glitters. There is always demand, and it is nice to feel needed and held in high regard by other professionals. It feels as if you have genuine influence in the legal process (and I generally hold the UK justice system and public law professionals in high regard). The pay, although much reduced since legal aid cuts, still seems somehow more attractive as an hourly rate than the reality should be (given you can’t charge for much of the time these cases actually take, nor for administrative support such as typing or arranging appointments, nor for venues or materials it actually works out to be less than I make from other activities like therapy, training or consulting). It also has the kind of attraction of rubber-necking at a car-crash, as the cases each have their own grim story, are more complex than most clinical cases seen in secondary and tertiary tiers of service provision, and are often both acute and chronic in nature. I find it hard to say no when my skills are needed. But I must learn to delegate this work to others, or to decline, because I want to have my time and emotional energy back for other things.

And so it is good to archive my files, and to catch up with my invoicing, and to clear the decks of old ways of working to allow myself space for the new. It feels like putting down rocks I have been carrying for a long time….

Thinking about vulnerability and risk

Sometimes you pull on the littlest of threads and the biggest of issues appear at the other end.

Today I have been training in quite a remote location in the Welsh borders. It is the first time in quite some time that I’ve been in a location with no mobile signal. And no mobile signal meant no satnav to find my location last night, and no means to let my husband know I had arrived. I soon found there was no working phone box, and given the late hour there was nobody around to ask directions. And all of a sudden I realised that I was lost, alone and that nobody knew where I was! For those few minutes before I found the hotel, I realised how much I have grown to rely on technology to feel safe and oriented in my day-to-day life. And then I wondered if I felt less fearless before those technologies were so ubiquitous, or whether it is just the absence of a crutch I have grown to rely on that made me feel more vulnerable. After all, what was the real risk?

I started to think about about how we are trained to over emphasise certain sorts of risk (like stranger-danger, or the risk of immigrants on unemployment rates), and to under-recognise others (like the risks to children from exposure to domestic violence, or the risks that so many families face from poverty and discrimination). It seems that the media trains us to be most afraid of the things we have least control over. A cynic might think they want us to have an external locus of control and a certain degree about learnt helplessness when it comes to social issues. Whatever the motivation, the result is that many people go about their lives with little awareness of the risks that I see as the most important in society today – how vulnerable many children and adults are to abuse and exploitation, how maltreatment is normative in certain families and communities, and how interpersonal violence, trauma and abuse can change the path of people’s lives.

One example of risk and vulnerability that has been prominent in the media recently is how the press has turned once again to discrediting victims of abuse who speak up. This has taken several strands. First the media narrative has changed from “survivors of child abuse” to “alleged survivors of child abuse”, sowing the seed of doubt about every person who makes a disclosure. Second politicians are telling their colleagues to withdraw allegations due to loyalty to their party, and trying to shame the brave few who spoke up and asked for multiple disclosures and allegations to be investigated into apologising for maligning a powerful public figure. And third we are repeatedly hearing that those with allegations against them which are dropped by the police or CPS have been “proven innocent” or that victims have “lied” or “fabricated” rather than the more accurate truth of the matter, in which there is insufficient evidence to have a high enough chance of successful prosecution to merit public funds to proceed. The climate of being willing to look into abuse allegations against the rich and powerful, which gained such momentum from the public disgust about how Jimmy Savile got away with such extensive crimes for so long, has turned once again into a climate in which victims feel that the authorities are biased towards powerful and they are not going to be believed. This blog is an eloquent example of that.

Whilst I firmly believe in the principle of innocent until proven guilty, and the need for exceptional reasons to name someone against whom allegations have been made before the case has sufficient evidence to come to trial, we are dealing with a system far more weighted towards false negatives than false positives. Let us not forget that as many as 1 in 5 children are sexually abused, and yet only 15% are able to disclose in a way that leads to a police investigation. That’s the scandal here, not the impact on the reputation of a dead politician.

We need to remember that the victims of abuse are human beings like us who have been failed by society. If all politicians see is demographics and price tags, or characters and plots in which the goody is the one who becomes rich and powerful, then they don’t treat people like people. Recognising human beings and their ability to suffer is necessary to form policy, to offer justice and to be objective in investigations. In fact, that recognition of our common humanity and how people are shaped by their experiences makes you more able to consider that the perpetrators who are too often written off as incurable and evil are mostly people who have been victims themselves and never had the positive learning experiences children need to develop healthily in their own lives.

I think tackling child maltreatment is the primary social problem in the world today. To address this problem we need a multifaceted approach. I believe that if we can prevent child abuse and help people to have secure attachment relationships they will learn to be more resilient, empathic and socially skilled. In time this will have immeasurable positive impact on society. It will reduce crime, addiction, conflict, mental health problems, and even reduce the incidence and severity of many major physical health problems such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer. And interventions to help reduce maltreatment, improve attachment relationships and support children to make an optimal recovery from abuse or poor care are highly cost effective. Every pound spent in addressing childhood adversity through evidence-based interventions is repaid tenfold to the state in savings before adulthood (for example, we know that mental health interventions in childhood can save £83 more per pound spent where issues are prevented or treated in childhood rather than remaining into adulthood). But it doesn’t stop there. These changes continue to make ripples that save costs in health, social care, criminal justice, employment, benefit, and tax spheres for the rest of the person’s lifetime, and then for their partners, children and future generations.

We just need to stop blaming the vulnerable, and imagining risks where they don’t exist, and start trying to solve the systemic problems that make them vulnerable in the first place.