A Guide To Failing Sexually Abused Children

Hazel Aged 9
Me, aged 9. I’d already been a victim of sexual abuse for 7 years when this photograph was taken.

 

CW: Child Sexual Abuse, Rape, Incompetence
Help:  https://www.rapecrisishelp.ie/find-a-service/
https://www.samaritans.org/ireland/how-we-can-help/contact-samaritan/
https://www.mentalhealthireland.ie/need-help-now/

Yesterday, Sarah McInerney wrote a piece in The Times about my late friend, Shane Griffin, and how he was let down by a number of systems in Ireland: The Eastern Health Board, the HSE, TUSLA, and the judiciary, to name a few.

It was a lovely tribute to a lovely man and it mentioned how the abuse children suffer is compounded by the neglect they (we) are then subjected to by the very institutions that are supposed to mind them (us). The problem I have with the piece is not the piece itself,  but the fact that it tells us nothing new, and it amounts to nothing more than a bit of hand-wringing, and an invitation (which was taken up by many on Twitter) to have a big, online, hand-wringing fest.

We have known for years that children who are sexually abused in Ireland have their abuse compounded by the further abuse and neglect of those who are supposed to help us. The Journal has been reporting on this for years – just have a look at this and this and this and this and this  : All pieces giving details about children who were sexually abused, and how their suffering was compounded by government agencies, individual social workers, doctors, psychologists etc. who did nothing and who were promoted for their lack of action. Our government, our government agencies, and individual social workersdoctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, and others who work for those agencies are complicit in the abuse, neglect and suicides of people in this country. No one is held accountable, and victims struggle to survive in a country that doesn’t support us.

For example, if (God forbid) your ten-year-old child were sexually assaulted and you went to get help for them. This is what would happen:

  1. You would phone somewhere like CARI, St. Clare’s Unit, or St. Louise’s Unit, or your local social worker, begging for help.
  2. You would not receive help.
  3. The service / social worker you contacted would, in turn, contact TUSLA and report the information. (Note: If this isn’t done online – bearing in mind that only 20% of HSE workers have access to the Internet – the documents will be returned. Estimates vary on how long this will take.)
  4. TUSLA would put your child on a waiting list to be assessed. This waiting list is currently years long.
  5. A social worker from TUSLA would interview your child and decide whether or not they were lying about the abuse. They call this determining whether or not the allegations are ‘founded’ or ‘unfounded’. (More about this below).
  6. If they decide that your child is not a liar, your child will be referred to CARI to be put on their waiting list for help.
  7. If you wanted to access services through the HSE, you would have to involve the Gardaí, as well. St. Clare’s and St. Louise’s Units will not put you on their waiting lists unless you have done so.

Don’t forget that, for the years you’re waiting for help, you’ll have been dealing with a child whose mental health is suffering, you’ll have been grappling with your own pain and feelings of guilt, fear, and your mental health will also be suffering. Your child may be suicidal. Your child may be self-harming. Your other children, and your partner / spouse will also be suffering in a similar way.

If the abuse was perpetrated by a member of your family, the mental anguish will be compounded. There will be no help or support for your abused child, you, or your family members unless you know how to find a competent therapist and pay for therapy yourself.  Good luck with that.

Founded / Unfounded

Whether or not your child gets help depends on whether or not a social worker in TUSLA says they’re allowed to access this help (such as it is). How do they do this? Well, the truth is that nobody knows. Social Workers in Ireland receive no training in how to determine the veracity of a claim of abuse. Nor or they trained in how to treat abuse victims or victims of trauma. (That is changing, however, as Dr Joe Mooney has just introduced a module in UCD for those studying there.)

I’m not being at all flippant when I say that they may as well just flip a coin to decide whether or not a child’s allegations are taken seriously. If you think I’m joking, have a look at the PQs (Parliamentary Questions) 445 – 447 asked by Róisín Shorthall at the end of 2018 and the Minister’s response.

Just today (January 13th, 2020), I got word from a friend – I’ll call her Anna, though that’s not her real name – who contacted TUSLA in 2010 to report abuse she had suffered when she was a child. Make no mistake, this is a brave thing to do. Anna was raped 3-4 times a week, from the age of 14 until she was 17. She is aware that she is not the only person this rapist raped. One other woman has had conversations with Anna about being raped by this man, too, but she’s afraid to go to the Gardaí. Of course, he’s an upstanding member of his local community in Wicklow, so when he was asked – more than eight years after the abuse was reported – if the allegations were untrue, he denied it.

And that was that.

Anna’s mental and physical health are suffering because of the damage this man did to her, which has been compounded by services which are supposed to put ‘Children First’. Anna no longer lives in Ireland because she can’t bear to live in a country that cares so little for raped children. I cannot say I blame her.

Getting Personal

I’m not going to pretend to be objective. I’m not going to pretend this isn’t personal. Because it is personal. I am one of the children who was let down by the system. I have encountered nothing but obstacles from every institution, service and individual – with the notable exception of one social worker who alerted me to the fact that a file on me existed. This she did, almost as an aside at the end of a conversation in 2010. It took me two years of constant requests before I was given access to my (heavily redacted) files.

This letter refers to a case conference that took place in November 1988. I was, at this time, 15 years and two months old.

Case Conference Nov 1988 croppedI think it’s worth noting that I never, ever met a single one of the people present at that ‘case conference’ – except for Imelda Ryan.

This is borne out, in part by this (heavily redacted) letter from Rosemary Cooke, who was at the meeting referred to in the correspondence above:

I Have Never Had Contact With Hazel

At the same time, she declares herself the key worker in my ‘case’.

I remain the key worker

And, as you can see from the top line, she asserts that there is ‘little social work intervention possible.’ This woman is still in practice, by the way, and has added the role of ‘Mediator’ to her suite of offerings.

It would actually be funny, if it weren’t so serious.

Let me draw your attention to lines 21, 22, 23, and 24 of the first document. Please bear in mind that everyone at that meeting knew I had been sexually abused by my elder brothers, and was being sexually abused by my father. It was further accepted that the younger children in the house were also at risk of being / were being abused.

But, as you can also see, my mammy didn’t want my daddy to leave the house. So no one interfered. Fifteen-year-old me is referred to as being ‘very disturbed’, ‘not liking my father’ and wanting him ‘out of the house’. It is absurd that this is even noteworthy – or that it is noteworthy, but no further explanation is required. ‘Dr’ Ryan suspects this is a plot on my part. Imagine being 15 and wanting a rapist out of your family home in order to protect yourself and the other children in the family! Clearly quite the little plotter. I was the only person prepared to do anything to address the situation. That should not have been my job. Please also note that I am vilified for disclosing that I was suicidal (line 24). Please also note that, even though the Gardaí were referred to – though I still have no idea how they were expected to ‘control the family’ – they were never contacted by anyone about this abuse until I knocked into my local station when I was 18.

But let me go back to the ‘psychiatrist’ involved – the woman who was supposed to have my welfare at heart. Bear in mind, I was between the ages of 14 and 16 when I was attending St Louise’s Unit. Bear in mind that it was confirmed I was being sexually abused (or, in today’s parlance, my allegations were ‘founded’) . Yet, here is a sample of things that she said about this very scared, very vulnerable teenager:

‘Hazel is “seeking attention”, and has on more than one occasion, cut her wrists’. (Letter dated (05.12.1989). Could you imagine the audacity of a suicidal teenager trying to kill herself. Clearly, still plotting!

Perhaps even more disturbing, however is this gem:

Actually, it's called rape

I’m particularly disturbed by the use of the term ‘sexual intercourse’. Even in the 1980s, ‘sexual intercourse’ with a child was called rape. I would expect a professional, in a letter to other professionals, to use correct terminology. Maybe I expect too much.

I have reams of documents recovered from the HSE and St. Louise’s Unit, but I won’t bore you by reproducing them all here – I think you get the gist.

Of course, I am the first to admit that I am no spring chicken and these documents date from the late 1980s and early 1990s. BUT the system is still the same – actually, you could even argue that it’s a bit worse because ‘self-referrals’ like mine was, are no longer accepted by these units. Imelda Ryan was the director of this unit until a few years ago (2016 if my memory serves me correctly) when she retired. The culture that she inculcated is still very much alive and well in the Unit. In fact, this disdain for victims is evident in almost every single service that is meant to care for us.

The problem is the system, and the culture that supports it. It would not be easy to overhaul the system: There would be huge resistance, and we’d have to change the culture in which we live and operate. But that’s not really the Irish way, is it? We’ll continue, instead, to wring our hands with bone-crunching intensity and cry at the funerals of our friends. Friends whose deaths were entirely preventable if only we had competent people in positions of power. Or even people who cared.

Silence is Fools’ Gold

fools-gold

I’m still thinking about the Safe World Summit that I attended last week. More than thinking, I’m processing. The two days were definitely more than the sum of their parts.

After my last post a number of people contacted me to ask why I hadn’t told Nigel’s wife and Cormac’s wife that they were married to rapists. The truth is, that I did. The truth is, that they know. The truth is, that they don’t care. The truth is, that (cliché of clichés!) my brothers married their mother: They married women who would be compliant, who would put their husbands ahead of all others including their own children. They married women who would be more concerned about what the neighbours would say than with providing protection to their children. They married women who would keep their secrets.

Back in 2010, I told Cormac’s wife, Orna, that Nigel had sexually abused me. I was building up to full disclosure, telling her about her brother-in-law before telling her about her husband (whose abuse was more sadistic, and went on for longer). She had no difficulty in believing me. She even went as far as to say that it ‘made sense’. When, however, she found out that Cormac – her own husband – had also raped me for years, and that I was suing both of them, she sided with the abusers, instead of the abused.

The truth is, that while they have no difficulty with the fact that they have married misogynistic rapists, they have a difficulty with the rest of the world knowing. As long as the information was kept within the family – as long as I observed that peculiar Irish form of omerta – they were happy enough. When I started to speak out publicly, however, when I started legal civil proceedings against the brothers who had raped me, their tune changed. Bear in mind, that Anita and Orna had not spoken to each other since December of 2004.  Yet, when I started talking more and more publicly, about the abuse I had suffered at their husbands’ hands, these women rekindled their relationship and united to fight the truth.

 

Think about that for a second: Two women, married to two men, each of whom has had two children for these men, bonded over the fact that their husbands had raped the same child.  Two women who would rather live with two men who have no remorse for their abusive behaviour, than leave them. You’d have to ask yourself why.  Both men are wealthy. Both women signed pre-nuptial agreements. I don’t think that’s the only reason, though, I think there’s more to it than that.

 

I’ve written this post on foot of a challenge issued by Insia Dariwala at the Safe World Summit last week. She told us that each of us – by being silent – is complicit in the continued sexual abuse of children. This statement made me very uneasy. What was I doing to maintain the silence? What was I doing to contribute to allowing other children to be abused in the ways I had been abused? Insia Dariwala’s challenge, then, was to break our silence.

 

I have risen to that challenge. I will continue to do so.

Forgiveness (Part One)

forgiveness-332x263

Forgiveness is something I’ve been giving a lot of thought to – specifically with regard to sexual abuse, sexual assault, and rape. Forgiveness seems to be something that is as good – if not better – for the forgiver as for the forgivee.

The way forgiveness is generally talked about, it appears as if forgiving confers on the forgiver a deed to a piece of land high up on the moral ground. Forgivers are seen as morally superior, somehow. ‘Good’ people forgive. ‘Bad’ people don’t. This puts the onus back on the transgressed to do the right thing; to fix the situation. We are urged to ‘let it go’ to ‘move on’, to ‘let bygones be bygones’ to ‘be the bigger person’.

But is it really better for the person of whom forgiveness is expected to actually give that forgiveness? Is forgiveness the same as saying that whatever happened doesn’t matter? Or it doesn’t matter any more?

We’re told that holding on to the anger just hurts the transgressed – it does nothing to the transgressor.  But are anger and a lack of forgiveness, and / or a refusal to forgive, the same thing?

I think the notion of forgiveness as the ‘right’ thing to do comes from religious traditions; specifically the Abrahamic religions. The idea of turning the other cheek (so that can be slapped, too), of giving your coat to someone who is suing you for your shirt is the ‘right’ thing to do; the ‘better’, the more noble thing to do. The morally superior thing to do.

I would contend that the only person you have to forgive is yourself. You don’t have to ‘forgive’ the person who hurt you, you don’t owe them anything. You do, however, owe yourself your best life. The only person you need to forgive in life is yourself. Really. You are the only person you ever have to forgive for anything. What could a person who survived child sexual abuse possibly have to forgive themselves for? We need to forgive ourselves for believing the lies we were told. We need to forgive ourselves for believing we were worth nothing. We need to forgive ourselves for hating ourselves; for turning the tyranny inwards. We need to forgive ourselves for being hard on ourselves, for expecting more of ourselves than it was possible to give or be. We need to forgive ourselves for the frustration that brings. We need to forgive ourselves for trying to love the people who were abusing us. We need to forgive ourselves for the denial of the damage that was done to us.

Other people, I feel need to ‘earn’ forgiveness. I think that can only happen when the transgressor is remorseful. There is a dyad involved here, and in order for the exercise to be effective, each must play their part. There’s also the fact that people who do not experience remorse will transgress again, simply because they do not believe that there is anything wrong with their behaviour.

What we’re looking for is peace – peace inside ourselves so that we can move forward and live our best lives, without the wrongs done to us tormenting us. Or continuing to torment us. We don’t need to forgive – in the accepted sense – in order to manifest that peace.

 

More about that in my next post.

Erroneous Beliefs About Survivors of CSA

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There are a number of erroneous beliefs – otherwise known as myths – with regard to survivors of child sexual abuse. I’m going to take a look at a handful of them here.

Myth: Male victims of abuse will ‘grow up’ to become abusers themselves.

Unfortunately, this myth is so widespread that men who are abused worry they will, in turn, abuse children. Just like everyone else, however, abused people know right from wrong, and we are aware of the concept of personal responsibility. If someone who was abused chooses to abuse another person, in the full knowledge that what they are doing is wrong – that is their choice, their decision, and they must be held responsible for it.

Myth: Boys are rarely abused unless they are ‘weak’ or ‘effeminate’.

This is another harmful myth, and it can serve to gag boys who don’t want to disclose their abuse for fear of being thought of as ‘less than’ real men. While it is true that more girls are sexually abused than boys, the fact that they were abused does not reflect badly on them. Abuse only reflects badly on the abuser and those who stood by and did nothing to stop the abuse from happening.

Myth: People claim to have been sexually abused because they are looking for attention and want pity. 

Fewer than 2% of people of people who claim to have been sexually abused were not. It is far more likely that people who were abused deny, or never disclose the fact. Many (most?) victims of sexual abuse minimise the effects of the abuse on them.

Myth: Children are resilient and if people remember childhood abuse, they will get over it quickly. 

All people – not just children – are resilient, but this should not be used as an excuse to harm children. The truth is that the damage done by childhood sexual abuse cannot be undone. Victims can be helped, they can be taught coping strategies, they can learn that the abuse was not their fault, but there is little to suggest that they ever completely ‘get over’ what happened. Much less that they do so quickly.

Myth: If there is no violence involved, then it’s not really abuse.

All abuse is violent. Just because there are no bruises or tears on the skin does not mean that abuse has not taken place. The most painful of bruises are the invisible ones. Abuse takes place when informed consent is not given. Abuse occurs when an older person asserts power over a child. Abuse occurs when a child is treated as an object, rather than a person deserving of respect.

 

Children First? Don’t Hold Your Breath.

Yesterday, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs was delighted to announce the publication of the Children First Bill.

There was much self-congratulation as Minister Frances Fitzgerald and her department tried to tell us how this would make life so much easier for children in Ireland.

Well…..I’m calling bullshit.

The new act is a toothless instrument of the law. It’s all very well to say that reporting is mandatory; but if there are no sanctions against those who choose not to report, then what good is such a mandate?

I would suggest that a change in the culture is what’s needed before we can hope for a law that actually makes a difference. Naively, you might question what kind of person would choose not to report a crime of abuse against a child? Surely, if a person- particularly a person in authority – knows (or even suspects) that  a child is being abused, that person would report it? Even without a law dictating that they should? You might think that, but I recently got sight of documents which blow that theory right out of the water.

I do think those involved should be named and shamed – but have been advised against so doing for the time being. (Patience was never my strong point. This is a hard lesson for me).

Without naming names, then, let me give you the broadstrokes:

In the early 1990s, a woman (let’s call her Deirdre, because that’s not her name) was in her mid-teens. She was being treated at a centre for the effects of sexual abuse. During this time, the psychiatrist under whose care she was (lets call her Dr C), asked Deirdre if she was still being sexually abused. Deirdre revealed that her father was still sexually abusing her.

What did this doctor do? Did she call the Gardai? No. What? Not even anonymously? No. What she did was seek a meeting with the paedophile in question. At this meeting (documented by the doctor herself), she confronted him with the information she had regarding the allegations Deirdre had made. Did he deny abusing her? No. Sure why would he? What he did, instead, was tell Dr C that ‘there (was) nothing sexual’ about his sexual abuse of this child. Instead, he averred, he was doing it ‘to comfort’ her because he was aware she had been sexually abused by other people as well. Doctor C’s response? She told him to ‘be more sensitive’.

I mean, seriously, what does that amount to? Isn’t that the same as saying ‘Rape her more gently’?!

Of course, you can say that this is a case of historic abuse, and no one would behave in such a way in this day and age. If you did say that, I would like to agree with you.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t. When these documents surfaced (as the result of an FOI request Deirdre made), Deirdre met with a representative of the centre where she had been ‘treated’ (Dr C was on holiday – though she still works in the centre).  Dr C’s colleague confirmed that, were the same set of circumstances to arrive in front of Dr C today, she would act in precisely the same way because that is the policy of the centre. To do otherwise would be a ‘breach of confidentiality’.

What does this tell you? It tells me what I already know:  Children don’t come first in this country. We do not have a culture (yet) that puts children at the top of the pile. We do not have a society that cherishes, protects and loves its children. Every time I say that, people (women, usually) respond indignantly telling me how much they love their children. Sure, individuals among us may cherish our own personal children – but what about the snotty child at the end of the road, whose parents are drug addicts? Do you love that child? Really? Would you step in to help that child if he or she were being hurt? Would you? Would you really?

We, in Ireland, do not have a culture that views children as precious. We really don’t.

No law will make any difference if there are no sanctions against those who do not obey it. It is ludicrous to suggest otherwise. And, unfortunately, no law will make any difference if the cultural attitudes of the nation enacting it are not in-step with the letter and the spirit of that law.