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.

Failure?

Failing-is-not-always-failure.

I haven’t been thinking about failure as much as I used to. I used to wake up every morning, and feel paralysed by – among other things – a sense of failure. I felt I’d failed my children by not giving them a better life.  I spent literally hours beating myself up for failing them. I felt they deserved more. Here’s a partial list of what I felt they deserved (and that I wasn’t giving them):

  • A better life. I couldn’t quite define what that ‘better life’ might look like, but I was sure it wasn’t the one they were living.
  • A country other than Ireland to live in. I had a horrible childhood in Ireland. I wanted better for my children. I felt awfully guilty for bringing them (under duress, but still) to Ireland instead of staying in Asia.
  • A bigger house. We could do with at least one extra room – I dream of a library / study / creative area. And bigger rooms. I’d like them to have bigger bedrooms. Preferably in the city centre. (Hey, if you’re going to beat yourself up – you might as well use the heaviest stick you can find!)
  • An extended family that wasn’t filled with abusive people, so they could have safe relationships.

Then, one day, when I was apologising to them for their lack, they gently disabused me of my notion of failure. You see, I was measuring what I thought they wanted against what I wanted for them, and believing I was right.  I was wrong. Dismantling my list above, the girls made the following points:

  • In much the same way as I was vague about what their ‘better’ life might look like, they couldn’t describe it, either. They are happy.
  • They actually like living in Ireland. This seemed like such an absurd idea, that it never occurred to me as a possibility. Their experiences are not mine – they are not living a duplication of my life, just because they are living in the same geographical area.  They have spent enough time in Asia to tell me that they don’t want to live there. They like visiting well enough, but they see Asia as ‘my’ place, rather than theirs (even though they are the ones with Indian blood!)
  • ‘I love our house!’ they both exclaimed when I suggested they might not be delighted living here. More to the point, we are all very, very grateful to have a roof over our heads. Especially when there is a desperate housing crisis in Ireland at the moment, and one-parent families are disproportionately reflected in the homeless figures. I’ve been homeless, and it’s not fun. And, sure, there are houses we pass, and areas we pass through that we exclaim over and that allow us to imagine what it would be like to live there.  It’s nice to have dreams. You don’t, however, have to realise every single one of them.
  • As they have gotten older, I have told my children more and more about my own history, as it is appropriate for them to know it, and as they have been able to assume the information. They don’t want to have anything to do with the people who abuse me. They have plenty of wonderful people in their lives – a richly diverse gang of men, women, and children from all backgrounds who share their lives.

I was astonished. I hadn’t realised that the girls were, and are, quite content to live in Ireland. We travel enough that they have experienced other places and cultures and aren’t insular and parochial in their outlook. They have travelled enough to know that they love travelling, but – equally – they love returning to this house, in this village, in this country. Unlike their mother, my children have a sense of ‘home’,

 

I’ve also beaten myself up, on a regular basis, for appearing to fail in so many other ways. Most obvious, is my failure to perform as this patriarchal, capitalist society insists I must in order to be a ‘success’.

Recently, however, I have realised a few things. I can make a living and be aligned with my own values. Crucial to this realisation have been three people: Meg Kissack, Karen McAllister, and Prudence Moneypenny.  I’ve added these women – and the people they connect me with – to my team.

I’ve also realised that the only person I can truly ‘fail’ is myself. I fail myself by acting in ways that are not aligned with my purpose, my beliefs, and my values. I fail myself by trying to fit into a box that was never meant to contain me. I fail myself by denying what I bring to the party – by not acknowledging the value I can add to this world and the experiences of those who live in it.

Failing, I have realised, is not not doing everything by myself. Failing is not seeking and / or accepting help. Recognising true help can be tricky – often, I have found, the people who say they have your best interests at heart, really only have their own best interests at heart.

Finally, I have realised that part of my purpose may well be to allow others to do what they do best. That means accepting help that is offered if it supports me, and is aligned with my own beliefs and values.

If you feel you’re failing, I’d respectfully suggest that you’re really not.