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.

Uninvited Women

The Uninvited Women.png

Today – International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women – marked the publication of the first edition of the Uninvited Women Journal. I was thrilled to have a piece in it, which is reproduced below. The other contributions were written by inspiring women from diverse backgrounds and cultures. I encourage you to follow the link above, and read their stories.

VICTIM BLAMING, SHAME, AND MALE ENTITLEMENT: HOW THEY CONTRIBUTE TO A RAPE CULTURE IN IRELAND.

Like any culture, rape culture is a collection of elements. Three of these elements are victim blaming, male entitlement, and shame. The latter foisted on the shoulders of the victim, not the perpetrator. Victim blaming occurs when individuals blame elements of the victim’s behaviour to hold the victim at least partially responsible for their own assaults. It is often maintained by strong religious ideology. Shame, as an emotion, is socially constructed, and intertwined with disgust: The origins of disgust can be traced back to when our cave sisters and brothers rejected toxic foods because they triggered a sense of disgust. As human beings became more sophisticated, we projected our sense of disgust at certain actions and behaviours onto the actors of those actions and behaviours – creating shame within them.

Shame, then, has become linked to the idea of ‘normality’ and ‘acceptability’. I believe we need a cultural sea of change so that the disgust we feel at crimes of sexual violence is directed towards the perpetrators, rather than their victims.

Male Entitlement. Entitlement is an unhealthy personality trait that can lead to greed, aggression, a lack of forgiveness, hostility, and deceit. This sense of entitlement may lead individuals to believe that they deserve sex when they want it, without considering the wants and needs of the other person. When entitled individuals do not receive what they want, they may become hostile or violent: Higher rates of self-reported sexual aggression have been found among college males who also reported a higher sense of entitlement.

THE IRISH CONTEXT

I have three words that explain – to a large extent – how victim blaming, shame, and male entitlement manifest in an Irish context. Those three words are Roman, Catholic, and Church. The rise in religiosity in Ireland can be traced back to what the colonising English called ‘The Famine’, and the Irish refer to as An Gorta Mór 1 , when English parliamentary commissions indicated that the ‘civilising of Irish society depended on giving more power to the Catholic Church’.

1 ‘THE GREAT HUNGER’

The population of Ireland was thirded by starvation and emigration as a result of An Gorta Mór. Those who remained developed strategies to ward off similar catastrophes. These included religion, education, and culture, which the Roman Catholic Church took ownership of. I think it’s safe to say that there is a strong religious ideology in Ireland. Regular mass attendance is down, but people still do their hatching, matching, and dispatching in churches; and most children are still forced through three sacraments before they start secondary school.

Shame itself is constructed in Irish society with reference to Roman Catholicism. But there’s also a peculiar Irish complexion to shame that doesn’t cast equally on men and women. Women’s bodies are policed, their actions, educations, and possibilities, are mediated by peculiarly Irish social norms. Catholic notions of sexual morality proved to be especially oppressive for Irish women, who were told their bodies were shameful – but, apart from that, they were not discussed. It was not uncommon in 1950s Ireland for women to marry without basic reproductive knowledge.

Male entitlement in Irish culture is underpinned by our patriarchal, hierarchical, paternalistic norms, which favour men. Economics, social policy, and law, all reflect, and are reinforced by, dominant ideologies, constructed by men. The structures they underpin are patriarchal. Sometimes, these structures have with a paternal gloss to intimate a protection of women and children, but which undermines, and limits, women’s agency. Women are only considered in their proximity to, and relationships with, men; and our differences are seen as aberrations from a male norm.

 

The Lack of Provision for the Special Educational Needs of Children of Gifted Intelligence in the Republic of Ireland is a Breach of their Human Rights.

 

pexels-photo-256541.jpeg

I know, I know, it’s a mouthful.

It’s also the title of a paper I presented at the SLSA (Socio-Legal Studies Association) Conference in Lancaster in 2016. If you want to read it (with the added bonus of my slides attached!), you can do so here. 

Savage That There’s No Funding for SAVI

savi-report1.jpg

The Irish Government has said that there isn’t enough money in the coffers for a new SAVI report. The last one was produced in 2002.

A new SAVI Report is vital in order to get an idea of the current beliefs, attitudes, and – crucially – experiences of men and women in Ireland. Significantly for me, my eldest daughter was born in 2002, which means it’s very easy for me to remember that year. It’s not just nearly 16 years ago, it is a very real year for me. It means I can easily pinpoint 2002 in my memory, and compare and contrast now with then.

I am aware of how much technology has changed since then; how simultaneously enabling and disabling it is. I am aware of how much our attitudes towards sex and sexuality have changed since that year. I am aware that people are more aware, and more articulate around, sex, sexuality, and their sexual experiences now than they were then. I am aware that people who were young children in 2002 are now fully-grown adults. I am also aware that people who were young children in 2002, and who were being abused then, are now fully-grown adults who may, or may not, have ever had the opportunity to disclose and discuss their experiences. We need to capture this data.

We need to capture this data in order to inform policy, practice, and funding for people and services who care for those of us who are affected by sexual assault and abuse. We need to be visible and vocal about the fact that we are gathering this data so the people who are directly affected by it feel, and are, heard.

To commission a new SAVI Report would cost approximately €1m. The government has claimed they don’t have the budget. They do, however, have €64m for Irish Racing; they also have €16 for greyhound racing; they found an extra €500,000 for National Parks; and, of course, Leo the Liar easily found €5m for his own spin doctors

All of that tells us that sexually abused and assaulted children, women, and men in Ireland are worth less to this government than racing horses, bloodsports, trees, and Leo’s own personal public relations unit.  As if our self-esteem hadn’t taken enough of a battering already.

 

 

More on Poverty & Education

My piece yesterday on education and poverty struck a nerve with many of you. I received a slew of messages here, on Facebook, on Twitter, and on my phone, from women who found themselves in similar situations. Women who tried desperately hard to educate their way out of poverty. Women who tried to grab life by the scruff of the neck and gain an education for themselves so they could lift their families out of poverty.

Some of us end up pursuing more than one degree in an effort to improve our circumstances. Unfortunately, in Ireland, if you want to pursue a second degree that is not higher on the NFQ than one you already have, you will not receive state funding. That means that if you find the MA you have isn’t enough to secure employment – and you can’t, for whatever reason, pursue a PhD – you will have to self-fund. This is what I ended up doing. My intention was to use the money from a settlement for sexual abuse to pay my fees (and for the therapy I need as a result of the abuse to keep me mentally healthy).  The problem is that one of the brothers who raped and otherwise sexually abused me decided not to honour the settlement. In desperation, I launched a Go Fund Me campaign explicitly, exclusively and entirely to ensure that I stay fit enough to parent, and that I can finish my degree and graduate.  And, then, maybe – just maybe – get a job somewhere. Anywhere.

It struck me earlier today how gendered this all is. The men walk away from their financial obligations, and abuse the children they have decided not to support. They further abuse the women to whom they don’t pay child support because they know that (most) mothers will go hungry before they allow their child/ren to suffer.

The structures of our society and our legal system are patriarchal and allow men who do not wish to support their children, to walk away from their obligations. The women who are then responsible for every aspect of raising the children are then vilified by the society that does not men to account. This, in turn, enforces the belief that many of these men (and, to be honest, I am thinking of specific men; not necessarily men in general) hold; that women deserve to be abused. That women who stand up to the men who bully them need (in my ex-husband’s words) ‘to be taught a lesson’.

Even before I became a mother, I knew one thing; no woman creates a child on her own. Not even those who have virgin births or those who claim impregnation by entity. To continue to promulgate the myths around mothers who are forced to raise their children on their own shifts the focus from those who are doing nothing for their families to those who are doing everything they can for their families. Those who are doing all they can to make their lives, their children’s lives and, therefore society better.  Ironically, we are frustrated by the very society we are trying to improve as we are trying to improve it.

Ireland may no longer lock up lone mothers and sell their babies, but it has a long way to go before it can become in any way congratulatory over the way it does treat them.

 

 

Educated Poverty

Pic of Student Card number erased

Yesterday, I read this piece in the Journal. I didn’t write it – but I could have.

Those of us who parent alone – and the vast majority of us are female – experience the highest rates of deprivation: Nearly 60% of those in single-parent households live with the lack of basic necessities. And, according to the CSO, more than half a million people live in one parent families. That’s a lot of lack.

Like many poor people, lone parents are blamed for their circumstances and for their poverty. In spite of the fact that many women are married, or in stable relationships when they have their children, they are judged as feckless ‘young wans’ whose only desire is to ‘sponge off the state’. May of the comments on the piece I’ve linked to above demonstrate this. One of the things that bothers me about nasty comments and judgements aimed at single mothers is the fact that those who deride them are picking on the wrong parent. They are picking on the parent who is actually parenting. They are picking on the parent who didn’t abandon their child. They are picking on the parent who is doing their best, in spite of the odds, which are stacked against them.

For the longest time, the accepted narrative is that the only way out of poverty is education. Sadly, that’s only half the story. As a woman who has been parenting on my own in Ireland for nearly 12 years, I have direct, personal experience of this. I returned to education when my eldest was 3.5 years old, and my youngest was just 16 months old. Four years later and I was able to put the letters BA (Hons) after my name. Now I had a degree, I was sure I’d find (or make) work for myself.

Sadly, I was wrong. I graduated in 2009, when the Celtic Tiger was in its death throes. Few places were hiring. Even fewer were hiring new graduates. Even fewer would even acknowledge an application from a single parent of two young children. After a year of trying to secure gainful employment (and giving many, many hours for free to NGOs and charities and publications), I returned to education. In 2012, I added ‘MA’ to those letters after my name. Now, surely, someone would hire me.

Again, I was wrong in thinking that I would be offered a job by a company in Ireland. To add insult to injury, several of those employers who deigned to employ me had no difficulty accepting my services for free before they had ‘openings’ for which I applied. Repeatedly, when applying for jobs I was already doing for NGOs and other agencies for whom I had done volunteer work, I was told that I lacked the ‘law piece’. So I applied, and was accepted, to the Law School at Queen’s University in Belfast.

In between finishing my MA and starting my LLM, I was accepted on to a PhD programme at Trinity College, Dublin. I did the first year ‘off books’ (a term meaning that – while I was studying – I hadn’t paid fees, so I wasn’t technically registered, and my access to certain things was restricted). When it came time to start my second year at Trinity, I simply couldn’t do it. I couldn’t commit my kids to another three years of poverty. I opted to go to Queen’s instead, thinking that I was better off to spend a year studying intensely and get myself a degree at the end of it, than spend a year studying intensely and still only be part way through a degree. Even if that degree was a PhD. So far, the idea that a primary degree and two Master’s degrees will open up employment opportunities has proved unfounded – but I live in hope (because, frankly, I have little else).

Tertiary education, to me, means being hungry. I don’t mean that metaphorically, I mean it literally. When I’m studying, I can’t afford to eat three meals a day. So I don’t. I drink a lot of coffee (that I bring from home), and insist that it’s all in a good cause. And anyway, I can afford to lose a few kilos. Plus, I’ll get a job at the end of it, I tell myself on the days and nights when the gnawing in my stomach distracts me from the words on the page. That last, so far, has proved to be a lie.

No matter how highly educated you are in Ireland, you can’t be sure you’ll get a job. I think part of the reason for that is a lack of ability on the part of Irish employers to recognise, and understand, the value of transferable skills. The idea that the skills single mothers use on a daily basis – financial juggling, multi-tasking, fire-fighting, negotiating, prioritising, communicating with government departments, healthcare, etc. etc. – are useful in the workplace, completely escapes Irish employers. There is also a reluctance to acknowledge that people can retrain, change direction, and bring their previous experience with them. The Irish way is that you have a box that you have been put in, and you must stay in that box forever. Especially if you are a woman. And most especially if you are a woman raising children on your own.

Education, on its own, won’t help lone parents lift themselves out of poverty. It’s a start – but it’s not the complete solution. We need access to jobs once we’ve graduated – and access to quality childcare, and employers who understand that we are no less committed to our jobs than our childfree colleagues. In short, we need support from the state and the society we’re living in. We need the opportunity to put our expensive educations to good use.

 

The End of the LPA

Today, like thousands of other parents – primarily other mothers – I lost my lone parent’s allowance. Well, that’s not strictly true; I didn’t lose it – it was taken from me. That money is the only guaranteed income for my children and I. It is all I have to count on and now it’s gone.

Minister Joan Burton – who has taken this money from me and those like me – either has no idea what she’s done, or she doesn’t care. She is throwing thousands of families into further uncertainty and worry. We’re already poor, and bearing the stigma that goes with that (particularly in Irish society), now we’re further stigmatised because any notion that we should be allowed to choose to stay at home with our children has been completely removed from us; the idea that there is something dignified about raising your children has been dismissed by the Minister for Social Protection (a misnomer if ever I read one!).

This removal of the LPA is a cynical move by this government. It implies that those of us who are living on the grand sum of €181, plus €33 for each dependent child, are content on that amount of money and make no true or meaningful effort to enter or obtain paid employment. Apart from anything else, I find that implication hugely offensive. I do not know one person who is content to live on €181 per week and raise a child on an allowance of €33. How can any child be fed, clothed, shod and educated on that amount?

Actually, it’s a misstatement to talk of ‘living’ on LPA. You can’t live on that amount, you can merely try to exist. Worry and fear and shame and failure sit inside you, mingling and curdling and paralysing you. The obvious effects of a constant, chronic lack of money – otherwise knows as consistent poverty – are things like essential bills going unpaid: Of your light, heat and home being at risk of being taken from you; of being unable to buy enough nourishing food for your family, of being unable to buy clothes for your children or yourself.  Long-term poverty means more than that. It brings social isolation for you and your child/ren. You can’t throw a birthday party for your child if you can’t afford it. You can’t send your child to a party without a gift for the birthday boy or girl, so more often than not your child has to refuse invitations. You can’t go to the movies, buy books, or enjoy a night out anywhere without funds. You can’t even go for a nice drive in the country and enjoy a picnic if you can’t afford the petrol or the bus-fare to do so. You can’t get the extra educational supports your children need if you can’t afford them.

In her wisdom, Minister Joan Bruton has decided that it would be far better for me and my family if I had a job. I have to say I agree with her. A job would not only bring income, it would bring social engagement, it would bring an increase in self-esteem, and it would bring hope – the hope that dreams could come true for me and my girls. But her suggestion that taking our only source of income away from us will somehow prompt and prod me to get a job is repugnant. As if I – or any lone parent – needs to be forced into work! The sad truth is that we would happily if there were work available with childcare options that would mean our children would be properly cared for in our absence. Every woman I know who is raising children alone would love an income – we are currently trying everything we can, running little businesses from home, educating ourselves so we’re better equipped and skilled for the workforce and many of us are wishing we could afford to emigrate.

The myth of the social welfare cheat and the single mother who is a feckless young wan spreading her legs for  any young fella who comes along so she can get a free house and live high on the hog is tiresome. But it’s easy to believe by those who want someone to blame for their increased income tax – a bit like people who still refuse to relinquish their belief that the MMR vaccine creates autism.

Taking Lone Parent Allowance away from parents who are raising children on their own is punishing the parent who stayed. It is punishing the parent who didn’t walk away from their child. It is punishing the parent who is trying their best. It is punishing the parent who has faced up to her (or, in the small minority of cases, his) responsibilities. It is punishing the parent who who is prepared to parent.

Our government should know better – and be better – than that.