(This is a Guest Post by Noel McDermott
Many Thanks to Noel for allowing me to reprint this )
Give The Fish or the Rod?
Having spent over a couple of decades in health and social care in the broadest sense and in a variety of guises I’ve been presented with the above question on more than one occasion: if someone is hungry is it better to give them a fish or to give them a fishing rod?
I’ve left an ambiguity in the title because giving them the rod in the context of this writing has another potential meaning. This writing is going to look at and ask us to think about the abuse of children.
A sense of the field
Most analysis in this field, child protection or more pertinently the lack of it focus on obscure technical points in regards to systems and structures; an example of this being the inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbie. Few outside of the events understand what the inquiry did. But I would pose this question, why not? Most adults have children, so why so few engaged in issues about protection of their children? Is it because most people don’t protect their children, or are secretly abusing them? Of course not!
The vast majority of people are protecting their children from abuse and harm day in day out and don’t even begin to frame what they do as protection.
I’d like to present professional questions in child protection as a moral choice. Presenting it as a moral choice asks us, will you choose to protect that child no matter what, will you eschew excuses and take responsibility when you fail a child? Ask most parents that question and you know what their answer will be. Into this category, ‘most parents’ I will add the professional parents known as foster carers. Although they are generally tasked with having more professional awareness of the work of parenting, on the whole they don’t let that professionalism get in the way of the kids they protect and nurture.
This writing will contend that we have professional child protection services in this country with little awareness that what they are doing is child protection. These are often referred to as the universal children’s services (schools, children’s centres, GP’s, health visitors etc.).
Additionally we have multi-disciplinary teams often referred to as child protection teams but they are in fact child abuse teams. It is the abuse agenda that gets the upper hand, not the protection.
One or two Axes…
As a child I was persistently, daily and severely abused by two parents who undoubtedly loved me and by siblings and I visited abuse on my siblings who I love. At the age of 14 yrs I chose pacifism as a way of dealing with the rage engendered by my childhood, identifying in Ghandi and Mandela figures heroically extravagant enough to contain my pain and fury and terror.
In my forties I live with and accept this, and then get on with my life. It is something I bear in mind to help me navigate; it is my stuff.
Like a lot of people who experience this sort of childhood trauma and live to tell the tale I have a heightened sense of justice and injustice around this stuff but I don’t often dine out on it. I do bear it in mind.
I am required to be rigorous in my thinking and practice in this field.
Another important concept here is soul as we have introduced the concept of morality, or rather what happens when another’s denied darkness surrounds a suffering child clouding moral choices; this means there is something more than the mere mortal, individual, egocentric at stake here.
Psychotherapists refer to our collectivism as the essence of our individualism, a necessary paradox in our development. In this collectivism could be placed an understanding our moral connectedness and a sense of the decay that happens to us all if we allow a darkness to prevail in the face of moral decisions.
That situations such as the sadistic death of for example baby Peters (the child killed by his carers in full view of Haringey’s child protection teams post Victoria Climbie and that technical and obscure enquiry by Laming) present us seemingly with an existential crisis is perhaps understandable: it seems beyond the comprehensible.
But actually it is accessible if one understands the role of mirrors in our development. For the primary carer of this unfortunate child and many like him it operated the wrong way round in their early years. He became the object of his carer’s lack of empathy and internalised brutality and sadism. His death a foregone conclusion whether that death be psychically or physically.
We then can reflect on how our existential ennui is excited by the situation. When did you do something to protect a child at risk is the question posed by a moral frame of reference. And also one posed by the request, look in the mirror first. Most parents and carers when switched on to this frame will be able to relatively easily answer that. They are doing it constantly.
Ask a professional child protector and often they will be hard pressed to find something they did that day, week, month, year that they can point to and say ‘that provided protection’. When they can see through the haze their answers are framed in a language so technical and disconnected from what they are talking about- vulnerable children being failed by vulnerable adults- that one can quickly loose grasp of reality.
Coming back to you and mirrors, when you look can you look at the darkness: your shame, self-hate, misshapenness, ugliness…? Can you take stock of what you are, not who you desire to be?
‘mirror mirror…who is the fairest of them all? The question asked by baby Peters torturers and asked of the child and if the response in any way suggested ‘not you’ then the mirror was cracked and eventually the mirror died. That’s what lies in store with certain forms of self delusion.
In this context I reflect upon the title of a book by Lenin, ‘Left wing communism, an infantile disorder’. Along with Ghandi and Mandela it made me think as a 14 year old about why I was learning how to destroy? I called myself a revolutionary and that sense of embracing and fostering change hasn’t changed but the identity that goes with it has.
But a split remained with me for some years because I could acknowledge that much of my motivation was quite literally an infantile disorder. But it was also a disorder spanning many generations of vengeance and primary splits; the conflict in Ireland. Working through the split has involved some soul searching: I think I found one.
Our inhumanity towards each other can be wrapped up in many different packages and a fight for freedom is just one of them, our capacity to be cruel and murderous to a child another. We can as Pontius did attempt to argue that it is for someone else to make a decision but in fact integration of these events requires integrity and integrity demands integration. A virtuous circle not a vicious cycle.
With a child when they gaze into the mirror that is the loving parent we would hope they see reflected back their capacity to become; this reflection adapting and moving with the internal movements of the self-centred infant, encouraging it to engage and grow and change.
Looking at the mirror that is us in the face of the cruelty and destruction by the carer of baby Peters, what did we reflect? What did you reflect?
What it is to be abused and live on
To navigate through this subject I am going to have to hold my bearings and be aware of the things that may distort my readings. This means I will have to talk about me and my experiences and through that try to draw some sense from the horrors of baby P and Victoria and the tens of thousands, millions of children that have been tortured, abused, neglected and murdered at the hands of their parents and carers in this country over the centuries.
There is a psychic death that is more than a mere mortal death around being abused and it is a profound sense of being alone and isolated. One of the difficulties of coming alive from it is the horror of realising just how much it happens. And more importantly, that we all know that it happens. It can shunt us back to our primitive defences.
It is difficult to come to terms with the shame of it all when it seems that the world is collusive, and then more difficult still when one becomes aware that there is in the world collusion.
That this sort of abuse has been happening since forever should be the most startling fact about it but it is in fact the saddest truth about it all; none of this is new and none of this is a surprise.
Yet we respond in a startled fashion every time it hits the news, ‘what children are abused, tortured and murdered by their parents we wail?’ Yes they are and it is happening right now as you hear these words, a child is screaming in terror or numbed by terror in to silence at this precise moment.
A child is also laughing and giggly and playing, right now. Well actually lots of them are.
It is in this context that the notion of morality coming in to play is startlingly honest and presents us with a stark reality. Are we willing to do what is right: not because of spurious arguments about the cost of not acting, legal obligations, professional boundaries and all the other guff that accumulates when people are trying to find excuses, but because it is the right thing to do?
In a remarkable scene in the film Aliens, a little child survivor of the slaughter of a colony of space explorers by monstrous aliens asks the heroine of the film why her mother told her there were no such things as monsters when there clearly are?
It is interesting to note that the monsters in the film, the Aliens of the title, are that strange phenomenon of a parasite that kills its host. Seen through the lens of child protection this is how we currently view child abuse and how we conceive of dealing with it.
It’s a horror film with monsters and kids and heroes and heroines and technology and high drama and so-on and so forth.
In actuality abuse is very far from this. It is the everyday phenomenon of a parasite that feeds endlessly on its host and passes itself down the generations: a symbiosis. Death can feel like it is a relief: an evacuation of the horror that is living.
The high profile cases of young children make good media copy but where would it all be in some years time when if baby Peters had lived and was not such good copy because he didn’t get the nourishing and sustaining services he needs to recover a little from his trauma, where would it be when he is in his twenties and lost in despair and forgotten? Where would it be when he is in his forties and a trail of broken relationships and abandoned and almost certainly abused children in his wake?
That would probably have been his trajectory; and if not his it is that of most of the kids I worked with who have been abused and neglected unless they are given sustained care, love and support right into their early adulthood and indeed beyond.
Protecting children is not about abuse, it is about the opposite. But we have services we call child protection that won’t act until there is unequivocal evidence of abuse. Surely there is something wrong with that: how can we possibly be protecting children if the services we say are there to do that only do so if there is evidence of abuse, surely it’s too late at that point?
These services will tell you that they do ‘preventative’ work but in actuality it is at the bottom of the pile of emergencies and disasters they deal with on a daily basis.
This then brings us to an Act of Parliament in 2004 that asserts: Every Child Matters. But that is in fact only true in a relatively random sort of way: the services that engage in what could be called child protection (the stuff that is the opposite of abusing kids) do so without the self knowledge on the whole that this is what they are really doing and also without the statutory framework that allows it to be called child protection: it gets called something like education, early years, nursery nursing and so-on.
The ‘child protection’ teams sit in offices that a child would rather been seen dead in. Mostly the children are only there because it is far, far too late.
Ask any child protection social worker if they know of any kids that walk into their offices to have some fun and they will look at you like you are mad; inside though they are probably in despair as mostly that is what they would like to happen, have kids turn up and have fun.
So why is this?
Here’s the creativity and a little bit of fun
We know where kids like to go, we know what they like to do, we know all about what makes them tick and we then construct services specifically tasked with protecting them from ‘significant harm’ (abuse) that terrify the pants off them and that they would not in a million years turn to for help, advice, support and certainly not protection.
We then engage in a witch hunt when the professionals placed in the middle of this awful farce do what is inevitably going to happen; fail. What other option is left to them?
If actions do indeed speak louder than words then what are we telling our kids about abuse and what are we in fact saying about the importance of protecting children from significant harm?
This then is when the moral darkness sets in.
It may or may not come as a surprise that there were times in my role as a social services manager that I would ask myself this question; what is the more honourable thing to do for the kids in my care?
Option one would be to blow the whistle and tell the world of the horrors inside. Option two is to stay inside and find those moments when you could provide some solace.
So those are the horns of this dilemma, which one would you, take?
1. The horn on the left, whistle blow,
2. The horn on the right, grit your teeth and work from inside?
How about option three: spot that the horns are attached to a bull and then chuck sand in its eyes?
So what does option three look like?
If we are going to protect children from significant harm then I would suggest that the best people to find out how to do that from are kids themselves. It worked for Plato; he endlessly went on about coming at a problem as though one were a child; why not the problem of protecting kids from abuse?
Could we construct that dialogue in a meaningful sense (and I believe we have and we have the evidence of their answers) it might lead to protection services that were the opposite of abuse; a world of colourful pictures, warm smiley adults, games and activities, learning, reasonable boundaries, child friendly toilets and so-on and so forth.
It in actuality is that simple.
No doubt the doubts crowd in about how abusers hide their abuse and complex webs of international child abductors are on the prowl looking for lone children. In fact the majority of significant harm (even using that extremely limited definition of abuse) happens in full view and without any shame on the part of the perpetrator or even without an eyelid being batted. It happens at home and is most often called love by the abuser.
What seems to shock people about Victoria and Peters is how the abuse happened in the full glare of everybody involved in their lives, but that is the norm not the exception.
The taboo that surrounds abuse in our culture is not the abuse itself but our societal collusion in it.
It’s relatively easy to point the finger at a child sexual predator and castigate them; we can all agree that it’s wrong. But the majority of abuse isn’t like that and we fail again and again to listen to our kids when they tell us that their lives hurt them, make them feel scared and lonely and bad about themselves.
There is clearly an argument for specific professional investigation of organised abuse for example, but most abuse is disorganised and chaotic.
Our responses to it need to be focussed on that truth and also the truth that the answers are under our noses, because they are shorter than most of us, they are kids. Get down to their level and give them a good listening to, a tickle, a story a cuddle.
That would be the place to start.
So what about the fish or the rod? Well both obviously.
(Copyright Noel McDermott 2011)
Noel McDermott has experience in health, social care and education since the mid 1980’s. This has included working at senior management level in social services and third sector social care provision. He qualified as a dramatherapist in the mid 1990’s is state registered and been practicing as additionally as psychotherapist and consultant since.