Image by Giovani Blank on flickr.com
Last night I went to bed seething over the ignorance and bigotry of Andrea Leadsom so publicly outed. I did what I am encouraged to do … I didn’t over-react and engage my mouth before putting my brain in gear. I slept on it. Well, slept is a gross exaggeration. I tossed and turned and tied myself up in a duvet.
My anger arises from my experience in working with children – hundreds of children. Children who have been damaged. Some damaged by the actions of their mother; some damaged by the actions of their father. Many damaged by similar ignorant, unfounded societal beliefs as those espoused by Andrea Leadsom – that men are inherently dangerous by virtue of their gender.
I awoke considering whether doubling the dose on my blood pressure medication was a good idea – but I came down on the side of therapeutic writing. Here goes …
Dear Ms Leadsom
I was extremely disappointed to read your comments in the press that employing men to work with children puts children at an increased risk of abuse. Sadly, I meet such ignorance on a daily basis. The misconception that men are inherently a danger to children permeates my work. I’d like to introduce you to some of the children I have worked with.
Jack is eight years old. He hasn’t seen his father for two years. Well, that’s not quite true. He has seen him – in the supermarket, at the football, driving around town. When he does see him, his mother encourages him to shout such niceties as “Fuck off you wanker” and to throw stones at his car. Jack’s mother has alleged that his father physically abused him and his siblings. She doesn’t just allege this, she tells her children this on a daily basis. She tells them that daddy doesn’t love them, that he can’t take care of them, that he abandoned them, that he hurt them. She tells everyone – the schools, the social workers, her friends and family, her GP. She posts it all over social media. Jack can’t recall his dad hurting him – but it must be true, because mum says so. And mum wouldn’t lie would she? And his dad isn’t around is he? It must be true. And he isn’t allowed to come to the school is he? So he must be a really nasty man. But Jack’s dad did not physically assault Jack. It is another year before Jack’s father is fully listened to. Another year before he is believed. Another year before Jack and his brother and sister are moved to his care because of the persistent, ongoing emotional abuse they have experienced in the care of their mother.
Then there is Elsa. Elsa is eight years old too. Elsa tells me she is sad, that she doesn’t have many friends. When I ask her about her father, Elsa becomes fearful and anxious. She tells me she hates her dad; she wishes he never existed. He hurt her when she was a tiny baby she tells me, he threw her down the stairs. Elsa doesn’t see her father very often. He left the family home four years ago and has been in the Family Court ever since trying to secure regular time with his three children; Elsa is the eldest. Elsa has seen her father just twelve times in the last four years. Their time together has always been supervised. Each time she sees him, Elsa’s mother quizzes her in the minutest detail. What has she eaten? Where has she been? What did she do? Who was there? Did daddy touch her? Where did he touch her? Did he put his hand down her knickers? In the past four years Elsa has been subject to four police and Social Services interviews to ascertain whether her father has sexually assaulted her. Each time her mother raises an allegation, Elsa is prevented from seeing her father. Elsa’s dad doesn’t know how much longer he can carry on going back to court. He is heavily in debt. He earns minimum wage and has racked up a legal bill of £35,000. He is scared to be alone with Elsa and her siblings now. He is scared to play with them. He asks his partner to change nappies. He is fearful every time he gives them a cuddle. He doesn’t know how much more he can take and he is fearful of the long term repercussions for his children.
Jackie is thirteen. Her attendance at school has plummeted – it is now below 75%. Jackie’s dad is concerned. On social media she is writing about her sexual activity, her sleeplessness, her referral to a psychiatrist, hearing voices, her paranoia, her lack of friends, her-self harm, her mother’s mental health, her alcohol and drug use, staying out all night. Jackie’s dad informs the school of his concerns. The school have concerns too. In fact, they have been holding meetings about it for the last six months. They didn’t include Jackie’s dad because Jackie’s mum told them there was a Court Order in place denying him contact. There isn’t. Jackie’s father contacted his daughter’s GP about his concerns. The GP refused to discuss Jackie with her father, he needs Jackie’s permission. Jackie’s permission is not forthcoming and her GP refuses to place any of her father’s concerns on Jackie’s records. Jackie’s father contacts Children’s Services. They investigate and agree that Jackie is a Child in Need. They don’t bother to communicate this to her father, they don’t keep him updated. Jackie and her father had a great relationship, but Jackie was not allowed to tell her mother that. She was not allowed to tell her about the things they did together. She was not allowed to talk about her father. Jackie’s mother often cancelled “contact” for no apparent reason. Jackie never stayed with her father overnight or spent a Christmas, birthday or Fathers’ day with her dad. Jackie never went to her paternal cousins’ birthdays or weddings. Jackie’s mother would not allow her father to telephone her, or her to telephone him. When Jackie got her first mobile phone, her father asked for her number so that he could call her and text her. Jackie refused – her mother had said “no.” That was two years ago, the last time her father saw Jackie.
Men are not an inherent risk to children, Ms Leadsom. The perpetuation of such a belief in society impacts on an objective assessment of evidence and allows the actual abuse of children to remain undetected and unchecked. The fact is SOME ADULTS present a danger to children – perhaps their own child, perhaps other children. This risk is not specific to the gender of the perpetrator of harmful or abusive behaviours.
Dr Sue Whitcombe
HCPC Registered Counselling Psychologist
I’ve struggled for some time with a wish to speak out, to raise awareness of the plight of the children with whom I work – not just in academic circles. These children are at risk from the response and the behaviours of their teachers, their doctors, their child minders, their social workers – the legal process. Far too often, there is a discriminatory response that mothers and women are less likely to be a danger to their child than their father is. This generalised, prejudicial belief puts individual children at risk; it causes psychological distress which can last a life-time.
Encouraged by the words of the Vice President of the BPS, Jamie Hacker Hughes, at the recent Division of Counselling Psychology conference, I am finding my voice. There is an inherent difficulty for me in how to speak out whilst maintaining the confidentiality essential in the work that I do. The vignettes above, are of course not individual children; they are composites of the hundreds of children I have worked with over recent years.
I’m not sure if writing this will have the personal therapeutic effect I hoped for when I stumbled, tired out of my bed this morning. If, however, this challenges the ill-informed, discriminatory and prejudicial views of the likes of Andrea Leadsom in some small way, I’ll take that as progress.