This is a post by Sarah Phillimore
I recently posted about the particular dangers for parents of becoming engaged in ‘conspiracy theories’, defined as ‘a story that is based on limited real data and imagined data and blended into a coherent, emotionally satisfying version of reality’.
This prompted strong reactions from some commentators who pointed out that they had been victims of clear wrong doing from professionals, including deliberate falsifying of evidence. They understandably rejected the suggestion that their anger and pain resulting from such experiences was because they were promoting a conspiracy theory.
Some useful discussion followed and I accepted that it was true that a number of different things can be happening. Parents can make assumptions on limited or false data (or be encouraged by others to do so) and equally so can professionals. The dangers for parents are stark – they end up losing their children.
But what are the dangers for professionals of a false narrative?
A professional who tells him or herself a false ‘story’ about the family poses several clear and serious dangers. There is the danger of failing to abide by the law, of advocating a disproportionately harsh response to the families difficulties. There is the danger of causing serious emotional pain to the family by unwarranted interference.
And finally, there is a danger to the professional as a person; that he or she becomes insensitive to pain, lacking in compassion and hence with the potential to cause even more harm to families from insensitive or inappropriate interventions.
Two commentators, Angelo and Jason, spoke with eloquence about the reality of their pain and what professional intervention had done to their families.
Mothers dream of holding their babies no matter how big they have grown. Flashbacks, inventing narratives, daydreams and misery remain theirs for life. On the spiritual, mystic, unknown plains such as ESP, true or not, they can visualize and feel themselves in one another’s arms. Children may go home in their imaginations! Parents would lay down their lives for their children but that would be meaningless; they are forced to go on and on, repeating their narratives again until they get too old or succumb to madness. Children too! Then, if approached in that state by a SW, they will raise both arms in utter contempt and cry pitifully “ F— OFF”. This,i hope,describes how it feels to these parents when they are hung out to dry.
My “narratives” give me nightmares – I wouldn’t say they are self-protective. I have PTSD because of the horrible things that happened to me. In some ways I would like to find a way to think myself to blame, just so I could have that power back, but there was nothing I could have done, it wasn’t my fault. It was shocking to see how far people could get with their lies, but what hurt the most was the cover up.
The discussion that followed was interesting and illuminating for me (and I hope others). As always I am very grateful for those who take the time and trouble to comment on this site and to share their experiences. Because without these attempts to connect and to understand each other, the necessary debate about what is going wrong with our child protection system will remain polarised in unhelpful rhetoric; everyone will be the loser for it.
The discussion allowed me to articulate fully what I think is the problem – why do working relationships between parents and professionals get so toxic so quickly in many cases? I believe it is down to a lack of empathy and understanding. Between BOTH parents and professionals.
As I commented:
I think the problem is this. I don’t have an emotional horse in this race. So I will make comments that I accept some may find glib or upsetting or dismissive. Because I am not subject to the same overweening emotions and pain.
I think this is why the debate between the different perspectives on the system stalls. Because we react according to our narratives and belief structures, as I believe was the very point of this post initially.
Of course children don’t get adopted by force by ‘one mistake’ They get adopted by a series of incremental issues that build up, step by step until the course is set and it is very difficult to take another course.
Professionals in social work and child protection must not numb themselves against recognising the pain other human beings can suffer. But equally parents must remember that professionals in child protection systems often have to deal very frequently with very distressing situations.
It is easy to feel empathy for a child who is suffering, particularly a very young child who is completely dependent on adult care. It is much less easy to feel compassion for the angry, hurting parent who tells you to ‘fuck off’ or threatens you, who can’t or won’t keep their house clean, or meet their children’s basic needs.
It is easy for me to see how the professional’s goal becomes ‘rescuing’ that child from a situation of perceived harm.
I was recently tweeted details about a truly shocking case where in 2012 a father successfully convinced a court he had been a victim of false accusations that he shook his baby. Now he is on trial for her murder. This is the ultimate fear that lurks behind many social work interventions with families. If you get it wrong, a child may die. Not only must you carry the pain of what that child had to suffer but you also run the risk of vilification in the tabloids and losing your job and your reputation – as we saw so clearly and horribly in the media storm that followed the death of Peter Connelley.
Of course, parents murdering their children is a rare event. Most parents, with the right help and support at the right time, can look after their children well enough. In now nearly 17 years ‘on the job’ I have met only two parents who I thought were dangerous psychopaths, incapable of feeling love for their children.
But we have to understand what is the monster hiding in the shadows in each and every interaction between parents and professionals. Putting it bluntly – parents fear their children will be taken for no good reason, to feed Government targets for adoption. Social workers fear that parents will hurt their children and the blame will fall on the social worker who didn’t rescue that child in time.
What we all need is empathy.
I quote Brene Brown again:
It is important to note here that empathy is understanding what someone is feeling, not feeling it for them. If someone is feeling lonely, empathy doesn’t require us to feel lonely too, only to reach back into our own experience of loneliness so we can understand and connect. We can fake empathy, but when we do, it’s not healing or connecting. The pre-requisite for real empathy is compassion. We can only respond empathetically if we are willing to be present to someone’s pain. Empathy is the antidote to shame and it is the heart of connection.
And to remember it’s not an equal relationship
I have suggested that parents also need to try to understand where the professionals are coming from. But I don’t mean to suggest by this that each bears equal responsibility to be compassionate towards the other. Clearly, this is not an equal relationship and professionals hold most of the cards.
Therefore professionals have to remember that the pain and stress caused by their interventions cuts right to the heart of what makes us human. Parents are threatened with the loss or disruption of their relationship with their children. This is primal.
I have known loss, heartbreak and suffering. What human hasn’t? But my child lives with me. I have the privilege of watching her grow, imagining her future and the role I can play in it. I don’t have an emotional horse in this race. And the danger of that is that I may become indifferent or dismissive to those who do.
Re-Imagining Child Protection – Brid Featherstone, Susan White and Kate Morris.