Hazel McHaffie

child abuse

To act or not to act

Remember last week I mentioned the cases of child abuse or mistreatment that go to court? That got me thinking.

I’ve been creeping uncomfortably close to this area in my current novel, Killing me Gently – the delicate relationship being built up in the early weeks and months following the birth of a new baby and mysterious things happening which perplex the professionals responsible for ensuring everyone’s safety. We know that some children can be very difficult to love; some appear to reject overtures of maternal affection; some parents struggle to bond with their child for assorted reasons; some parents actually harm and even kill their children. Cruelty and rejection can come in many guises (as I’ve had brought home to me recently in the experiences foster carer Cathy Glass recounts), but so sensitive and nuanced is this whole topic that primary care teams and social services can be unsure of how best to support such families, when to intervene, when indeed to remove the child from the biological family.

Perhaps it was this preoccupation in my writing life that reminded me of a recent news report that I filed away for reference purposes. At the beginning of August a serious case review found that professionals had missed a series of opportunities to save the life of a little girl, Elsie Scully-Hicks, in Cardiff. Pause for a moment and just look at that gorgeous little smiling face … And then take in the fact that this precious life was snuffed out before she even saw her second birthday.

Elsie had been placed with fitness instructor, Matthew Scully-Hicks, and his husband, Craig, at the age of 10 months, and following due process, formally adopted by them just two weeks before her death aged 18 months. The couple were described as well educated and articulate, and highly regarded by each of the involved agencies as good positive parents. They’d already successfully adopted an older child. Indeed, such was their standing that a catalogue of significant bruises and fractures were dismissed as normal childhood accidents (as Elsie’s adopted father alleged). There was indeed a conspicuous lack of professional curiosity about each of her many injuries.

In reality the stay-at-home dad was struggling with her care – he described her as ‘Satan in a babygro’. And when she was just 18 months old, he shook her so violently before throwing her to the floor, that he killed her. Last year he was jailed for life after being convicted of murder at Cardiff Crown Court.

The agencies concerned have promised to learn lessons from this review, but of course, nothing can bring little Elsie back. No one involved in this case will ever forget her. I rather suspect some professionals will never forgive themselves. I shudder to think what it’s like to live with these weighty responsibilities; just getting inside the skin of health visitors and social workers grappling with such judgements in my fictional world is more than enough for me – and I know the outcome! Pause for a moment and think of all those courageous people engaged in making these momentous decisions every day. And living with the consequences. I salute them.

, , , , , , , , ,

Comments

Understanding alternative lives

In my former life as a university researcher, I had the amazing privilege of delving deep into the lives of people grappling with major problems and dilemmas related to their medical care, understanding their responses, exploring their opinions. I sat for hours and hours (the record being five and a quarter at one sitting!) with parents who had faced the terrible ordeal of losing beloved babies. I spent days in a hospice devoted to the care of patients with full blown AIDS at the height of the HIV crisis, watching helplessly as young men wasted away and died agonising deaths. I’ve sat in wards and clinics variously with infertile couples, prostitutes, terrified new mothers. Not only has my life been enriched by all these encounters, but I like to hope I’ve become more insightful and empathetic as a result.

And I’ve taken that same kind of philosophy into my current work. With each new novel my eyes, ears and antennae are tuned to anything that will give me deeper awareness and understanding. Along the way I’ve met and listened to the experience and opinions and inner thinking of organ donors and recipients; people who’ve changed gender; families traumatised by illness, death and dementia; patients themselves suffering slow degenerative illnesses; campaigners struggling to achieve justice and equality for the disadvantaged and neglected. Humbling and revealing.

At the moment I’m trying to get inside the skin of families and individuals who struggle behind closed doors, where relationships are fraught. A surprisingly large number of books on my shelves take me inside those facades, and three in particular have made painful reading recently, opening my eyes to the horrors some children endure and sometimes transcend.

The Little Prisoner by Jane Elliott reveals the seventeen years of horrific abuse one girl suffered at the hands of her depraved stepfather. She spent her entire childhood in fear and dread, controlled by threat and violence. Even when she did eventually find the courage to report him, even when he was locked up, he still managed to wreak fearful retribution on her via his relatives. Writing about her life, she was obliged to use pseudonyms to avoid worse. And her mother – her biological MOTHER! – was complicit in all this.

Behind Closed Doors by Jenny Tomlin tells the story of a young girl who also endured appalling abuse – physical, emotional and sexual – at the hands of her sadistic and depraved father. Again, a significant family member in a position of trust. Again the biological mother knew and turned a blind eye. In Jenny’s case the child grew up in a filthy flat forced to witness her mother being beaten and raped on a daily basis, her young sisters being sexually abused, her whole family being humiliated and ostracised. And yet a strong resilient woman emerged from this chaos, determined to foster love and trust and decency in her own children (one of whom is the singer actress Martine McCutcheon).

I Choose to Live (mentioned last week) is an amazingly frank account of Belgian Sabine Dardenne’s life during her kidnap ordeal. Her abuser was not a parent, he was a stranger, but she endured the agonies of feeling she had been abandoned by her family, and her relationships afterwards were significantly altered by the experiences, distortions and reactions everyone suffered.

To an extent we’ve all been exposed to the fact of child abuse.  Most recently, simply hearing about the case of little Poppi Worthington, almost certainly sexually abused to death at the tender age of 13 months by her father, made the blood run cold. Evil of such magnitude, masquerading in an everyday disguise, is as hard to comprehend as that which leads dictators to massacre thousands in acts of ethnic cleansing. The images haunt our screens and thoughts – especially where the authorities can’t or don’t exact any form of justice. The chilling reality of these intimate tragedies is captured in these three books, revealed bravely by three women who endured such relentless nightmares. I felt hugely sad and sobered, despairing at times, simply listening to them.

Bullies can only operate when other people are too frightened, ashamed or embarrassed to talk about what is being done to them.‘ Jane Elliott

Evil is unspectacular and always human, and shares our bed and eats at our table. WH Auden

Will I have the courage and fortitude to see my own current novel to its end? Not that the subject matter is anything like as horrific as that described in these books, but any child suffering has the capacity to cut to the heart. Time will tell.

 

 

, , , , , , , , ,

Comments

Children in trouble

Eh dear, why did I decide to write about pathological parenting? It’s causing me a fair few troubled nights, I can tell you. I’m currently trying to get inside the skin of children … parents … professionals … involved in these disturbing situations. And boy, is it harrowing!i There’s a heavy cloud hanging over me just reading about these traumatic experiences.

With all this in mind I was instantly drawn to three novels by Susan Lewis which I discovered in a charity shop quite by chance on my way to a hospital appointment. I zipped through the first two chapters while I waited to be called.

I’ve always marvelled at the ability of social workers to bear the burden of troubled families where parents may not be the best people to look after their offspring. Deciding when that line is crossed, taking them away … dealing with criticism whichever way they go, threats, physical harm … I’m not made of that kind of courage and stamina, that’s for sure. So it was profoundly disturbing to walk alongside overworked and under-appreciated Alex Lake as she lurches from problem family to problem family in No Child of Mine.

Alex is a social worker, passionate about protecting children from those who mean them harm. In No Child of Mine, there’s a veritable A-Z of toxic situations: abandonment, alcoholism, broken relationships, desertion, drug addiction, Fabricated or Induced Illness by Carers, mental illness, murder, paedophilia, physical abuse, sexual violation …! Yoiks! How do social workers ever manage to switch off? How do they preserve professional barriers? If they don’t care, are they in the right job? If they do care, what price do they pay for emotional connection? How do they cope with being principal scapegoats for the press and public? If, on top of that, they carry the additional burden of an horrific history of their own, as Alex does, what then?

Challenging tales to say the least. Taut, sinister, intense. I wanted to wrap Alex herself up in a comfort blanket and smuggle her away to a safe place, never mind the children! Small wonder that Susan Lewis found this one of the hardest stories to tell (… caution there for me!). And we’re left wondering if the fragile solution at the end can possibly hold. Which is why the author chose to continue the story in a sequel: Don’t Let Me Go. Since both books are a door-stopping 580+ pages long, I guess it’s lucky for us she split the story into two parts!

By now Alex has reinvented herself as Charlotte Nicholls and moved to the other side of the world. Life in New Zealand in a new family helps to heal deep wounds, but then suddenly, dramatically, her entire world is blown apart. Do pure motives ever excuse illegal actions? Should a vulnerable child become a victim all over again just to ensure the paperwork is all shipshape? What price is too high in the search for justice? I was on tenterhooks to find out the fate of a terrified and traumatised four-year-old. How would she react to being ripped from the heart of a family who loved her so deeply? And handed to a series of strangers, strangers who held none of the keys to the doors that protected her from her own private hell? And how would the law deal with a professional who had knowingly flouted its diktats? I’m relieved that we got to hear how the situation was resolved, although it’s sobering to realise that neither Chloe/Ottilie nor Charlotte/Alex can ever erase the traumas of their early lives.

I might well quibble about some dubious elements of this story – there are issues with time frames and professional boundaries – but such is the compelling nature of the storyline that I found myself well able to suspend disbelief in order to focus on the underlying messages. And as a result I have even more respect for the brave souls who spend their lives working for the good of these vulnerable children, too often unseen and unsung – like our emergency services dealing with this terrible spate of atrocities and tragedies. And for authors like Susan Lewis who help us to understand in our hearts as well as our brains.

NB. The third book, Stolen, didn’t resonate in the same way and I found the story line too far fetched to be plausible. But since the subject matter is less relevant to my own character development or research, nothing lost there.

, , , , , , , , ,

Comments

Autobiography of abuse

It’s not often I review an autobiography on this blog but I’ve just finished reading one which forms part of my research for novel number 11 (working title Killing me Gently).

Since Altar Boy was published in 2003 the world has moved on, we know so much more now about child abuse, cover-ups, and human psychology. Who hasn’t heard of Jimmy Savile’s crimes now? Or the widespread abuse of children at the hands of priests, foster parents, sportsmen, politicians, celebrities? Indeed major inquiries are currently ongoing into these issues and regularly crop up in the news; police forces are stretched beyond capacity dealing with cases of sexual abuse alone. But I found it useful to nudge a little closer to the mind and heart of a child at the centre of such activities, a child subjected to the unwelcome attentions of a trusted or revered adult.

Altar Boy tells the story of Andrew Madden, an Irish lad whose burning ambition is to become a priest in the Roman Catholic Church. As an altar boy he has behind-the-scenes access to the life of a religious, and he’s thrilled when his favourite priest, Father Ivan Payne, takes a particular interest in him, singling him out for special responsibilities and privileges. But, when Andrew is 11/12 years old (his uncertainty), that support turns into sexual abuse, molestations occurring weekly and continuing over a period of three years.

For those who have never suffered in this way, it’s hard to understand why Andrew tolerated the situation for so long. Why didn’t he simply stay out of harm’s way? How could he continue to idolise his abuser? Why didn’t he tell someone? His explanation is at once disturbing and sad:

Unless you have been abused it may seem odd that I could not stop Father Payne for three years, but I just couldn’t. True, he was never violent and never threatened me but control comes in many forms. I was an altar boy and in my little world the Church was everything. Priests were the most important, respected and powerful people I knew. I was also sexually naive and totally innocent. All I could understand, especially in the early stages, was that what was going on was wrong and that despite myself I was in the middle of it. It took until I was almost doing my Inter before I could eventually get away.
And for most of those three years I spent a lot of time telling myself that nothing was really going on. Even on those Saturday afternoons I just concentrated on the television. I was so determined to keep the abuse from myself that there was no way I would have been capable of telling anyone else.
Being a paedophile, Father Payne would have known that. He would have known that my silence was not based on consent but on fear and shame. He would have known that I couldn’t tell anyone what he was doing. I wasn’t a child he’d abducted from the playground; I was part of his world. He gave me lifts in his car. He visited my home and had tea with my mother. He had me serving him on the altar as he said Mass for my family and neighbours. He knew he was safe. That is the nature of the child abuser.

The impact of what had happened goes on and on long after Father Payne has moved elsewhere. Andrew’s long-cherished dream to join the priesthood is thwarted. He loses direction, his life spiralling out of control. He seeks consolation in drink and casual relationships. He loses the capacity to have loving sex or to trust partners. He’s wracked by self-doubt, insecurity and a sense of worthlessness that several times drives him close to suicide.

At a time when my whole personality, my emotional, intellectual and sexual self, was developing, he made me think that sexual activity and sexual abuse are one and the same thing. As an adult it has been very difficult to undo that.

It takes an enormous effort and many false starts to finally win through. Years later Andrew finally finds the courage to confide in others the extent of his hurt and betrayal, to name his abuser, to challenge the Church. He becomes the first Irish victim of child abuse at the hands of a priest to go public. The texts of several significant letters written to and by various bishops and politicians are included in the appendix.

Candid, bleak, challenging, as his story is, Andrew’s own account is a triumph of hope and humanity emerging out of tragedy. This troubled and damaged young man demonstrates that victims don’t have to remain victims.

I’ve done something about it. I’ve turned it around.

Altar Boy is no literary masterpiece. Neither is it a text on the psychology of abuse. Nor even the most insightful of autobiographies. But it did remind me that adult wisdom and knowledge and hindsight can cloud our understanding of a child’s perspective. Even perhaps doubt and diminish the horror. A useful angle for my own current writing. It’s not comfortable creeping inside the skin of a character in such circumstances, but it’s what I need to do if I’m to capture the real essence of him and write with truth and authenticity.

, , , , , , , ,

Comments

April Jones and other children

WARNING. Today’s blog is wall-to-wall serious stuff. If you’re feeling a bit low or weepy probably best to leave it for another day. Apologies.

I’ve been much exercised this week by the abduction of little April Jones. You too? Five years old. Still missing. Said to have been murdered. As the police say, every parent’s worst nightmare. Made more poignant by the fact that she was allowed out later than usual to play as a treat because her parents had just had a glowing report of her progress at school.

Preoccupation with this tragedy has taken my thoughts to stories that have similarly gripped my attention in the past.

Since there’s a possibility I might – repeat might – one day write a novel about the deliberate harming of children, I’ve been collecting information on the subject for years. The file includes some harrowing stories, particularly those involving miscarriages of justice.

D’you remember the high profile cases of Sally Clark, Trupti Patel, Angela Cannings; all suspected of harming their own children; all later exonerated? And the scary discoveries that discredited the forensic evidence against them given by the renowned expert witness, Professor Sir Roy Meadows? They’re certainly engraved on my memory.

Try as we may to keep an open mind and reflect on all these cases involving children in a measured and reasoned way, inevitably media coverage influences reactions. Vulnerable youngsters suffering at the hands of those who should be their principal protectors and advocates … happy children being taken away by social services … innocent parents being accused of abuse … miscarriages of justice …  Stirs profound and troubling emotions, doesn’t it? And that’s from a safe distance. How do the wider families of these victims cope in such circumstances? How do they live with such knowledge, whether or not the accusations are true?

And then there’s the recent spate of cases where children have been found murdered by a parent – suffocated, stabbed, shot, burned, thrown. Beyond imagination.

But in the midst of all this stark reality in my file is a most unusual snippet relating to one of these incomprehensible crimes – something that impressed me greatly. It’s a letter that was reproduced in several newspapers a couple of months ago (in mid July), written by a grieving grandfather. This man’s son-in-law, Ceri Fuller, is believed to have driven his three children, Sam, 12, Rebecca, 8, and Charlotte, 7, to a secluded woodland 75 miles from their home, where he stabbed them to death before jumping 65ft to his own death. To date the motive remains unclear although salacious snippets of information have been offered as ammunition for speculators.

Whatever the rationale, whatever the turmoil in this man’s head, the fact remains that the mother, Ruth, and grandparents have lost three children in brutal circumstances. And yet Ruth’s father, Ron Tocknell, an artist and illustrator from Gloucestershire, has insisted there were ‘no villains, only victims‘.

He wrote an open 1,800-word letter to his local paper which is so moving and thought-provoking that I’m going to reproduce some of it here and leave it as its own testimony.

‘Perhaps some of you feel anger toward him. You know him only as the man who did this.

I know him as the man who fell in love with my daughter. I know him as the man who worked tirelessly to support the family he worshipped. I know him as the man who, together with my daughter, raised my beautiful grandchildren in an environment of love and joy and laughter …

When he had to address misbehaviour he did so with reason and never with punishment.

Perhaps we will never understand the torment in Ceri’s mind that drove him to such an act but I know that this is not an act of malice or spite. I weep for my daughter’s pain. I weep for the loss of my grandchildren and I weep for Ceri’s pain and confusion in equal measure. There are no villains in this dreadful episode.

There are only victims. He will always remain the man I am proud to have called my son-in-law …

We cannot dictate the random paths our lives take. I would ask you all to suspend judgment and find compassion for all.’

Puts a very different complexion on things, doesn’t it? And a salutary reminder that the stories that reach us are only partial pictures.

Sobering, lowering, troubling stuff. Just thinking of these children and their families makes me wonder if in reality I could bear to write a book on the subject. And if I did, if anyone would ever want to read it. Probably not.

 

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments