The Silence That Enables Abuse.

Michael Luther King quote

It’s 30 years since I entered care. Since then, I’ve been a fully involved uncle to my nephew and niece, and to quite a few foster kids and teens too! They’re young adults themselves now, and I feel as a family we can be reasonably confident we’ve done a good job of raising our family, in spite of little healthy parental role modeling as children ourselves.

It’s unthinkable to me that I could know about children in my family suffering abuse and neglect, without making a personal, intrusive intervention. One question, among several, then, is why did my own aunt and uncle not do so on mine and my sister’s behalf, when the signs of abuse were all too obvious?

The silence of my biological family then, and 20 years of stonewalling since I talked briefly about sexual abuse at the hands of my grandfather with my younger cousin is something I gave up trying to resolve a long time ago. But, as the famous words of Martin Luther King above emphasise so clearly, the silence of my birth family members, then, and now, can’t be erased from the memory of my miserable childhood.

Personally speaking, I couldn’t bear the burden of conscience if I turned a blind eye to child abuse. I wonder how other people can. But not much. I’ve a life to live, one made all the better by my foster family, who I went to live with, in 1988. It’s now almost 30 years since I moved into ‘Edward Road’ as we have now come to call our home at the time.

Late, perhaps, but, in December last year, I took my foster family’s surname. A token, bureaucratic gesture of respect to my late foster dad, and an explicit joining up of loose ends, I guess. Though it’s had a more powerful effect than expected, and perhaps I’ll share a little about that another time, but my belonging feels more certain. I don’t think I need to allow the shame-based shunning of those in my birth family who were complicit and willfully ignorant of my childhood abuse to rent space in my head anymore.

4 Comments

Jo Austin Jo Austin

Brilliant Sean! I too suffered but with emotional abuse, however when I was little, (51 now) this type of abuse wasn’t recognised so much or referred to! To make matters worse, I was raised with my parents and to all intents and purposes, wanted for nothing—but no one knows what goes on behind closed doors, even in so-called ‘ordinary’ families.

But really, what I wanted more than anything was for my Mum to recognise me, to cuddle me, make me feel wanted and special and above all, just once, to praise me. Instead I received relentless criticism, blame, and coldness.

Mum left home when I was 13 years old, leaving me to be raised by my father. I felt so relieved, and not surprised when she left as she had been physically abusive to my gentleman of a Dad! I was hurt that she didn’t offer me a choice to live with her but I would have chosen to stay with my father anyway. I did, however, for some crazy reason feel that it was all my fault.

I thank God that I had one fantastic parent who was dependable, reliable, patient, kind, caring, all the good things even though he was raised in a very strict family. Dad restored my faith in human kindness and so me and my sister grew into healthy, kind and caring people. My father has since passed away and I have managed to heal the wounds.

I do now see my Mum, but it’s on my terms. She caused more hurt when I married by having a relationship with my (now ‘ex’) husband. I now accept that she has many issues that I may never understand. Through all of this, I have learned to manage what I can, put boundaries around the rest, and this life journey has equipped me with valuable empathy to offer to our own looked after children.

One good parent can be truly awesome! I respect my father so much. I didn’t choose to be a single parent myself but I did choose to be the best Mum I could possibly be. That’s never changed. I do my best for my own and any looked after children I am privileged to be able to help! x

(Editor’s note: Jo Austin is a foster carer at The Children’s Family Trust, and author of Walking with Love and Autism, 2010.)

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Sean Parry - Do Fostering Sean Parry - Do Fostering

Jo, thank you so much for your open and honest response. I admire your courage in sharing some detail about your life so that others might find identification and support. Living with unresolved emotional scars can be very lonely. We may never know who benefits from our words, but if someone does, our openness is worthwhile.

Your childhood craving for emotional and physical affection was a little difficult for me to read because I share this with you. Not a single adult told me they loved me, until a few months into my final foster placement, with the family whose surname I have now taken. That specific emotional starvation has caused me more difficulties in adulthood than any other abuse I suffered. I think you will understand this, although I am going to reserve greater analysis of that for another time.

I also share with you early years of contempt directed at me by my father’s partner, a woman who I call my childhood ‘torturer-in-chief’. Growing up with an absence of love, and an abundance of criticism and blame, as you and I, and so many thousands of other children, either in this moment, or who are now adults, is to inflict an exceptionally cruel psychological wound.

This wound, so far I know personally, and from others, lasts our whole lives. I’ll explore this too, later, but the way in which you have taken the approach to use your past as a treasure chest of experience from which to equip you to provide therapeutic help to youngsters who need it is something I commend you for, Jo.

Many, many others, either can’t, or won’t, accept, let alone explore, their traumatic childhoods, as they avoid their inner fear and try to put distance between history and today. Mood-altering substances (alcohol, drugs, food, etc.) and behaviours (sex addiction, OCD, people-pleasing, validation-seeking, co-dependency, etc.) are easier and more readily available ‘solutions’ for a paralysing lack of self-worth, so cruelly imprinted into their minds as impressionable children.

Managing, let alone overcoming, the emotional and psychological issues that present in later life as a result is an immense challenge, and, for me, was also incredibly expensive. The treatment I needed is not available on the NHS. You have found within yourself the strength to deny your childhood abuser a lifetime of suffering for yourself, by going even further, to build a love-filled family, to open your life and home to help youngsters who are suffering, and to raise awareness of abuse and its’ effect upon people, those around them, and society, by publishing your book, Walking with Love and Autism (link below). Frankly, Jo, you’re a miracle.

That your mother left home, without offering you the opportunity to go with her, hurt you so much, in spite of the fact you’d never have gone with her, is a reaction I completely understand. The sense of rejection must have been quite profound. If my own experience of abandonment is anything to go by, I hazard a guess that you reacted mostly with numb acceptance. Certainly, I was emotionally closed down by age eight, and for you at that time, aged 13, you’d suffered another five years of icy disregard from your Mum. Did this create the feeling (or lack of) that I mentioned above?

I don’t believe humans can cope with this kind of treatment for long periods if they have to fully feel the emotional pain of it all the way. Studying degree-level psychology, Harlow’s ‘pit of despair’ comes to mind. I’m reading a book that I think you’ll find as deeply fascinating as I do; it’s Zero Degrees of Empathy, by Prof. Simon Baron-Cohen. He works at Cambridge University and is also the Director of the Autism Research Centre there; so perhaps you have already heard of him? Anyway, the book I mention is a quite worthy read.

If it isn’t too much of a liberty, I’d like to ‘thank’ your late Dad for being your ‘secure base’ throughout all of what you suffered. I rather suspect that without him, you and I would never have met. Since everyone has a pain threshold; beyond which it becomes almost impossible to recover so we can function normally in most areas of life, I wonder if, but for your Dad, you, like so many, might have turned to one of the easier, more readily available ‘solutions’ to psychological pain I identified earlier.

I’m so immensely glad that you didn’t. I know life has its’ challenges, experienced by everyone, but setting these aside, yours is one that has, in flashing neon lights, the words, ‘success’, ‘winner’, and ‘empathist’ with big flashing dressing room-style lit arrows pointing at you! What a gloriously, fantastically, gauche mental image!

I say you could hold it in mind Jo, as a ‘superpower’ for use when The Past decides to pay you a visit, as it does me, from time to time. It might take a little time to vanquish the negativity, but in the end, the sheer campness of this superpower becomes too much and it has to slither away again!

I’ll shut up now. Clearly, knowing When To Stop is a superpower I do not have! So, let’s both ‘keep on, keepin’ on’.

With hugs and best wishes for an abundant 2017, Sean x

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Helen Helen

I’m not in a position to foster but I read your posts for a better understanding of what children need when most in need. Later this year I will begin studying and training to become a councillor, your insight has helped my decision that I specifically want to become a children’s councillor. Thank you for being a survivor, I hope I can help at least some children in the future become survivors too x

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Sean Parry - Do Fostering Sean Parry - Do Fostering

Hello Helen—

Your feedback has touched me deeply. To hear from you that written accounts of my early life experiences offer you helpful insight and the inspiration to manage the portfolio for children’s services within a local authority is massively validating. Thank you very much.

I sometimes think that whilst I wouldn’t wish to relive my early childhood, I doubt very much if I would be involved in this work today had I have had some other kind of upbringing. Others sometimes caution me against sharing too much about my past because they want, as friends, to protect me from adverse reactions.

I appreciate those small acts of love, but in fact, I hold the firm view that if as adults we tell children their own suffering and abuse carries no shame for them, then we must live out those words through our behaviour. We aren’t good at it. I try to play my part in showing the way forward. There is much I could share with you, but high up the list it is worth sharing that kids and teens in care most certainly don’t feel good about themselves when others react with pity to their early life stories.

Pity takes us straight to shame, and feeling about three inches tall. A more appropriate reaction, and I share this with you because in your role as a councillor within children’s services you will meet lots of children for whom you will be a lead corporate parent, is admiration for their resilience, for their courage in sharing what they have undeservingly been subjected to, and their positivity, hopes and dreams for the future.

The feelings that children in care are then left with are pride, validation (just as you have given me!) and you will probably gather some lifetime fans! Prepare for some kids to be clingy and unboundaried (social workers will support you here if it becomes problematic). Starved of affection and self-worth, you’ll become quite magnetic for some who crave adult attention.

It may be emotionally tough, and downright frustrating at times, especially when you go from direct contact with energetic and sometimes cheeky youngsters straight to a stiff upper-lipped budget-focused committee meeting to learn that funding is being cut, yet again, for children’s services, which you may find yourself fighting very hard to hang on to.

So, now I’d like to thank you, for the commitment and compassion that you must already have that has drawn you to actively support the cause of looked after kids and teens (I’m so yawningly bored of the phrase ‘children and young people’ that I just cannot bring myself to use it ever again!), in such an influential role.

I would welcome contact from you at any time by email to sean@dofostering.com or phone to 07977 712712 should you ever want to chat over issues affecting children’s services. I’d both enjoy and feel privileged to do so, so please don’t hesitate!

One thing you’ll get more of than your fellow councillors, is a LOT of laughs! Kids can be so irreverently hilarious and say and do things that make adults fidget awkwardly in their seats and, as awful as it is to say, part of my mirth is sometimes at the cost of others’ embarrassment! Aren’t I awful? I don’t plan on changing though! So, very good luck! —Sean

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