Family Therapy and Family Life

I read with interest, as I read every article in the Magazine, Chris Durkin’s contribution on the importance of family therapy especially where there have been one or several incidences of abuse and the suspected perpetrator is still the one who remains in the home whilst the victim is the one who has to leave for their own safety.There are very few children or young people who would see this as the best possible solution. It is even worse when the victim is under five years of age. How can they possibly understand that they have done nothing wrong when they have to leave their home and everything and everyone who is familiar to them? It makes no difference whether there was love or affection; it is much more about habit and routine, even if that involved abuse.

In my work as a therapist for victims of abuse, those who remained most damaged were those whose families, especially their mothers, rejected them in favour of the abuser before they were old enough to have a real voice. In most situations the abuser was either the father or stepfather or an older brother or cousin. How, then, could a small child make sense of such a situation and gain anything positive from the experience?

An example

I recall one such child whom I worked with over a number of years. She was the much wanted and much adored only birth child to older parents. Father was headmaster of a small village school and mother followed her family’s tradition of social drinking and visiting relations. There was an older adopted daughter who was the child of the mother and her first husband, who had died. The mother’s family were very wealthy and unused to having any interference from the local authority or the police.

The family had been suspicious about this current husband’s treatment of the older girl for a while. There were unexplained bruises and the child’s demeanour became very inhibited. Eventually she disclosed how she was being bullied and roughly handled to one of her aunts, who immediately went to the home and removed all of the child’s clothing and informally became her foster mother. (This was pre-Children Act 1989.) There doesn’t appear to have been any discussion or any other reaction to this and certainly, despite the mother’s very loud almost coarse behaviour, no one challenged the aunt. The family closed ranks and got on with their lives.

There was some concern voiced about the younger daughter, who was still very small when this took place, but because it was assumed that most abusers only abuse in one way, the child was deemed safe for the following reasons:

  • She was his birth child.
  • He loved her.
  • She was so small.
  • He chose to tend to her physical care himself, demonstrating his affection, in contrast to the way he treated the older child.

When the younger child was about three years old, again, the same aunt who had ‘rescued’ the older girl expressed her concerns that the father was behaving in a way that caused her to feel increasingly uncomfortable. She found herself at odds with the wider family who knew that to remove this child would not be as easy.

In the meantime, the mother had a stroke and was quite seriously disabled. She had very poor short-term memory and slurred speech. She could no longer care for the child and her husband took on most parenting duties. Eventually it became obvious to most family members that his behaviour towards his child was very suspect. He would kiss her fully on the lips, even when there were others in the room. He would take her to bed and his hands were always under her sheets. He became quite disdainful towards the rest of the family but not too much, as his wife still had the money.

Again, after consulting with experts, the family agreed, against advice, to remove the child but leave the man. I think they intended that he would become his wife’s carer. The child eventually went to live permanently with her grandmother, but not before she had been placed with two families and suffered rejection in both by her cousins and the adults. She had already been coached into being a rather unpleasant child by her father, aided and abetted by a naïve mother.


There wasn’t enough evidence to bring a court case even though she remembered from time to time that ‘things happened’. She was warned by the family not to talk about what had happened to her, in an attempt to protect her, but she was very young and the secretary at the private kindergarten she attended appeared to be kind and accepting. She shared some of her story with her, with the result that she was expelled as a potentially negative influence on the other children. When she spoke to her father on one of their supervised visits about this and asked him why she should be punished in such a way, he responded by telling her it was her own fault.

By the time she reached her teens, she had begun to change in her attitude towards her father. She was very angry with him and felt he had let her down. Despite everyone’s best efforts, however, she could not bear the thought of him being found guilty of this crime and wouldn’t provide evidence against him, partly because he was her father and she wanted to protect him, but also because, if he confessed, she would have to accept that he had done terrible things to her and had destroyed her childhood.

The family did what they could to prevent him abusing other children by forcing him to become his wife’s full time carer and insisting that they re-locate closer to them, so that they could keep him under surveillance.

There is no satisfactory outcome for this child. I only hope that she continued to see with clarity of mature vision that she was not to blame, nor could she have prevented any of the things that happened to her. I worked with her for over eight years and in that time I saw her develop in confidence but there was always that hard core of self-loathing. I wonder how she is now.

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