Abuse of the Heart, Soul and Mind

For months now in the UK, possibly even years, we have grown accustomed to new revelations about how celebrities like Jimmy Saville and Gary Glitter have abused children and young people. The label for what they have done is usually something sexual, from inappropriate or indecent behaviour to rape. There is revulsion at what they have done, coupled with a sense of disbelief that they and those around them in positions of authority seemed to accept much of their behaviour as somehow unworthy of serious attention, or as something not to be talked about or reported. In the reports of the court cases there is thankfully and sadly always frank reference to the ways in which the emotional, psychological and relational lives of their victims (heart, soul and mind) have been scarred in some respects irremediably.

It is all desperately sad, not least because we seem bewildered as to why adult males (for the most part) should behave in this despicable way, but also because there is growing evidence from places like Rochdale that young adult males have been systematically sexually exploiting and abusing young vulnerable girls.

As I share the communal sadness, bewilderment and abhorrence, there remains another regret that I have found hard to put into appropriate words. It is that we are all aware that there is much abuse of children and young people that never reaches the headlines because it is not sexual or physical, but emotional, psychological and relational. There is no doubt that it happens, and there are fears about the scale. Safeguarding legislation and policies specifically acknowledge the reality of such abuse. But unfortunately it seems to take place largely beneath the radar screen of public awareness and media attention. Any understanding of human development and psychiatry reveals the deep and long-term effects of such abuse, but what can be done? It is widespread and probably occurs most frequently in families and households (though we know it also happens in refugee camps, hospitals, organisations, institutions, residential establishments and foster care).

For formal intervention to take place within the scope of the law there needs to be evidence, and although such evidence is possible in cases of physical or sexual abuse (difficult though it may be to obtain without adding to the suffering of the victims), it is notoriously hard to produce it in cases of emotional abuse. And then there is the question of what should be done about it. How is the perpetrator of the abuse to be treated (or punished) without adding to the problems for the child or young person?

Recently I came across the following example of emotional abuse. It stopped me in my tracks and convinced me that the subject has to be raised whatever the implications or practical challenges it represents. We cannot remain silent. I will not refer to the location of the situation though the facts are to the best of my knowledge accurate.

An Italian woman married a Romanian man who was physically (and therefore emotionally abusive to her). One of the ways in which he asserted his authority was to insist that she did not speak her native language in his presence. When a child was born to them, this child of an Italian mother therefore never learnt Italian: her only language was Romanian.

The abuse of the mother by her husband became intolerable and so she left her husband and fled with her daughter to England, effectively as refugees. The mother and child were housed and the child went to school. But there we must pause to take in the implications of the father’s abuse of the mother, for the child. The child was in a foreign country and she and her mother spoke little or no English. But what is more the child knew only Romanian: a language which her mother refused to speak because it was so contaminated in her experience by the abuse she had suffered at the hands of a Romanian. The child knew no Italian because she had never heard it spoken.

So mother and child are living in England, with the child attending a mainstream school, but mother and child cannot communicate with each other, and the child cannot communicate at school. In short the child has been deprived of the most fundamental of rights: that of the ability to express anything to another human being in words.

Of course the mother, child and school are trying to do their best to learn English (though whether Ofsted inspectors could ever understand the practical problems of measuring standards and progress in such a situation is not clear), but the damage has been done.

There is a grievous risk to attachment and bonding between mother and child, there is a threat to the child’s education and social development, and the child has been prevented from learning the basic vocabulary for understanding and describing her most fundamental feelings, desires, and questions.

Severe, possibly the severest, emotional damage has been done to the child, but what can we do about it as a community or society? Had the father abused the child sexually or physically (as far as I know he did not) he might have been brought to court. That might have been of some solace to the mother, but what difference would it have made to the child?

There are two obvious questions that arise. First is there anything we can do to prevent this sort of abuse? I fear that I have little by way of comfort to offer here: it is obviously virtually impossible to stop this sort of scenario somewhere near its source. It might be worth reminding those who espouse the European project principle of the “free movement of people” however, to consider some of the possible implications on children when there is significant migration between countries and cultures. But seen in a worldwide context this does seem rather like King Cnut attempting to stop the incoming tide.

The other concerns what can we do to respond to the individual children who suffer such abuse. Here it seems to me that schools and churches have potentially unique roles to play (in the UK). The country is covered by a patchwork of schools and churches, so there will be one of each accessible to the mother and child. The school will need the wisdom of experience to detect what has been happening and to find ways of responding with empathy and practical help. It is vital to recognise that this is not just a matter of language training, but of a far deeper personal and psychological significance.

Why churches? Because there needs to be somewhere that welcomes mother and child together as human beings (not labelled by gender, age, culture or language): a community that is accepting of them both and of the bonds between them that have been so terribly undermined by the abuse they have both suffered. It isn’t possible to help the child unless the mother is also helped: we cannot expect the school to organise English lessons for the mother, or Italian lessons for the child.

There may be other groups and organisations locally professional and voluntary, but these it seems to me are the two main resources. When I was discussing this case I was impressed and encouraged by the insight and reaction of the school involved. And I was encouraged but not surprised that someone in the school had also identified the potential for help through a church.

Meanwhile I continue to be shocked to the roots by what this child (and her mother) must be going through. Perhaps it adds another dimension to understanding all forms of abuse: do they create suffering and wounds for which there is no language in which they can be expressed, and no way in which even if there were, that they can be adequately shared?

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