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Child victims of trauma forced to visit parents that abused them – this should be illegal

A poll has shown that parents caring for children who have experienced trauma have been forced to take their children to see the parent that abused them, with nearly all asserting this should be illegal.

The survey, carried out by the Centre of Excellence in Child Trauma (CoECT), leading UK experts in the field of therapeutic parenting strategies, received 1,125 responses from parents who have adopted, fostered, or cared for children who have experienced trauma.

Over half (53%) of the parents surveyed have had to take their child to see a parent that has abused them. With 85% of parents believing it should be illegal for abusive parents to be guaranteed contact time.

The current legal position is that children’s wishes should be taken into account but will not ultimately determine what happens. The courts view contact as being in the best interests of the child and see both parents’ involvement as a benefit to the child’s welfare.

Children’s services can refuse contact if they deem it necessary to safeguard a child’s welfare, but this can only last for a maximum of seven days before a court order must be obtained. Conversely, the court cannot order there to be no contact if children’s services have allowed contact. The current system is based on the opinion on the judiciary and children’s services, there is currently no law banning contact for parents who have abused their children.

Sarah Naish, CEO and Founder of the Centre of Excellence in Child Trauma, former social worker and parent of five adopted siblings, said:

“You would not expect to meet your rapist once a month for a cup of tea, so why do we force children to keep seeing their abusers?

“Looking at the poll alone, this is evidence that over 500 children have been marched back to visit their abusers, which is an absolute disgrace. From the stories I hear on a daily basis this is the tip of the iceberg and something needs to be done.

“This should be regarded as one of the biggest scandals that still exists in the British legal system today. The legal view that contact with parents is beneficial to a child’s welfare becomes absolutely ridiculous when that parent is the one that abused them.

“The parents I speak to dedicate their entire beings to try and heal the children they have to care for, only for them to be the adult that has to march their child back to the person that abused them.

“The government needs to take action on this and ban parents that have abused their children from having contact with them.”

Rosie Jefferies, Managing Director of the Centre of Excellence in Child Trauma and former child in care, said:

“Contact was a very scary time when I would have to see the people I feared the most – the killers of my two siblings. My birth father would always scowl at me, watch me and make sure I didn’t say anything I shouldn’t. I felt terrified and trapped. It was incredibly confusing to me that I was told by my social worker I was in a safe place, yet my birth parents were there. I felt uncertain, unsafe and did not understand why this was happening.

“When I think back to when I was forced to have contact, I can remember being too scared to say I didn’t want to go. I viewed all adults as very dangerous and it was hard to know who to trust. If I said I didn’t want to go and they told my birth parents they might get angry again. I didn’t want them to hurt anyone else so I smiled and went along to protect my siblings.

“My experience is not unique – children are still being forced to have contact with abusive parents. We need to see a change in the law that prioritises child welfare over the contact right of parents who have committed the worst crimes imaginable.”

Emily Tremlett*, a foster carer, said:

“There was a very clear established link between my child’s night terrors and contact with her dad. Regardless of the fact that she clearly did not want to go, we were told contact must continue and extra dates were added at the father’s request.

“A short while after, she began to disclose details of sexual abuse by her dad. Despite this, and even after the police became involved, the contact still continued.

“To this day her dad is still able to send letters, which can affect her behaviour for up to a month after receiving each one.”

Lynne Thorne*, an adopter, said:

“When my three-year-old would see the contact centre, he would visibly shake his head from side to side and cry. He would refuse to get out of the car and hang onto our legs. This level of anxiety would remain long after the session ended and if we went near the bag he associated with contact, he would freeze, cry, stare at us or become clingy.

“I did not feel as if he was safe whilst at contact with his birth parents. After one particular session my son was ill for days after they gave him a huge bar of chocolate, despite me telling them he is lactose intolerant.”

Matilda Lowe*, a foster carer, said:

“The youngest sister in my care was five years old and would become terrified prior to meetings at the contact centre. When we arrived, she would kick and scream in her car seat and desperately try to stop me unstrapping her – at times she was completely hysterical. I reported this to my agency and social worker and it did not make a difference.

“I was told by the contact supervisor that in meetings she did not interact with the mother and was withdrawn and playing alone. If her birth mother came over she would sit frozen and look absolutely terrified. Even after the sessions she would be extremely distressed and unable to sleep. She later admitted that she was terrified her birth mother was going to get in our car or was coming to our house.

“Things didn’t get any easier for her, so after one journey where she had again repeated all the way there that she didn’t want to go in to the contact, I refused to take her in. This did not go down well with the social worker who then arranged for her to be picked up directly from school by the contact supervisor, delivering the child to the contact session without any emotional support.

“I made a note of all the distressed behaviour and the anxiety it was causing and reported it to the social worker, only to be told contact must continue as court applications were coming up.”

Susie Hutton*, a foster carer, said:

“When I had to take my child, aged seven, to contact within two days of him being placed with me, he tried to rip a radiator off the wall. He had nightmares, soiled himself, tried to strangle himself and would sleepwalk around absolutely terrified. I put the kitchen knives in a lock box as I was concerned he might mistake me for his abuser and stab me whilst he was sleepwalking.

“He would be awake all night before contact begging me not to take him and, in the morning, the social worker would say I had to take him. I felt this was incredibly damaging to my relationship with the child as I am supposed to be his ‘safe base’, but by taking him to his abuser that makes me unsafe. The last time we had contact he was so badly affected I think my daughter has secondary trauma from how he was afterwards.

“In my experience the situation has been made worse as I’ve had social worker’s promise the child they will not be left alone with parents, only for contact supervisors to leave the room, or let parents take children into public toilets unsupervised.

“There is also a lack of understanding from those who should be protecting children. Somebody from Child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) came to observe a contact and correctly observed that my child was extremely terrified throughout, only to see the supervisor was writing these reactions down as happy and excited. Even with the report from CAMHS and various other reports over the past five years saying this child should not be having contact the fight is still going on.

“To make matters worse, in spite of the fact my observations match those of CAMHS and professionals, I am treated as having no idea, understanding or knowledge.”

Jane Mitchell, independent trainer in adoption, fostering and social care, said:

“I meet a lot of parents who have had to take their children to contact sessions when the child adamantly does not want to go.

“The current rules are inhumane. If we were talking about a dog instead of a child, and the dog was removed by the RSPCA, not only would the dog never see their abuser again, the abuser would be banned from having a dog.

“We find ourselves in a situation where contact can be insisted on as in the ‘best interests’ of the child – when clearly the reverse is true.”

Jessica Jackson, a social worker specialising in domestic violence cases, said:

“Too often I see children who have witnessed domestic abuse being expected, encouraged and often court-ordered to spend time with the very individual who perpetrated the abuse.

“Even when there is a clear history of coercion, control and manipulation, there seems to be a cognitive disconnect between the abuse of a partner and the impact on the child.

“Contact often serves as a tool for perpetrators of domestic abuse to continue their powerful manipulation of both the child and mother. The lack of a tangible, trauma-focused assessment of the impact on the child, leads to a continuation of their trauma and an even greater sense fear and powerlessness.

“We have to reach an equilibrium where no parents desire for contact overrides a mother’s right to a life free from abuse, or a child’s wellbeing and safety.”

Michelle Tebbutt*, a social worker, said:

“I worked with two little boys, aged seven and four, who had witnessed their father trying to kill himself whilst they were in his care. Their parents were separated, but the father sought reunification and the incident occurred after the children mentioned their mother had a new partner.

“Recounting the event to me, the child, E, said:

‘Daddy drank things from a bottle and it made him talk funny. He went in the bathroom and banged his head on the sink. Lots of times.

It was loud. There was blood everywhere. I had to look after B (younger sibling) and I phoned mummy. A lot of people came and we went home to mummy.  Daddy was sad. Daddy cried. There was blood.

Daddy says he has a poorly head now and we have to see him in a special place. I hope his head gets better soon. There was a lot of blood.’

“This child developed severe anxiety, facial tics and became extremely worried about his father’s welfare. This was made worse as throughout all of this the father insisted he had ‘slipped’ and had not meant to hurt himself.  This was disputed by attending paramedics and police.

“Contact continued to be supervised for two years with the children increasingly developing emotional problems. The children were exposed to parental alienation attempts by the father, as well as other incidents of self-harm and narcissism prior to him doing the intensive work on a perpetrator course.

“In my view the contact should have been stopped before he undertook the course and only resumed once he had successfully completed it and was signed off.

“The children were exposed to emotional harm due to his behaviour, but due to his legal rights contact went ahead regardless of the harm to the children.”

Anne Armstrong, a foster parent and social worker in the midlands, said:

“As a foster parent there have been far too many occasions where I have had to take children to contact with their birth families who have harmed them.

“I have had to intervene when my six-year-old foster son was hit by his 11 year old sister, berated as stupid by his grandfather and not being permitted a drink by his grandmother. In the weeks following contact the child bit the tops of his fingers down to the bone, regressed to wetting the bed and soiling himself daily and exhibited a number of other extreme fear response behaviours.

“The children I have fostered also experience psychological abuse at these sessions. One of my foster sons, aged nine, was told by his mother that he had to say we were hitting him, or she would not love him anymore. On a separate occasion, my seven-year-old foster daughter returned from contact offering my husband sexual favours because her father told her this is what girls are for.

“Each time the children in my care had any form of contact with their birth families who had harmed them before they entered the care system, they were retraumatised and re-lived the original abuse they had endured for years.

“The children I mention all presented fear-driven behaviours both prior to and following contact, including bed-wetting, siling, destruction, stealing, lying and increased violence. The level of aggression directed at us as foster parents, particularly myself as the maternal figure, was extraordinary and extremely dangerous for both parties. It was like managing a war zone without the proper skills or training.”

From Trauma to Trust – inspiring change and support

The Centre of Excellence in Child Trauma will be holding the national conference From Trauma to Trust on the 29th November in Coventry.

The conference provides straight-talking solutions for people supporting vulnerable children. The conference is aimed at professionals working with children who have difficulties relating to trauma, however therapeutic parents are more than welcome too. There will be a variety of talks supporting and overcoming trauma from leading experts.

Sarah Naish, therapeutic parent and best-selling author and Sarah Dillon, attachment therapist and child trauma psychotherapist, will be discussing Truth, Lies and the ‘Memory Carousel’. This will cover issues such as children’s memory, why false allegations happen and what to do about this.

Sally Donovan, adopter and author, will then be discussing The Lost Years. Sally will be speaking on trauma, adolescence and creating ambition for vulnerable young people. She will be delving into the practicalities to consider when children become teenagers.

Louise Bomber, specialist teacher, therapist and DDP certified practitioner, will be speaking about The Human Bridge to Recovery – Settling to Learn. Louise focuses on the issue of children who have experienced trauma being misunderstood due to their behaviour. She will explain how we should be combatting this by updating our policies and practices in schools.

If you are interested in attending the conference, please take a look at this link for further information.

Interrupting Trauma Seminar – strategies for parents to overcome hardships

Sarah Naish and Sarah Dillon will be delivering a seminar on Interrupting Trauma on October 1st in Redhill, Surrey.

Supporting a child who has experienced trauma can be an incredibly difficult process for both parents and children, so they are introducing an Interrupting Trauma seminar to assist with the latest supportive techniques in the field.

They are experts in the field; Sarah Naish is a best-selling author on therapeutic parenting. She can also relate to parents’ experiences as she is an adopter and therapeutic parent herself. Sarah Dillon is a therapist and accredited member of the British Association for Counsellors and Psychotherapists. She is also a Developmental Trauma and Attachment Consultant for numerous independent Fostering Agencies, Schools and Local Authorities. She delivers Therapeutic Parenting training courses to Adoptive Parents, Foster Parents and Supporting Professionals Nationwide. She teaches from personal experience having grown up in multiple foster and children’s homes.

On the day, they will provide practical strategies for unique parenting situations. They will also teach Trauma Interruption Methods, such as ‘Brushing Therapy’, focusing on recognising trauma-based behaviours and reducing fear. The aim is to provide parents the support and confidence needed to raise children with a history of trauma, in a completely non-judgemental and calm space.

If you are interested in attending the seminar please take a look at this link for further information. 

Survey reveals 8 in 10 parents who care for victims of childhood trauma experience violence and poor mental health

The majority of parents caring for children who have experienced trauma report that they have experienced violence and suffered poor mental health, with little to no help from the institutions that should be supporting them.

The survey, carried out by the Centre of Excellence in Child Trauma (CoECT), leading UK experts in the field of therapeutic parenting strategies, received 1,125 responses from parents who have adopted, fostered, or cared for children who have experienced trauma.

A huge 79% of parents said they had experienced violence from a child in their care. CoECT has numerous examples of social workers failing to intervene appropriately despite recommendations from expert psychiatrists. It is commonplace for local authorities to have disagreed with expert opinion leading to extreme escalations, including violence, in homes.

The survey also concerningly shows that 85% of parents say that caring for a child who has experienced trauma has negatively impacted their mental health. There are a multitude of factors that can contribute to poor mental health, but the most common issue CoECT hear about is the lack of support available to parents openly asking for it.

Given the above, it is unsurprising that nine out of ten parents feel that teachers, therapists and social workers simply do not understand the impact of child trauma and that you have to interact with children who have been through this, differently. For example, traditional methods of discipline such as time in isolation, or stern responses to outbursts, are not appropriate behaviour management strategies for children who have experienced trauma.

Sarah Naish, CEO and Founder of the Centre of Excellence in Child Trauma, former social worker and parent of five adopted siblings, said:

“The results of the survey were shocking to read, but sadly not surprising considering the stories we hear on a daily basis.

“When children from trauma lash out and attack their foster parents and adopters, people need to understand that this isn’t a behaviour that should be considered ‘common’ or ‘normal’. Local authorities, social services and schools are failing to recognise the most basic causes of child to parent violence or even to acknowledge it as a significant problem.

“These Foster Parents and Adopters, ask for training and support to keep themselves and their children safe. Yet, in the society we live in, local authorities are more interested in covering their own backs, directing blame and judgement towards the parents, rather than providing the necessary support.

“Social Workers are not adequately trained in child trauma, and after they have qualified local authorities often do little to put this essential training in place.

“It is unsurprising that the mental health of those that have chosen to care for these children is suffering, as a result.

“We need to see local authorities taking a more holistic view, understanding the best way to care for children who have experienced trauma and stepping up support for parents as part of this process.”

Emily Smith (this is a pseudonym), who has faced difficulty getting the right support for her adopted daughter, said:

“My daughter has been violent at home for years and the distinct impression I’ve felt when reaching out to the school and local authorities for help, was that my parenting was to blame.

“When she was violent at school, they ended up doing nothing as there was only a term left to go. Throughout my daughter’s entire school life, I can name two teaching professionals that took the pains to understand her, rather than writing her off. I have even been told to stop telling teachers the problems I was experiencing at home as it was too upsetting for them.

“Similarly, I have been told by a social worker in charge of my daughter’s case to stop sending her emails as the volume and content of them was too overwhelming.

“When the violence at home really escalated, my husband and I requested restraint training to keep ourselves and our daughter safe, only to become the subject of an investigation and told that if we restrained our daughter we would face allegations of abuse. Having suffered several black eyes and with defence bruising all over my forearms and back, I had to state that our family was at risk of breakdown to get any additional support. Throughout this period the local authority repeatedly refused to act on the professional advice given.

“The strain of the situation eventually contributed to the breakdown of my marriage.  My own mental health suffered and I was medicated with antidepressants for years, and the after effects and ongoing struggle to ensure that my daughter has the best care possible and is properly protected mean that I have a struggle with depression, exhaustion and anxiety to this day.”

Jane Mitchell, independent trainer in adoption, fostering and social care, said:

“One of the courses I run specifically deals with managing violent behaviour and in my experience the parents in attendance see this as a last hope, having been disbelieved and vilified by the local authorities that should have been helping them.

“These are parents living under the constant threat of violence, or allegations against themselves, yet they still show the most incredible commitment to and love for their children.

“These parents are often tearful, either because they are finally in a safe place where they are listened to and believed, or because I can actually give them a structure to approach the behaviours of their children. The impact of the training itself can be distressing – particularly when dealing with physical intervention – because the reality they are facing is so far removed from their wishes and dreams for their family.

“The course has been instrumental in helping to reinforce and maintain families, yet the local authorities will often not fund the course or allow foster parents to attend because of the physical intervention element. This is irresponsible when you consider the injuries that parents sustain at the hands of their children and also doesn’t take into account that children, full of fear and adrenalin, can be a danger to themselves if they do not have parents that know how to properly deescalate the situation.

“This training is very much the last hope for parents, who themselves feel like they are the last hope in helping their children lead normal lives.”

Sami Byrne, a teacher, said:

“I can attest to the fact that the majority of teachers do not understand the impact of child trauma and how you need to treat these pupils differently.

“There is nowhere near enough training for teachers and schools on trauma awareness, it is only through my own personal reading that I came to understand the topic and adapted my teaching accordingly.

“The will amongst teachers is there, but schools aren’t equipped to help these students. This is partly down to the massive financial constraints they are under due to the underfunding of schools.

“The government needs to grab the bull by the horns and focus on understanding how we should be supporting these children. There needs to be a change of approach and training for ministers, local authorities, academies, senior leaders in education, teachers and student teachers. The current half a day provision for training is not acceptable.

“The whole approach to education needs to change and is in need of reform. The pupil premium has been positive, bit it is not enough. We all want children to succeed at school, but unless we are prepared to look at the comprehensive, complex needs of each child and all stakeholders are aligned, we will continue to put a plaster over the problem, rather than allowing them the opportunity to flourish.”

Kelly Dallow, Manager of TRUE Fostering, a specialist therapeutic fostering agency, said:

“Whilst the statistics sadden me, I am not surprised.  We receive a high proportion of fostering applications from existing foster parents.  They tell us that when children express their trauma through violence and maladaptive behaviours, they have felt isolated and blamed.

“This response, from supposedly supporting professionals, has obvious negative effects on a foster parent’s mental wellbeing.

“TRUE Fostering pride themselves on offering levels of support which take account of research into the impact on mental health of foster parents caring for traumatised children, but we are in the minority!

“The results are that our fostering families experience greater stability and our children are achieving better outcomes. Any local authority could achieve this with training and a small amount of effort.”

First Steps in De-escalating Challenging or Aggressive Behaviours

Before we start, please take a moment to remember the trauma your child has endured in their early life – whether this was in utero, as a result of maternal illness, post birth trauma or as a result of Domestic Violence, Abuse, neglect or any of the other reasons that children can have a challenging start in life.

Your child had to learn to survive. They were powerless. They had to use all the tools at their disposal – but these were so limited – they could cry, scream and move their arms and legs, but with no ability to speak, move with intention or even know what their needs were they were uniquely vulnerable. Now when they have a survival trigger, they have new skills. They can lash out both verbally and physically. They are super strong because their bodies have adrenalin fuelling a fight flight response. Finally, they feel powerful – they are not vulnerable and helpless anymore. They can prove to the adult that they are strong. Alongside this, it is important to remember that the triggers for their fight/flight response when it comes to adults and basic needs being met is stored in implicit memory – so it is an emotional and sensory memory, and as such not readily accessible to reason (such as CBT therapy). To help them recover, we have to re-train their brains. That is the hard bit, requiring time, patience and the ability to be an endless broken record to develop new connections and ideas.

Finally – practise self-care to keep your own brain connected so you do not go to low brain responses but forgive yourself for slipping up!

Related information/handouts from NATP:

1. Managing Violent behaviour Course Day one option

2. CPR for the Brain Handout – can be found in the members area under resources.

3. The Internal Working Model Handout – can be found in the members area under resources.

4. The Trauma Room Handout – can be found in the members area under resources.

5. Blank Visual timetable – can be found on the NATP shop.