Solicitor Peter Garsden, founder member and Vice-President of ACAL (Association of Child Abuse Lawyers) examines the devastating and long-lasting effects of child abuse and how a survivor of abuse copes with life.
“Whilst each survivor of abuse is unique, and his/her circumstances entirely different, I have learned over many years of dealing with child abuse compensation claims that most survivors feel exactly the same and find coping with life extremely difficult. So the obvious question is why? Surely it is wrong to generalise and put people in categories?
When an insecure child develops a strong attachment to an older mature abuser at an impressionable age and places a lot of trust in an affectionate adult who promises love, affection, treats, presents, and gives sexual relief, particularly at puberty, then when the relationship goes wrong the child inevitably feels let down and upset. When the child has been previously let down by parents, sent away from home, and siblings, then insecurity deepens, anger rises, and behaviour deteriorates. No wonder then that many ran away from care homes. I have even come across a child who jumped out of a tree and impaled his leg on a railing spike to get away from abuse to hospital. Luckily he did not succeed in killing himself.
So how does the child feel when the relationship is over? Often he/she is moved to a different children’s home because his/her behaviour becomes so unbearable. Often another abuser targets them and the nightmare starts all over again. Further incidents of abuse usually mean that the symptoms multiply several-fold in severity. To stop the abuse hurting psychologically, he/she builds up a hard exterior to act as a protective shield against the world.
What if the abuse was a homosexual encounter yet the boy is going through puberty? If the care worker said it was quite natural, and he enjoyed it, why not try it again? Often, as a senior boy in the children’s home, he goes on to experiment by abusing other younger boys. If he has no predisposition to be homosexual, he becomes confused. Members of the opposite sex are interesting as well. Naturally he is confused. Is he homosexual or heterosexual? If the care worker is a net worker the boy could be introduced to strangers for pleasure. He may need the money, because now he is probably trying to anaesthetise his guilt and feelings through hard drugs.
The best analogy I have ever come across is the title of an excellent male rape support group in Liverpool called “Fire in Ice”. The child eventually realises that the feelings of anger cannot come out all the time because it usually results in punishment, homelessness or, worse still, imprisonment. So it has to be contained in ice. Not an effective container, obviously, because the fire melts the ice and leaks out. Before it melts, however, the person is cold, unemotional, and cannot be hurt by anyone on the outside. But all the time the anger is burning inside them. Ironically, the Fire Service believes there is a definite link between abuse survivors and arson attacks.
It is no surprise then that inter-personal relationships are extremely difficult for someone who has been abused by adults when young. The first adult they put their trust in betrayed them; thus the survivor fears that the same thing will happen in every inter-personal relationship. They find it very difficult to trust anyone. At the first sign of trouble, fire starts burning the ice away. If the ice cannot be rebuilt to protect the soul, the flames can consume the relationship and sometimes the person. The more relationships fail, the stronger the feelings of insecurity and the more accurate the self-created prophesy of mistrust becomes.
It is a commonly held fallacy that if a child is abused it will go on to become an abuser in adulthood. It makes survivors very angry. It is true, however, that many paedophiles or sex offenders were abused in childhood. Whether there are genetic influences is outside my sphere of expertise. The vast majority of abused children go on to experience extreme difficulty in coping with life. A common trigger of symptoms, or to use my analogy above, when the fire starts melting the ice and leaking out, is the birth of a child, particularly in women. For some reason this brings back memories of the abuse and mental problems.
Often the abuse is investigated by the police later in life when the survivor has formed a family and settled into some sort of permanency. When the family finds out the survivor was abused in childhood they often believe the fallacy and assume the parent must have turned into an abuser. When this feeling is accompanied by changed behaviour, drinking, depression, lack of sleep, anger and drug taking, invariably the partner cannot cope and the relationship breaks down.
How does the survivor behave towards his/her own children? Invariably in an over-protective manner. When the boy gets into a fight and the father feels he has been bullied he goes out and starts another fight in retaliation. The mother will not allow her daughter any freedom at all, and protects her from everything. Thus the girl grows up timid and lacking in confidence. Separation from parents becomes impossible.
If a child is abused by a person in authority, be it father, mother, care worker or teacher, particularly when the abuse happens at an impressionable age such as puberty, the child develops more of an anti-authoritarian attitude than other adolescents. Commonly this continues into adulthood and makes it impossible to trust an employer. In the same way as in relationships an argument usually develops, bad behaviour results, the fire leaks out, and the job descends into dismissal.
Often survivors find interaction with others difficult. Thus a solitary job is common, such as a long distance lorry driver or North Sea diver. They often say that working away alone is easier than interaction with the family.
If a survivor of abuser finds it extremely difficult to hold down relationships with the same or opposite sex, cannot hold down a regular job and suffer from internal mental turmoil most of the time, how much compensation should they receive? The top of the range award at the moment for pain and suffering is £50,000. If the abuse took place at 12, and life expectancy is 72, then that equates to £2.28 per day. That is about enough for a nice coffee at Starbucks, but for a ruined life? I don’t think so.”
Peter Garsden is a partner in Abney Garsden McDonald solicitors, 37, Station Road, Cheadle Hulme, Cheshire SK8 5AF