Living with child survivors of sexual abuse

From around the second week that she was living in our house, Rose began to unsettle me. It wasn’t just the hypervigilance and the constant monitoring of my movements – although that felt invasive enough. There was more to it. A sense of unease began to creep over me about how tactile Rose was and how….I couldn’t put my finger on it at first…but effectively it was how seductively she behaved towards me.

After a short period of extreme wariness when Rose first arrived, during which she wouldn’t approach me or my husband or allow us to do anything for her – remarkable at the age of three – Rose switched into limpet mode. She had to be within touching distance of me at all times. She would wait outside the toilet and the shower and the bedroom for me. If I left her in Andy, my husband’s care, Rose would wait at the window or the front door, peering through the glass, desperately searching for a first sight of my return. If I tried to hug our daughter or Andy, or Alfie, Rose’s brother, Rose would physically squeeze in between us and force us apart. She gave me no space at all to breathe or have a private conversation or just to sit and be.

Of course, with brilliant hindsight and experience and after doing much reading and attending every training course available, I can now recognise in Rose a child with a severe attachment disorder. But there was more to it than that.

We’d be having  a cuddle on the sofa, me and Rose, and I would be aware that she was constantly touching me, but not just holding my hand. It might start with that, then move on to stroking the palm of my hand. Then she would start stroking up and down my arms. I couldn’t quite work out why this made me feel uneasy, but it did. Looking back now, again with hindsight, it wasn’t something you would expect a three year old child to do to you. Rose would ask me if I wanted a massage. I would politely decline and then she would usually respond by stroking my thighs, while giggling to herself. It became an unnerving daily ritual, which I would try and nip in the bud. However this had to be done very gently and sensitively – she saw any such refusal as a huge rejection and would descend into a black mood. Rose was quite capable of not speaking to me for a couple of hours, staring silently at me from across the room, her eyes full of venom.

Andy wasn’t at home as much as me, but as Rose came to know him, he also became a target for these behaviours. Rose would wait for Andy outside the shower, and when he came out, she would ask him ‘Has it got bigger yet?’ indicating his groin area. She would also offer him massages, and the behaviour escalated to the point where she would regularly try to grope him between his legs, attempt to undo the fly on his trousers, and offer to ‘pull his penis’. If Andy sat down, Rose would immediately settle on his lap and then begin simulating sex.

It was hard to watch, hard to experience and even harder to try and protect out own daughter from these behaviours. We had no idea when she arrived in our house, but Rose had obviously been groomed from birth to be a sexual object, valued only in the way she could gratify the desires of the adults around her. For a period of around three years, we had to learn to manage the after effects of the grooming, every day. As time went on, and Rose finally accepted that we were never going to respond to her in a sexual way, the behaviours died down. They never went away, resurfacing on many occasions over the years which followed.

How do you learn to live safely and lovingly with a child for whom a hug, a look, a word, a song, a smell, a place, a touch can be a trigger? Step by step and day by day, and very carefully, slowly and respectfully is the answer.

We learnt to read the warning signs in Rose’s body language, the tone of her voice, her heightened responses to situations and people, even the way she laughed. Watching a three year old child turn on her seduction techniques towards adult friends and their children, our daughter and extended family members was pretty mind blowing. At times it was hard not to feel horrified by her behaviours, and mortified for the friends who were affected by them. We were lucky to be surrounded by people who showed only compassion and understanding.

We had to become hyper protective of Rose. She was extremely vulnerable, and her attachment disorder, combined with her experience of sexual abuse, meant she would cuddle up to complete strangers, hop on their laps and begin kissing them. I grew adept at hoisting her off surprised people on trains, in shopping centres, at the beach and even in the swimming pool with what I hoped was a carefree laugh.

We had to constantly, gently try and drum it into Rose that adults and children alike were not going to welcome her approaches, that there were other ways she could respond to people.

I had repeated conversations with Rose, during which she would insist she loved what her parents had done to her, that there was nothing wrong with it and it was all good fun. I would put my side of the conversation across, and Rose would just stare at me, or laugh, or tut in exasperation.

Time passed, and as I said, the behaviours died away, only recurring occasionally. We managed the blips when they happened, and happily the space between the blips became longer and longer.

The sexualised behaviour was the hardest element of the placement for me, and I still beat myself up about that. I found it almost impossible to divorce Rose’s experiences and behaviours from sex in general. My marriage suffered. I couldn’t bear Andy to touch me for a long period of time. In my head, everything to do with sex was just wrong, disgusting and abusive.

Our daughter’s relationship with Rose was forever damaged by the inappropriate approaches she made to her. A child can’t fathom or contextualise sexual abuse, so our daughter described what she felt towards Rose as a ‘yucky’ feeling, plus a large dose of anger. When she matured, our daughter had therapy which helped her turn her anger away from Rose and redirect it towards Rose’s parents.

Somehow, through the passage of time, the support and love of friends and family and sheer dogged stubborn determination not to give up, we made it. Our family had to do a lot of healing in order to make the placement work. I also had to accept that there were some things I couldn’t fix – ever. And I had to recognise that there were limits to my patience, forgiveness and generosity of spirit. Yes, I discovered I was not super human – which was very disappointing.

To read more about our experiences, please visit http://www.amazon.co.uk/Betrayal-Rose-Alfies-story-Book-ebook/dp/B0161GC0A4/ref=sr_1_1/276-4936042-1476156?ie=UTF8&qid=1452792847&sr=8-1&keywords=betrayal+grace+hunter

 

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Living with child survivors of sexual abuse

The beauty of respite

Our social worker telephoned today with some bad news. It might not seem like much to non foster carers, but we found out that our regular respite carers are retiring. My heart sank into my boots. Respite is what has kept our current placement going – that and a ton of perseverance (or just plain stubbornness) on our part.

So far the children in placement with us have had three different sets of respite carers in just over six years. Its a big ask for them to learn to trust new people each time, but so far the experience has been hugely beneficial for everyone involved. Each new set of carers bring different skills, different values and different lifestyles, but they all add something to the children’s development and makeup.

When my husband and I decided we could commit to keeping the children long term, we met with social workers and psychologists to discuss what this might mean for us all. It was a huge decision for us, and one which we took at the same time as knowing we had to move 300 miles away for my husband’s new job. Taking the children with us to have an entirely fresh start just seemed right.

One of the first things the social worker said to us at the meeting was, ‘Long term fostering is the same as adoption, I hope you realise that?’ She followed this with, ‘And that means you can’t have any more respite….ever.’

As I absorbed this information and tried to arrange my thoughts into some kind of order, the attending psychologist added her opinion – ‘Yes, research has shown that respite is a disruptive influence for children in care. They need to feel they are a part of your family, and being sent away from home doesn’t sit well with that.’

Both the social worker and the psychologist then sat and stared at me silently for a while…..a long while. I often wondered if they practised this silent staring together, because they used it repeatedly at meetings. The worst occasion was when they tried, in a two pronged attack, to emotionally blackmail my husband and I into adopting the children. It didn’t work then, and it didn’t work this time, but it made me feel incredibly uncomfortable, like a selfish, inadequate failure.

What I wanted to say was something dynamic and attention grabbing, like –  ‘We’ve had respite for the last two years. We haven’t used it very often and we’ve made sure it was an exciting, fun and positive experience each time. The children love going to their respite carers – the rules are easier, the boundaries are looser, they get spoilt. It’s a bit like going to stay with a doting grandparent. We get a rest, the children see it as a holiday – it’s a win-win situation.’

Instead of which, I found myself fighting back tears, and blurting out – ‘They haven’t got any easier you know,’.

I was met with unfriendly looks. And more silence.

‘I mean, they’re still extremely challenging children to care for,’ I carried on. ‘We will need the occasional break, just to recharge our batteries.’

The social worker shook her head, raised her eyebrows and said, ‘If you feel that you can’t cope then I’m afraid we’ll have to review the future of the placement.’

‘I can cope,’ I snapped back, ‘If I have respite. Surely the odd bit of time away from us (we were allocated around 14 nights a year in total at this point) is better than them having to up sticks and live somewhere else entirely.’

‘It just won’t work in the long term,’ the social worker replied, ‘At least, we as a local authority don’t believe it will.’

I could feel the tears brimming in my eyes again, my cheeks reddening as I contemplated having to say goodbye to these children. The feeling of loss, even this tiny foretaste of it, was devastating.

The silence had descended again, and I could feel the weight of everybody’s stares on me like a physical pressure. I had to be brutally and completely honest.

‘I can’t continue the placement without respite,’ I said, slowly, picking each word carefully, trying to avoid a knee-jerk blurt which I would later regret. ‘I know, in my heart, that I would not withstand the stress, and things would end badly.’ The social worker was regarding me with a frown, her pen poised above her notepad. ‘I don’t want to get to that point, where the children have to leave in some kind of chaotic meltdown.’

‘I get the feeling the children are being labelled,’ the psychologist now said, as if I hadn’t just spoken some of the hardest words I had ever uttered. ‘And I don’t know if that’s helpful. I mean, which particular behaviours do you find so difficult?’

Now I was angry. The red mist descended.

‘Well, there’s the hypervigilance. The constant surveillance, the following me around the house, the eavesdropping, the intrusion into my personal space. There’s the highly sexualised behvaiours, the suggestive comments, the explicit approaches, to myself, my husband, our daughter and our friends and family. There’s the shoplifting, the stealing and the lying. There’s the issues with over eating, the issues with toileting, the controlling behaviours, the tantrums and the defiance…….’ I stopped to draw breath.

‘I don’t see any of these behaviours when I’m with the children,’ the social worker said, ‘They’re no trouble at all.’

‘Well, with respect, you see them once a month and you take them out to McDonald’s for half an hour,’ I replied, ‘Not much time to start showing any challenging behaviour.’

Another awkward silence fell. The social worker finally broke it.

‘If you really mean what you’ve said, then I need to take this information back to my manager and we’ll have to make a decision about whether or not to move the children,’ she started tidying her notes and pen into her bag. I felt sick, anxiety and anger battling for control inside me.

‘When will you be able to tell us?’ I asked, nervously. ‘We are moving house in around six weeks’ time. I’ve just heard that the children have places at the local school – everything is kind of in place for their new life.’

‘We’ll let you know, as soon as we can,’ the social worker replied. ‘I mean, if the placement’s ending anyway, it doesn’t really matter whether that happens after the move or before it.’

I was momentarily flabbergasted into silence. This woman’s lack of empathy was breathtaking.

‘So, you want us to tell the children they’re moving house with us, potentially move them half way across the country and then – then – after settling into the new house and the new school, they might be told they’re not staying?’

‘I don’t think it matters where they are when they’re told,’ she responded, pulling on her coat and standing up.

I felt I had nothing more to say to this woman. How could I communicate with someone who believed that uprooting children from their home (for a second traumatic time) wouldn’t really matter, in the grand scheme of things.

They made us wait for three months. We decided to stop thinking and worrying about it. We moved house, the children started school, we began to put our roots down.

Occasionally the subject would resurface in conversation between my husband and I.

‘I’ll take them to court,’ he would say, ‘I don’t know how we’ll afford it, but I’ll do it. Or I’ll go to the papers.’

Eventually the children’s social worker visited us, sat down and explained that, after much discussion, the local authority had decided we could have respite. She said it as if she was offering us the crown jewels, or as if we were a special case. I thanked her politely for letting us know, and in my head I called her some unpleasant names.

Six years on, and we’ve been lucky enough to meet some fantastic respite carers – people willing to meet the challenges of children with attachment disorders, eating disorders, gender identity issues and sexualised behaviours.

Now we have to go on a search for the next set of respite carers. It’s going to be hard for the children to learn to rub along with new people – again. But, hard as it may be, each new relationship they begin and build with caring, understanding people helps them to change their negative world view and expectations. Another set of people to learn to trust – yes, but another set of people who don’t abuse and neglect them in the way their parents did.

Respite helps us to rise to the challenge of caring for the children long term. It allows us time with our own child. It is often a time of reflection, sometimes a chance to let our hair down. It is a precious thing, and something every foster carer should have access to.

 

 

The beauty of respite

The worst things people have said to me about fostering

Thought I should write something shorter and snappier today.

I was struck by the thought that so many helpful professionals have made pronouncements about the children we have fostered, I wanted to share some of them.

I know they mean well, (at least, I think they do) but sometimes people should really think before they speak……..

At a placement breakdown meeting : Social worker: “We thought she was unfosterable. You were her last chance and we didn’t hold out any hope for success. That assault on the policeman (which we hadn’t been told about) was probably a warning sign. That and the nude pictures she was posting online (which they also hadn’t told us about). God knows where she’ll go from here.”

Therapist : “If these children (very young brother and sister) aren’t separated soon, they will definitely end up in a sexual relationship with each other as soon as they hit puberty.” (They weren’t separated and they didn’t end up together sexually.)

Social worker : “You mustn’t allow this child to think of his mother as a monster. She’s not a bad person, just a person who has done some bad things.”

Therapist : “This little boy has Multiple Personality Disorder,and these other characters will always be a part of his life.” (Wrong, on both counts).

Social worker, who saw the very traumatised children in question four times a year and took them to KFC or Macdonalds every time for about 30 minutes. “They’re no trouble are they?”

Therapist, on hearing we were moving to a small village with two of our foster children : “Don’t tell anybody in the village anything about these children. You will be alienated and excluded by everyone if you do.” (We told the people who needed to know, and we and the children were treated with the utmost kindness and understanding.”

Social worker, on hearing that my husband and I had offered to keep two of our foster children on a long term basis.  “You can never have respite again.” Thanks, just what we needed to be told at the moment of making such a huge committment. She caved in a few months later, and the kids had wonderful experiences with their amazing respite carers.

There are many more ‘helpful’ comments from experts which I could quote……maybe this could become a regular post. It’s good to vent.

The worst things people have said to me about fostering

Hormones, hormones, hormones

I naively thought boys didn’t really suffer because of their hormones. Wow, how wrong can you be?

Our foster son is 14, just. I read somewhere recently that at, or around the age of 14, boys experience an 800% surge in testosterone. I think the whole 800% has happened this week.

We’ve had tears before school, tears on the way to school, tears after school, tears at dinner and bed time. And punctuating the tearful epsiodes are the arguments and the shouting. Arguments about absolutely nothing – ‘She’s always staring at me!’ ‘Nobody cares about me!’

‘I wanted to sit on that seat and she knew that!’ ‘He made a weird face at me.’ The list goes on.

There’s no point in trying to reason with him, or intervene, even when he starts hitting himself with toy guns and hairbrushes. He has to be left to rant and shout and work it out of himself. Then of course I get, ‘You didn’t stop me hitting myself…..you don’t care!’

I tell him that I do care but I didn’t want to get hurt and I felt he needed space.

‘Well next time, I don’t want you to give me space, I just want you to stop me hurting myself, OK?’

I suggest other ways he could take out his anger and frustration, we discuss hormones and the way they can take control of you and make you act – I feel so deeply for him, as a hostage to hormones myself once a month.

My husband and I have our own linguistic system to warn each other of the lie of the land, regarding our foster son and his mood. My husband comes in from work, raises his eyebrows at me in ‘Well, what’s happened today’ manner.

If I reply, ‘Low tide,’ he knows all is well. If I answer, ‘High tide and plenty of flotsam,’ he knows that the dinner table will be an unwinnable battleground of perceived slights, barbed comments and hard stares.

It’s not all bad, there are the quite times after the storms. Following one of his outbursts, or explosions, our foster son is left feeling perplexed by his own actions and the strength of his emotions. He comes to find me, once he is calm, and gives me huge hugs, telling me he has been an idiot, he is so sorry, he will never do it again.

I just hold him tight and tell him we love him, and silently hope for low tides tomorrow.

 

 

Hormones, hormones, hormones

Foster children and birth families

So, my foster daughter, who has been a walking thundercloud of anger and defiance for the last six years has suddenly changed into a calm(ish), happy(ish) sweetheart. Someone you would want to spend time with. Someone who wants to please people rather than fight them, manipulate them and hurt them.

Fantastic. And just as suddenly, she has announced to her social worker that she wants to see her mum and dad, once a month. These are the parents who abused her daily for the first four years of her life, who saw her as something to be used, who neglected her and degraded her, leaving her with no childhood and no sense of identity.

I expected the news to hurt, for me to feel rejected. I think that’s what my social worker expected too – she was very sympathetic to what she saw as my damaged feelings. I was in shock, for sure, for a few days. I started to see all the work, the progress we had made with this child in the last six years slipping away from us.

Once I got over the shock, and was reassured by the social worker that contact wouldn’t be restarting, at least not in the near future -I started to see something very positive about our foster child’s request. She is definitely in denial of anything abusive having happened while living with her parents – this is not a positive, and it’s a fact she will have to face up to one day. The positive thing for me is that this little girl appears to have decided she is with us for good. The change in her behaviour is due, I feel, to her lowering some of the barriers she has erected around herself.

She is calmer, she is happier, she is more affectionate and spontaneous than she has ever been, and I am surprised by the warmth of my own reactions to her. She shouted ‘I love you’ to me from the school playground on day this week when I dropped her off. That’s a first. She told me she feels safe in our house at bedtime a couple of weeks ago. Little tiny things, but huge for her……and for us.

So, rather than feeling hurt and rejected by her desire to see her parents, I feel like celebrating. Not that I would want contact to re-start, I think it would be disastrous. But it seems to me our foster daughter, for the first time in six years, feels she has the head space, the confidence and the maturity to handle contact with her birth family while staying firmly rooted in our lives.

Things are changing, in a good way.

 

Foster children and birth families

Clever coping mechanisms

I was struck today by the different ways in which our foster children cope with stress, shame and fear. It made me question how I cope with those difficult feelings, and it made me aware, as is often the case, of how lucky I am.

For me, I might blush, get tongue tied, or dig deep and find the adrenaline to deal with a confrontation or danger. it would be awkward, embarrassing and physically demanding for a short while, but I’d get through it.

Our foster children don’t have the emotional foundation that my husband and I, as foster carers do. I have always known that I am loved and I have always been able to trust in people and their goodness. We were given the tools as children to cope with stress and fear, to know that however bad a stuation felt, there would be an end to it, a way out, a safe haven.

Our foster children face stressful experiences with a gaping chasm beneath their feet rather than a strong emotional foundation.

One child responds by pulling her hair across her face and shutting the world out. She can stay like that for thirty minutes. Her brother dissociates at the drop of a hat, freezes on the spot and literally drifts away, his eyes glazed over, his head somewhere safe. Another child simply picks up his feet and runs.

We have the massive task of starting to build those missing foundations. To enable these children to thrive, we have to get them to rethink their responses to stress, and most of all, to trust that things will be OK in the end.

 

Clever coping mechanisms