Below is something I wrote 6 months ago when I had my first visit from social workers (Children’s Services). In the UK, any domestic incident reported to the police must be passed on to a social worker for safeguarding purposes. A case will be opened and more often than not closed without further action unless reports for a particular family are recurrent or of a serious nature. This is understandable, as research (and common logic) shows that domestic abuse is incredibly damaging to children’s emotional wellbeing and development. As I had taken every step possible to remove this man permanently from our lives, Social Services did not continue involvement in mine and my children’s life after the initial assessment and the case was closed. However, if I had chosen to take my abusive ex-partner back again, or allow him to see the children, or not request a restraining order at his criminal prosecution the social worker may have attempted to have my children put on the child protection register, based on the idea that as their primary carer I would be failing to protect them from emotional and potential physical abuse. This makes sense to me and it is a system that I have a lot of respect for.
After his criminal conviction, my ex-partner made an application to the family court for child contact. Because of his prosecution for domestic violence we bypassed the mediation process family courts usually encourage and his application was put before 3 magistrates. The magistrates requested that before any decision was made on contact, that a Section 7 report (a type of risk assessment) should be written to assess his suitability to parent safely. The report is normally written by either CAFCASS, or Social Services. For us, because of the serious nature of the case, Social Services were chosen to write the report, which meant once again, I had to have dealings with them.
Before I speak quite negatively, I would just like to say how lucky we are as a society to have Social Services who look out for our vulnerable and who no doubt have dramatically improved, or saved the lives of an unthinkable number of unfortunate children. The main social worker writing the report on my ex-partner was wonderful and supportive and was incredibly respectful of the situation. She listened to my concerns about him carefully and was fair and non-judgemental about the way she presented her findings. My one major bugbear however, is that social workers lack training in domestic violence cases and tend to use a lot of stereotypes and assumptions in their practise. For example, they presume that women who have been in an abusive relationship will always engage in abusive relationships in the future. They also seem to assume that, abusive men who receive guidance and support through attending domestic violence perpetrators course, will change and become non-abusive in any future relationships. Research has highlighted such trends for both examples just described, however I feel social workers must be careful to recognise that a trend does not mean that it is certain to happen. If social workers continue to make these assumptions, victims whose circumstances falls outside of these stereotypes will either end up at risk or be treated unfairly or harassed unnecessarily.
I write about my first experience with the Section 7 social workers below, sorry if it repeats parts of my story that you have already read about. I didn’t want to cut bits in and out and ruin the flow. Initially I had a hugely negative experience with the social workers writing the report, one of which I felt was incredibly unprofessional in her role. 6 months on, my opinions and emotions have changed a little and softened to the entire process. I also deal with the ‘Why didn’t you leave?’ question frequently asked by pretty much everyone you come across post-escape.
“What has happened to me over the past 6 months has been quite unbelievable and I am writing this to help me make sense of this afternoon. Today, I have been visited by two social workers who have come to gather information for a Section 7 risk assessment as my ex-partner, who has been prosecuted for violence against me, has applied to the court for access to our children. For several years I lived with a man who became progressively violent and over time, more peculiar and unpredictable. In the beginning, he was wonderful and I was incredibly flattered by how in love with me he seemed. He appeared smitten with me and was really keen to make long term plans. I knew he had done a few silly things in his past, but so have many of the other wonderful men I have had the pleasure of knowing in my 32 years, whether they be family members or ex-partners. I didn’t, at the time, feel that those things he had done could be used as an indicator to judge who he might be as a partner or father. To support me in my judgement, I had met his family and friends who were always incredibly loyal to him and keen to promote his amiability.
As in many relationships, things did not stay idyllic for long and eventually I started to feel like the man I had fallen in love with was beginning to change. He started losing his temper with me over seemingly unimportant things. On one occasion we were watching the television in bed and I asked for a cuddle. From nowhere, he swore at me in a very aggressive way, jostling me out of his view. I cried because he had frightened me and he apologised. He was just tired. What concerned me more was his increasingly unpredictable behaviour. He would often return home from work incredibly late or not at all. He was highly agitated one day and eerily relaxed the next. He was overwhelmingly tired for weeks on end but would spend night after night unable to sleep. During his restless nights he would sit up trawling though the bins, my coat pockets, and the messages and emails on my phone. On one occasion he read through the Java script corresponding to the error reports on my iPhone, insisting that the evidence he had gathered indicated that I was messaging other men through secret gateway Apps. We had a new born baby and a two year old, these accusations were ludicrous, totally unjustified and incredibly insulting. I had no idea how to handle this situation other than to end the relationship.
I gave him another chance. He had been diagnosed with PTSD and I knew that paranoia and mood swings were a symptom of this disorder. He begged me to stick by him and like any other woman faced with an ill partner, I felt it was my duty to support him and try and work through the problems as a family. I reached out for all the support I could, speaking to my health visitor, GP and also a councillor at my local well woman centre. I shared the issues with family members and helped him to access support. I felt that I was doing the decent thing and always kept my children’s safety and wellbeing a priority. I just wanted to fix my family. My ex partners behaviour continued to get more erratic and frightening towards me, I tried to distance myself from him and when I could no longer cope with the unpredictability and chaos he brought to our lives I asked him to leave the family home and access professional support. The next year had its ups and downs, even though my ex-partner was far from being well and still living away, the pressure was always on for me to let him move back home. He would go missing, threaten suicide and also tell me I was responsible for his deteriorating mental health and drug addiction. I was becoming exhausted and confused by the situation I had found myself in, desperately wanting free of his affliction, but becoming ever more anxious of the unknown.
Today, the social worker asked me, with an undercurrent of hostility and disbelief, ‘Why didn’t you leave?’ She said that as an intelligent, middle class woman (I’m working class actually), I should have been able to leave him the very first time I got a glimpse of his abusive behaviour, as if to suggest that only an underprivileged idiot would have given this man a second chance. If only life was that black and white, domestic violence would likely be a negligible problem in our society. I sincerely wish that I had left him the very first time he hurt me, or maybe even before when he swore at me whilst watching the telly. But I didn’t. I didn’t because when I met this man, I fell in love with everything about him. I didn’t because I invested a great deal of myself in him and as a compassionate human being I cared about what happened to him. I didn’t because he was my children’s daddy and he was adored by them. I took him back into my life repeatedly, but not without consideration, because he was mentally ill, and ‘for better, for worse’ I felt it was correct and moral to support him. I kept him at arm’s length but I didn’t want to lose sight of the dream that my children would grow up in a complete family, with a daddy that they cherished. I didn’t want to take the things that he loved away from him. I didn’t want to be responsible for his deterioration, his suicide or any of the other dire consequences that he threatened if I left. I didn’t leave because of the stigmatisation and the shame, and partly because of the assumption of others that because of my respectable upbringing that I should inherently be less vulnerable to the abuse of a violent and controlling bully.
I didn’t know what to do.
Abuse was unfamiliar to me as a child and young adult and like everybody else, I wasn’t born with any special training in how to deal with domestic violence so I managed the situation in the best way that I could and the only way that I knew how. I did reach out on many occasions and I sought help and support from everyone who offered. By nature I’m a problem solver and I felt I had found a manageable compromise. By staying in the relationship but living apart from him, I limited our time with an unpredictable and aggressive man, but I kept him in our lives enough to appease him and keep him from actioning his threats. I feared the unknown more than the situation I had adapted to. It is not helpful to be told by someone who is not me and who has never been in my situation, that they would never have let this happen to them. Statements like this only make it harder for people like me to come forward and report the abuse. If I already know that you are going to treat me, the victim, like an accomplice perpetrator, I will never feel safe or comfortable talking to you. What is infinitely worse than suffering, or being labelled the causative agent of my own domestic abuse, is then being packaged into the same box as a child abuser.
‘You’re very lucky that you have not lost your job’ said the social worker to me. I’m a doctor and a teacher and I take a huge sense of pride and worth in what I do. The best part of my job is being loco parentis to the children I teach. The very suggestion that I could be seen as a danger to any child because of my ex-partners violent and irresponsible behaviour seems utterly beyond my comprehension. The social worker made the point that I’ve proven myself to be a failure at safeguarding my own children by keeping this man on the periphery of our lives. My capability as a teacher and my ability to safeguard other people’s children in school should therefore also be called in to question. The social worker has a valid point. In order to safeguard the emotional welfare of my children I should have walked away after the first time he was violent. However, leaving wasn’t a realistic or innocuous option for me, I knew that it would not have guaranteed the safety of my children or myself but was more likely to provoke the unveiling of an even darker and unpredictable reign of abuse. And my fears were justified. The final and most brutal episode of emotional and physical abuse, which he was later prosecuted for, was motivated by me attempting to end the relationship and leave MY home that he had arrived at UNINVITED.
Social services, amongst other agencies, have played their part in rescuing me and my children from an anxious and abusive household. I am eternally grateful for those who have advocated for us and who have worked hard to reassure me that I was in no way to blame for the actions of my ex-partner. Whether it was their intention or not, the Section 7 team have made me doubt my every ability in all areas of my life. My confidence, already skimming rock bottom, has now plunged right to the earth’s core. The huge sense of guilt that I already felt has been reinforced and deeply entrenched by the words of one, judgemental and tactless individual just doing her job. It appears that social services see my staying in the relationship, not my perpetrators abuse, as the wrongdoing, placing the onus of damaged, emotionally abused children squarely on my shoulders. In hindsight, I can see that I made decisions that were wrong. I was wrong to give him a second chance. I was wrong to maintain the faith that human beings who are sometimes bad, can redeem themselves and become better people. I was wrong to believe that abuse was a symptom of a mental illness that could be fixed. I was wrong in thinking that preserving a complete family would make happier children that one that was partial, but consistently safe. I’ve learnt this lesson the hard way and I now know that by staying in this relationship I played my part in something toxic and dangerous and the indignity I feel for the decisions I made is inconceivable. My only excuse is that for some of my choices, retrospection and resulting consequences were the only way to conclude that they were, in fact, bad ones. My ex-partner does not have that excuse, violence and recklessness is always the wrong decision, society teaches us that. Shame and guilt are two powerful emotions and I feel it is a pity they should be displaced from those responsible for such suffering, to the victims and survivors.”