I guess I’ll start with the bare facts: Jenny had been living with her father until just under a year ago when she disclosed he was physically abusing her. She was removed. A few months later Jenny discloses her father sexually abused her. He confesses but claims he didn’t do anything wrong because they were ‘in a relationship’. Jenny’s father is charged with multiple counts of rape and possessing indecent images. It is because of the material found on his hard drive that we can be certain the abuse of Jenny started when she was two-years-old.
Jenny’s mother separated from her father when she was eight-years-old and took Jenny’s brothers with her – leaving Jenny with her father. We cannot know if she knew her daughter was being abused when she left, but she knows now and she blames Jenny – she wants nothing to do with Jenny because, essentially, she sees Jenny as “the other woman”.
Although he was charged, he will not be prosecuted. A couple of months ago he killed himself. Well actually he was kept alive in a vegetative state long enough for Jenny to visit and say goodbye. A few days prior to moving to us she attended his funeral. She was told on the day that she came to us that her previous placement had been closed. She had only been there several months but it was by far her longest placement.
I asked the staff, who brought Jenny to us, why her placement had been closed. I expected to learn something – some missing information that the local authority had glossed over in their desperation to find somewhere for Jenny to live. She could be aggressive towards staff, she smashed a window, she wouldn’t engage with their education provision (I mean, how dare she!). So far, so residential children’s home right? I did not hear anything which made sense of the decision.
A vicarious affective response to the emotional experience of another person that mirrors or mimics that emotion. In this sense there is a clear implication that an empathic experience is a sharing of the emotion with the other person.
Reber/Reber, The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology, 3rd Edition 2001
Is it possible for someone to truly empathise with Jenny? On my psychotherapeutic counselling training the talk is of ‘imagining in’ to the child’s world – but can I honestly say I am able to do that? Her experiences are so far removed from most people’s lives. All I can say is that when I was around Jenny I felt so terribly sad. I had a visceral sense of her complete aloneness in the world. And her desperation – her constant calls to the previous care home who – let’s face facts -had rejected her. Each new member-of-staff or agency worker on shift offering fresh hope – perhaps this would be the relationship that saves her.
I come on shift after a couple of days off to discover we have “given notice” and Jenny’s placement has been closed. Why? Some self-harming, a minor overdose, some challenging behaviour and aggression towards staff. So far, so residential children’s home right? My sadness and anger overwhelmed me, I couldn’t shake the powerful awareness of Jenny’s future – completely alone in the world as she ricochets around the pinball machine of children’s social care.
There is a reason why children as disturbed as Jenny have their placements closed and it has little to do with their presenting behaviour. It is unconscious of course. The material – Jenny’s experiences and the disturbance it has caused – is so unbearably toxic we fear we will be contaminated just by being in its presence. The veneer of a civilized society – with all the banality of Costa Coffees and Love Island and Facebook posts about cats – starts to crack. We have to get it away from us, so we find a reason.
The next day, Jenny (who does not know her placement has been closed) has a tough time of it – the other young people in the home accuse her of stealing something (she did not) and are spiteful in retaliation. In the kitchen that evening she says ‘they all hate me anyway’ – this isn’t a throwaway remark, the pain and the sincerity of her belief are palpable. I take an emotional hit but to my shame I say nothing – not even a platitude of reassurance. At bedtime I knock on Jenny’s door, to give her medication and to read her a bedtime story – which despite her age she still enjoys. She does not respond, I knock again, I become concerned and ask my colleague to fetch the room key. We open the door and it takes a moment to register what we are looking at.
We manage to untie the cord from her curtain rail and there is no lasting damage. However, this was not for show or attention, Jenny was blue in the face, another minute or two – say I had been distracted by an issue with the other residents – and she would have fallen unconscious, her entire body weight pulling on the noose. She would have died.
Jenny is in a secure unit now and, in terms of keeping her alive for now, this is the right decision. In the long-term it will make zero difference to the trajectory of her life. Still this isn’t the time for another rant from me about the inadequacy of provision and I guess we have to accept that, whatever the provision, children like Jenny are very very difficult to help.
To work in children’s social care, and many other professions, a certain level of dissociation is necessary – it would destroy anyone to be fully attuned to that much pain. But this time I can’t seem to do it – I can’t let it go – it’s too bleak.
A literary agent once told me that my ‘prose does not sparkle’. It was a fair point but right now I wish it did. I wish I could do justice to Jenny.