I came back to work after a week’s holiday and found the Bennett family in residence. Two girls and a boy; they were withdrawn and several of my colleagues were finding them difficult to deal with. As a consequence of this – and because I was in the middle of my social work training and considered best placed to take on the ‘awkward’ children, I was allocated as their key worker.
The first few days were spent going about my usual routine of getting children and young people out of bed, dressed and down for breakfast. As a female member of staff I usually worked in the girls wing, but as one of the few females who would volunteer to get the boys up I had the chance to observe all three children without being too intrusive.
Ray was the eldest of the three; at fourteen he was in the middle of our group of boys but he was very much apart from the lumbering big boys constantly flexing their macho muscles, the voice-breakers who turned from squeaky to bass at a moment’s notice and the little ones who had some very severe behavioural issues.
Ray constantly sought the company of his sisters; twelve year old Angela and eight year old Suzanne. The three of them were frequently found in a small and very self-contained huddle in the TV room or at the far end of the veranda when told they had to go outside for some fresh air.
After three days of trying to get to know my key children, I stayed on for a couple of hours after my shift ended in order to sit and read their case files.
It was not comfortable reading.
For the past six years the Bennett parents had been arguing over access arrangements following their divorce. Their mother had custody of the children after fleeing domestic violence and spending a period in a hostel. She had never reported her husband’s abuse to the police and there were no third-party evidence records, Mr Bennett was denying any form of abuse and demanding that he have weekly access to his children.
The children refused to see him.
They had been to family court on numerous occasions and it was accepted by Mrs Bennett that the children would attend a centre where their father could have supervised access. Mr Bennett refused this however. He wheeled out a number of family friends who attested to his good character and what an excellent father he had been. They also claimed that Mrs Bennett had mental health problems and was using the children to get back at her ex-husband.
At the most recent court appearance the judge had made an order that the children should go out to dinner with their father once a week without supervision. Mrs Bennett was distraught. The children – led by Ray – flatly refused to go and the judge ordered that they should be taken to a children’s centre as their mother was ‘obviously’ having a disruptive influence on them.
They came to us in just the clothes they stood up in. A hastily appointed social worker had been to their house and collected clothes and belongings but their mother was in such a state that the suitcases contained a strange jumble of items that had to be supplemented by our meagre stock of clothing and toiletries.
Until things were resolved the children were not allowed to have visits or even phone calls from either parent. Letters and cards were to be opened by staff and vetted before being given to the children. The social worker had been charged with compiling reports on all three of them, and, as the key worker, had to compile daily reports based on my own observations and those of my colleagues when I was off duty.
What had I observed so far? Ray was quiet; he didn’t join in with the usual banter and he sought the company of his sisters wherever possible. Angela was equally self-contained but Suzanne was more sociable; joining in with the younger girls when they chatted about hair and clothes and TV. A look from her brother or sister would bring her away from the group and back to their sides.
We were one of the few centres in our local authority to have a school unit on the premises; educational assessments had so far revealed that all three children were of above average intelligence but would not participate in team activities and would not talk about their past. Of the three, Suzanne was the most outgoing but any attempts to get her to talk about her home life were quickly prevented by the interventions of Ray and Angela.
We all tried to break through to them but after two weeks we were still no closer to understanding what had sparked their defiance in the courtroom. The social worker had been to visit their mother several times but she was just as withdrawn and reluctant to say anything other than that the children wanted to stay her and that she was frightened of her husband. The social worker stated – rather gruffly – that Mrs Bennett seemed unable to say anything specific about what it was that her husband had done to her.
Unable, unwilling or terrified?
The good thing about training to be a social worker for two and a half days of my working week and coming in to carry out usual duties for the other two and a half, was that it was easier to put my newly acquired knowledge into practice. We were currently studying play therapy as a means of getting children to open up about their experiences. The more I learned, the more I wondered if this was a way of finally getting through to the Bennett children. I talked to my tutor and he gave me some books to study, together with a group of therapy dolls; mother, father and three children.
I had an idea that the key to it all was to get Suzanne alone, so with the blessing of my manager, I arranged for her to be released from morning classes for a couple of hours. I found out later from the teachers that Ray and Angela were rather distressed when Suzanne left the room and they had to be quite stern in order to prevent them from following her.
I had set up one of the smaller conference rooms with cushions, bean bags, toys and the dolls. I also laid on refreshments in an effort to make the atmosphere as pleasant as possible. Colleagues were advised not to disturb us. I’d spent the previous evening reading up on everything I could relating to the use of dolls in play therapy and although I was nervous, I also felt exhilarated at the thought that I might possibly get to the bottom of what was disturbing the Bennett children.
It wasn’t easy. Suzanne had been well-schooled by her siblings. The wall that the three of them – and their mother – had built up was almost impenetrable.
I used the dolls to talk about my own family. My father coming home from work, my mother cooking dinner, my sister reading a book and my brother and I playing with his cars.
All very normal and harmless.
Suzanne picked up the father doll and put him to one side. She put the mother doll and the three children together on the sofa I had made from cushions. Then she picked up the father doll again and looked at him.
She looked at me.
‘Would you like to say anything to the father doll Suzanne? Or to any of the other dolls?’
Suzanne looked back at the doll. I could see that this was difficult for her and being a novice at play therapy, my tutor’s advice about not going too far or too fast was ringing in my ears.
Suzanne threw the father doll face down on the carpet.
‘You are a bad man. You make Mummy cry and you come into mine and Angela’s room at night. Ray says we mustn’t tell though.’
‘Why not?’ I asked. ‘Why mustn’t you tell?’
‘Ray says that Daddy will kill Mummy if we tell. He saw Daddy in the kitchen with Mummy. Daddy had a knife. He hurt Angela and made her cry too. We don’t like Daddy. That’s why we won’t go to dinner with him.’
She started to cry then; frightened because she had told the big secret. Frightened that her Daddy was going to hurt them or even kill their mother. I put the dolls to one side and we hugged before polishing off most of the sweets.
Leaving Suzanne building a car out of Lego, I went next door and spoke to my manager. He called the social worker – who was out of the office as usual – so we decided that the next step was down to us.
I went down to the classroom and collected Ray and Angela. They looked sullen and even more withdrawn than usual. From the glances that they gave Suzanne, I could see that they knew something had happened.
My manager took the lead. He explained that adults often try to get children to keep secrets but that some secrets are bad, and the adults have no right to make children keep them. He told them that a part of our job was to protect children from bad secrets and keep them safe from people who frighten them.
They were truly frightened and now we knew why. My manager looked over to me and indicated that I should let them know that we understood their secret.
‘I think that your Dad has asked you to keep some bad secrets. I think that he has told you that if you tell anyone, he will hurt your Mum and then you’ll have to go and live with him. I think that your Mum is just as frightened of your Dad as you are and that’s why she has never told anyone about what he does to you all. You shouldn’t have to keep secrets like this. It isn’t fair on you, or your Mum. We will do our best to protect you. Will you let us help?’
It took a while but we both knew we had to be patient with them. The three exchanged glances and eventually Ray spoke.
‘He doesn’t hit Mum but he makes her cry and tells her how useless she is. He – he – hurt Angela and he said he was going to do the same to Suzanne when she is a bit older. He says it is his way of showing them how much he loves them and if we tell anyone he will pay for someone to kill Mum and he will get custody. He has lots of money and he can pay for a decent lawyer to make it look like we are the liars. If he tries to hurt my sisters I will kill him. I don’t care what happens to me.’
Ray’s croaky boy-to-man voice brought tears to my eyes. My manager took charge at this point. We had to get the police child protection unit involved and once the social worker was tracked down, she came in and took over supervision of the interviews.
The children had been through several different hells but as a consequence of their disclosures the court order was overturned, their father was arrested and once their mother realised that they were all safe, she gave an interview that confirmed everything her children said – and more.
Packing up their worldly goods to go home was one of the happiest tasks I had ever undertaken. It wasn’t the end of the story by any means but we had started the ball rolling and the social worker was arranging for counselling for the children and their mother.
Their father was remanded in custody. He had maintained his very professional coldness throughout, but when the alleged sexual abuse of Angela was brought up, he snapped and attacked the female detective conducting the interview. From the names he called her, and the threats he made, it left no one in any doubt of the mental abuse he had inflicted on his family.
He was found guilty and imprisoned but who knows what lasting damage was done to those three children and their mother? Hopefully the counselling helped but that sort of support is expensive and when cuts have to be made in social care, aftercare and support of abused children is a low priority.
If there is any justice in the world then there should be a happy ending to this tale.