If Jane’s story was true she had to be removed from a situation where she was at risk. But if it wasn’t true, was there a danger of making things even worse? A former teacher describes the tensions generated by the problem
Names and details have been changed to protect anonymity
Over the course of the last 30 years or so, teaching in a variety of secondary schools and local authorities, I have been involved, as a head of year and later of Key Stage 3, with a number of child protection issues. I have found all the cases I have been involved with difficult to deal with and difficult to leave behind at the end of the day, so I suppose for me, a key concern has to be the support that many teachers like myself must at times feel the need for and rarely get, partly because of the confidentiality issues inevitably involved and partly because of the pressures of time in a job where one is constantly multitasking and where staff emotional needs remain in most schools a regrettably low priority.
This case was the last one I dealt with before I left teaching to join the advisory service in a neighbouring local authority. In retrospect, I think that the enormous emotional pressure that it put me under was a contributory factor to my decision to change the course of my career. I no longer deal directly with these cases but I continue to observe the impact they can have on the teachers I work with.
With over 30 years of teaching behind me, most of them with an additional pastoral responsibility, I would certainly have described myself as ‘experienced’ and aware of the dangers of over-involvement but even four years after leaving this behind, I still often think about this case and the girl at the centre of it.
My first awareness of any problem was when this student, whom I shall call Jane, was in Year 9. She was a bright and quite reserved girl and had not presented any problems in the first two years of secondary school. The first hint of trouble came via an essay written for an English homework, in which she described a very emotionally charged situation at home. Her mother was apparently having an affair and her father had taken it extremely badly, was drinking heavily and was threatening to kill himself. She also claimed that he had tried once before and that she was desperately worried that he might do it again. He appeared from her account to be leaning very heavily on her for support. Her account was very powerfully written, sounded genuine and seemed to fit in with the changes that I had observed in her – she looked very pale and tired and had become much more withdrawn, often choosing to sit on her own. Other teachers were reporting that she had become very ‘sullen’ and could be uncooperative.
I decided to talk to her about her story and she insisted that what she had written was accurate and that the situation was deteriorating at home. She was clearly very troubled and worried about any prospect of me talking to her parents – it would make it worse, her dad would lose trust in her and that could drive him further towards suicide.
I approached the headteacher who had responsibility for child protection and he suggested I contacted social services for advice. The advice, which we followed, was that we should have the parents in and tell them what we had been told and share our concerns about Jane’s emotional wellbeing and the impact it was having on her school life.
By this time, she was beginning to self-harm and incidents of uncooperative behaviour were escalating. Her parents heard what we had to say with apparent incredulity. Her father, a well-educated professional man, was clearly shocked and seemed genuinely very concerned; her mother’s reaction was harder to understand – she seemed to be very cool and detached and immediately blamed it all on Jane’s lively imagination and her current choice of fiction – Virginia Andrews’ Dollanganger series, including Flowers in the Attic, which dealt with child abuse.
Both totally denied the story of the affair and insisted there were no problems with their relationship. They were unaware of the self-harming but had noticed that she insisted on wearing long-sleeved garments. It was agreed that Jane would see the school counsellor and that an appointment would be made for her with the CAMHS service. We would all keep in close contact and do our best to support her through this difficult period.
Both the headteacher and myself found it hard to reconcile Jane’s account with these seemingly normal parents but I also could not believe that everything she had told me was untrue. Her reaction was to accuse me of not believing her ‘I knew they’d put on a good show for you’ and she then began hinting that there was much more to the story and some of the things she told me began to hint at sexual abuse. She would park herself in my office at the end of the day and ask me to get her taken into care – she couldn’t cope with what was likely to happen at home.
‘She walked into a shelf’
At the same time, there was a new development. She began to appear in school with clear bruising to her arms, legs and face. Each time, I would contact her mother to be told ‘she wasn’t wearing her contact lenses, she walked into a shelf’ or ‘she was mucking out at the stables and was kicked by a horse’ (the adults in charge there had no knowledge of this). Jane herself would repeat the same story but would challenge me with a look which suggested that I couldn’t possibly believe that, could I?
When one set of bruises definitely looked like it had been produced by someone gripping hard on both her forearms, I again contacted social services and she told me and the social worker that the bruising had been inflicted by her father, that her mother knew and was covering for him. She was taken into temporary foster care but all agencies had serious doubts about her story and felt that she was still withholding key information. Was she making it all up? Could she even be inflicting the bruising on herself? She began to talk to me about a recurring dream that her grandfather had come into her bedroom when she was a child and touched her inappropriately – was something like this at the basis of it all?
She then disclosed to a friend that her father had repeatedly, over a period of years, sexually abused her. This of course made the situation at school more difficult – it was out in the open, would the friend tell someone else and how about her parents? The friend told me, I contacted the social worker and we both sat with her and explained what would be involved if she was going to take this further. Over the next few days, she gravitated from seeming on the verge of wanting to make a full disclosure to expressing the view that everyone would believe her parents, no one would believe her.
None of the professionals involved – myself, the social worker, CAMHS, the police child protection officer when he became involved, knew whether we believed her; personally I sometimes felt she was definitely telling the truth, at other times I was sure she wasn’t. If her story were true, we had to try our utmost to get her permanently away from a situation where she was at risk; if it wasn’t true were we in danger of making her situation even worse?
She finally came into my office one morning and told me that she had written it all down. I was not mentally or emotionally prepared for the graphic detail of the abuse she described. The allegations were of physical and sexual abuse from her father over a period of four years. She was adamant that what she had written was accurate and was completely clear that she wanted to go ahead with taking it further. She was prepared to make this disclosure to the police and did so.
My involvement with this case ended at this point. It happened just before the summer holiday and I was leaving my post in the school to take up a position in the advisory service of a different local authority. I will never forget saying goodbye to Jane. I had spent so many hours talking to her, thinking about the case, trying to ensure that my interventions were always in her best interests and trying also to cope with my own feelings about it all. She looked at me as though I was deserting her and that’s in a way what I felt I was doing too, although I knew I could not help her any more and that I had to emotionally detach myself from this case. I made a conscious decision to walk away and not to contact the school to find out what happened to her and I have stuck to that. I assume that there was insufficient evidence for the case to go to court or that, as Jane predicted, her father’s version of events was accepted or I would have heard about it.
For me, this case highlighted many issues and concerns. As a teacher, I have had very little training in dealing with issues like this. I was able to call on professional support from other services and valued this but they were not at school all the time to deal with Jane on a daily basis.
Whether her story was true or not, she was clearly very troubled and disturbed and I could not ignore her. I also had to support other staff, who found her behaviour difficult to manage but I could not share with them what was going on. I also had other students to deal with who also had huge problems and difficulties, let alone lessons to teach and a huge responsibility to make sure that I didn’t allow my classes to suffer – was I allowing her to dominate too much of my time?
Liaising with Jane’s mother was also difficult. If, as she alleged, Jane was making all this up, should I have made more of an effort to ally myself more closely with her? I never believed her version of the numerous bruises – what was really happening?
And finally I was arriving home from school emotionally exhausted; this was not fair on my own family.
The case described above, clearly had an affect on the author’s emotional wellbeing. If you are struggling with issues of this kind, seek advice. There is, it seems to me, from my experience, reluctance in the teaching profession to seek professional help. Counselling can be very helpful and most LAs have counsellors attached to occupational health. If you do not feel that counselling is an option for you, seek advice and support from your LEA designated child protection officer or a trusted colleague.