Sitaution: Julia Black is 23. She has an 18-month-old daughter,
Shania, with her live-in partner Joe Allen, 32. She also has an
eight-year-old son, Mikey, from a previous relationship. Julia had
been known to social services around the birth of Mikey – her
partner was violent and she was struggling to care for her son, who
was placed briefly on the child protection register. Joe is well
known to social services. He was physically and sexually abused by
his grandfather, who was his primary carer. Taken into care at 10,
Joe had 26 placement moves over the next three years – during which
time his aggression towards carers saw him charged by police –
before returning to the care of his father’s extended family.
Problem: Mikey’s educational development has been slow and he
has a support teacher at his school. His behaviour has become more
challenging and has been both physically and verbally aggressive at
school, mainly to adults. One day he arrived at school in a very
subdued mood. His support teacher noticed what appeared to be
cigarette burns. When asked he would only say “Joe-Joe hurt me”. A
social worker visited to find the home untidy and unclean, and Joe
in an aggressive mood – he had always despised social workers from
his experience in care. Julia would say nothing, and sat by while
Shania cried throughout.
The first priority must be the safety of Mikey and Shania. Looking
at this from a family placement perspective, I consider that the
children are best placed away from home while the situation is
assessed and support given.
It would appear that, as a child, Joe had a poor experience of
social services. It is, perhaps, not surprising he continues to
despise social workers. Was he ever given an opportunity to deal
with his anger or offered counselling or support to help come to
terms with his past experiences?
It is crucial that Mikey and Shania have a different experience of
social services. A family and friends placement, if available,
should be the first choice of placement. Failing that, Mikey and
Shania must be carefully matched with foster carers who can meet
their needs. They would need to:
- Manage Mikey’s behaviour and work therapeutically with him –
alongside support with his emotional and behavioural needs.
- Offer support, understanding and stability.
- Work closely with educational services.
- Have skills in working with children who have experienced
- Try to establish a relationship with Julia and Joe, to work
closely with them and plan for the children’s return home.
Although Joe despises social workers, a foster carer may be able
to engage him. This could make all the difference as to whether he
now accepts help and support. They may be able to encourage him to
access support from voluntary services, which he may find more
acceptable than support from the department. Similarly, they may be
able to support Julia with her parenting, self-esteem and emotional
The carers should be fully supported themselves through regular
supervision and family placement contact, and take part in social
work training – in areas such as working with abused children – to
help avoid placement breakdown. Also, they should access support
groups and services such as child and adolescent mental health
Although services have failed Joe in the past, it is crucial to
support him and his family now and to ensure that Mikey and Shania
have different experiences of services for children and young
people in care.
Assuming that the immediate child protection issues have
been addressed, it may be that Julia and her children are victims
of domestic abuse by Joe. Some women will become involved in a
violent relationship and then move on, while others will become
involved in a series of abusive relationships.
Many of the women who become involved in these relationships will
have low self-esteem and self-confidence, and little belief in
themselves, and they may therefore be more likely to accept the
abuse. Also, those who perpetrate violence tend to suffer from low
self-esteem and self-worth, and this may lead them to wish to
control those with whom they have relationships.
If Julia is a victim of domestic abuse, she may not feel able to
talk freely in front of Joe because of fears of repercussion, both
to herself and to her children, as there is a direct link between
violence towards a partner and violence towards children. So it is
important to try to talk with Julia alone in a safe, preferably
neutral, place, to give her the opportunity to be more open about
what is going on at home.
This should be approached sensitively, without attaching blame to
Julia. Given that she may feel powerless to stop what is going on
within the relationship, it is crucial to make efforts to empower
her. This might be achieved by a family group conference, in which
Julia could address her isolation and lack of support, and enable
the family to become involved in a plan to protect the
It would also enable Mikey to voice his feelings and wishes around
what happens at home and provide the arena to put the abuse into an
open forum rather than remain hidden, as so often happens with
domestic abuse. Also, the conference could be co-ordinated by an
independent person, given Joe’s feelings towards social
Joe should be given the chance to address his violence, and be
empowered to look at his behaviour, perhaps through a domestic
violence perpetrators programme. Julia may benefit from individual
work around her own self-esteem and self-confidence, to allow her
to address the issues around domestic abuse.
It’s always a sad story when circumstances such as these arise
in a family, writes Justin Dickson. It is such a shame that this
kind of harsh reality happens every day, and that not every child
is lucky enough to escape the negligence of their parents who
somehow have lost the instinct to care for their children. If
nothing is done to prevent further physical and mental harm to
these children, the likelihood is that the same abuse that they
have suffered will almost certainly pass down to the next
generation – and so the story continues.
It seems that Julia has had a hard time, having her son Mikey at
the age of 15 and also being with a violent partner at the time. I
wonder whether she ever had the support of her parents or someone
close to her through these difficult stages in her life. My feeling
is that she did not, and therefore had no one to turn to.
Being in a relationship with yet another violent partner is not
helping Julia, and is only increasing the chances of having her son
and daughter being taken away from her. Now, with the identifiable
abuse on Mikey, action must be taken to stop any more harm coming
to him and his sister.
Given Joe Allen’s past, it is not surprising that he has grown
up to be an aggressive and violent man, as many people do who
suffer traumatic experiences such as his. Either Julia decides to
wake up and starts looking out for her son and tending to her
daughter’s cries, and gets out of her relationship with Joe, or she
can sit back and let her children be taken from her.
What does Julia want for herself and her children? I feel that
she must be helped in finding this out before she loses the choice
altogether. It seems she has just lost interest and given up. So,
what can be done? Well, Julia needs a lot of support and advice,
and to regain some confidence. After being in one relationship with
a violent partner at a young age and then another, her self-esteem
must be shot to pieces. She needs her motivation back and time to
think things over – some tender loving care would be nice, too. On
the other hand, Joe needs a lot of help to deal with his problems,
or the only place he will end up is prison.
In the meantime, the children need a safe and secure
environment, and that is the most important thing for them. No one
wants to break up families, but in some cases you can’t break
further what is already broken. You can only repair it.
Justin Dickson is a care leaver.