All names mentioned in this article have been changed
SITUATION: Molly Lane is 15 years old and lives
with her mother, Rona. She also spends respite periods with
short-term foster carers as her mother’s poor health means that she
either needs hospital treatment or simply a rest. Her mother was
the only survivor of a car crash that killed Molly’s father and her
two brothers four years ago. They were making a diversion to their
route to pick up Molly, who was late returning from a friend’s
house. Molly feels that the accident was her fault.
PROBLEM: Molly was having difficulties at
school for about two years after the crash. She was very withdrawn,
under-achieving and unable to make peer friendships. Before the
accident, she had been a lively, likeable and above-average
student. Her neighbour, Simon Coombes, a boy two years older at the
same school, would walk her home each day. Since the start of the
latest school year she has become aggressive and begun truanting.
She ran off with a 33-year-old man but was returned home by police,
who arrested the man. During interviews she disclosed that for two
years after the crash she was sexually abused by Coombes most days
on their way home from school. It only stopped when Coombes left
the school last term. Rona, who is close friends with Coombes’s
parents, dismisses Molly’s allegations as preposterous,
attention-seeking and malicious. Molly has been placed with foster
When Molly disclosed the information about Coombes to the
police, they would have contacted social services. Such a referral
initiates a section 47 enquiry and the social worker will discuss
the information with their manager to agree a plan of action,
including a strategy discussion or meeting with police.
Following this a decision may be made for a video interview
which will include both the social worker and police. It is
extremely important that all professionals involved take the
allegation seriously, particularly in the light of Rona’s
dismissive response to her daughter’s allegation.
Molly will probably be feeling guilt and shame, exacerbated by
her mother’s denial and lack of support at this difficult time. It
is likely that Molly’s feelings stem from the belief that she was
to blame for allowing it to happen, and guilt because of the likely
impact of her disclosure on her mother’s close relationship with
the Coombes family.
A decision about the suitability of a medical examination of
Molly is needed and whether she is willing for this to take place.
Account would be given to the passage of time since the last
alleged incident and taking account of Molly’s feelings at the
prospect of a medical examination.
Good child care practice requires an acknowledgement of the
anxieties which child protection investigations raise. Bearing this
in mind, Molly’s social worker should meet Rona and explain the
action required to protect and safeguard Molly’s welfare.
Coombes is now 17 and may well have access to other children, so
agencies need to be made aware of the allegation but this would be
without prejudice if no case is found against him.
As Molly has already been removed from her mother’s care, the
plan will focus on addressing the psychological impact of the
multiple trauma suffered as a result of the crash two years ago,
subsequent alleged sexual abuse and the present breakdown of the
relationship with her mother. It would be important to include
counselling services involving family therapy for Rona to help her
come to terms with the events of two years ago and so form a basis
for possible rehabilitation of Molly to her family.
It’s hardly surprising that Molly has experienced problems with
school and peer relationships over the last two years. She has
suffered multiple life experiences which would severely affect her
mental well-being and self-esteem.
It is likely that the crash two years ago has left her with
guilt and feelings of abandonment. It is essential for Molly’s
social worker to allow her space and time to discuss how she feels
about the loss of her brothers and father. It may well be that she
wouldn’t talk to her mother about these matters in order to protect
her mother’s feelings and also she may well not trust her.
It would be important to assist Molly to receive psychotherapy
for post-trauma work addressing her feelings of guilt and enabling
her to come to terms with what has happened. Substantial research
shows that survivor guilt is common.
It would be necessary to include Molly’s mother in family
therapy to address her feelings about the crash. One stage in the
process of grief is the need to apportion blame for what has
happened. It may well be that her mother feels this way and is
reinforcing Molly’s own guilt.
As well as therapeutic intervention, there should also be great
effort to sustain some consistency. It is essential that Molly is
supported in school. Connexions or the Youth Service may be able to
assist in finding social activities that will help with her
developing peer relationships and provide an environment where she
can have fun.
Molly’s social worker will need to have a good understanding of
psychological theories around attachment.
Trust is also a major problem since her mother refuses to believe
her about the abuse. Molly may well see her mother’s rejection as
confirmation that she is “bad” or to blame for the death of her
Molly’s social worker will need to ensure that she is in a
foster placement which is providing her with a sense of stability
and security. Molly’s childhood has taught her that everyone she
cares for will go away and that the world is a very unsafe place.
Undoing these beliefs will take time and a package of support from
health, social services, Connexions and Molly’s school.
The council’s priority must be to safeguard and protect Molly.
To do this effectively, it is essential that Molly lives away from
home temporarily. That means social services’ decision to place her
in foster care was completely correct, writes Mark Houston.
Molly’s continuing to live with Rona could make the situation
worse. The allegations must be resolved before Molly can live at
home again. That said, I would strongly advise efforts be made to
maintain Molly’s relationship with Rona and I suggest regular
contact. I would hope that in the not too distant future she will
be able to move back home and rebuild her relationship with
Although it is not known for certain that Molly was abused by
Coombes, there is currently no reason to disbelieve Molly. Since
Rona is close to the Coombes family, she is probably not in a good
position to judge whether or not Molly’s allegations are true.
Molly is very vulnerable and has a high level of emotional
difficulties. Her behaviour has been of concern for the last four
years, but it is particularly worrying that it has started to
deteriorate rapidly – quite likely as a result of many problems
that have been building up for some time.
Molly needs much more intensive and specialist help than she’s
been getting. Bearing in mind the circumstances, it is very
understandable she feels the way she does, but it is important that
she is supported to overcome the guilt, depression and anxieties
that she has been going through.
Her foster carers will be the most influential people in her
life for the immediate future and will be best placed to offer her
much of the necessary help.
It is of utmost importance to boost Molly’s self-esteem. Above
all, she needs to be encouraged and supported to build up her
social life, in particular with people her own age. She should be
encouraged to engage in recreational and leisure activities as well
as being fully supported to attend school and succeed educationally
Through building up a good rapport with Molly, the foster carers
should be able to find out more about how Coombes really treated
her, which would hopefully help resolve the situation. I would also
recommend that she receives counselling (or possibly even
specialist support). As well as helping Molly in terms of boosting
her ego and allowing her to get worries off her chest, it would
enable professionals to have a better understanding of her emotions
and feelings and offer her the best possible help.
Mark Houston is a care leaver.