Home life can quell threat

Case notes

Practitioner: Dr Andrew Durham, consultant practitioner. 

Field: Young people with inappropriate, sexualised behaviour. 

Location: Warwickshire 

Client: Neil Whysall, 15, lives with his mother Jan, his brother Ricky, 11, and sister Becky, six. 

Case history: Until recently, Jan’s partner Ian Pitt, 25, and the father of Becky, also lived with the family. After concerns raised by a GP about the cause of a medical complaint, Neil, jointly interviewed by police and social services, disclosed that he had been sexually abused by Ian extensively and over two years. Ian admitted abusing Neil and was jailed for six years. Neil was reluctant to talk about the abuse as he was close to Ian. Since Ian left, Neil has become increasingly beyond his mother’s control and has been accommodated by the local authority three times. Jan expressed concerns about Neil leaving the house and not returning until either very late or sometimes the next day. Neil also began gravitating towards Ricky when he used the bathroom, exposing himself to Ricky and leading him into inappropriate conversations about sexual matters. 

Dilemma: Neil’s guilt is so strong that it affects his behaviour adversely and he is becoming increasingly difficult to manage. 

Risk factor: At home Neil risks gravitating towards Ricky and often runs away, making himself vulnerable to further abuse. 

Outcome: Neil’s home life is fine and he now has little contact with social services.   

The fallout that follows the disclosure of abuse can be as traumatic as the abuse itself – sometimes more so. This was the case for 15-year-old Neil Whysall, who had been systematically sexually abused over two years by his mother’s partner, Ian.

Until disclosure, Ian had groomed Neil and controlled the situation. Neil, who as a maturing young person had found the sex pleasurable at times and would report for or request the abuse as much as being asked to do it, felt responsible for wrecking his mother’s and Ian’s life. He was also confused about his sexuality. After a school field trip there were rumours that Neil had sexual contact with his friend Barry. The rumours caused Barry to break off his friendship with Neil, who subsequently became increasingly isolated at school and often absent. Add to that mix the usual confusion and urges of adolescence and you have a vulnerable young person who paradoxically is possibly on the verge of becoming an abuser himself.

Andrew Durham, consultant practitioner with the Sexualised Inappropriate Behaviours Service (Sibs) in Warwickshire, says: “Neil’s mother, Jan, often found Neil crying. He had never really spoken to anybody about Ian, and often became more distraught when his name was mentioned. He felt responsible for Ian being sent to prison and thought that he shouldn’t have told anybody about the abuse.”

Durham realised he would need to work with Neil and Jan: “She felt guilty for not spotting what was going on. Ian groomed the whole family into not spotting it.”

Neil’s confusion over his sexuality was also central. Durham says: “He feels that he is gay and as Ian had a relationship with Jan, this made him believe that Ian was straight and therefore Neil was responsible for what happened. These messages and feelings were likely to have been subtly planted on Neil as part of the grooming.”

The post-abuse counselling sought to show Neil the abusive processes he had been through. “It was crucial to place the blame and responsibility with Ian, and for Neil to understand that it was not his fault,” says Durham. “This meant addressing the issue of physical pleasure during the abuse and disentangling the knot between his sexuality and sexual feelings and the abuse he experienced so that Neil could think about his own sexuality in its own right.”

The therapy also explored why Neil had sometimes wandered the streets and slept rough. “Neil admitted that he had thought about seeking opportunities to have sex with other men,” says Durham. “Also, being with older men was about re-creating abusive experiences that he previously found pleasurable. His approaching his younger brother, Ricky, was similar but this would put Neil in the position of being in control. However, this stopped before it developed into anything.”

Durham’s work with Jan similarly sought for her to understand the abusive processes, locate responsibility and help her get over the shock. “Ian had disempowered her and it was crucial to re-establish her pattern of control,” he says. “For example, we introduced house rules such as not going into each other’s bedrooms, not sharing the bathroom, and about nakedness.”

Neil was placed in care a few times, but this had a positive spin-off. Durham says: “Neil hated his periods in care even though they were short-lived. He felt isolated and rejected. He was motivated to make things work at home, but he had to accept that he was no longer in the quasi-adult family position to which Ian had elevated him. Basically, he wanted his mother. He needed her support but was also feeling incredibly guilty. However, as Neil began to understand what happened to him his risky behaviour towards others subsided.”

There was, after all, a clearly identifiable cause. Durham says: “In most circumstances once people who are abuse-reactive start to see what abuse is and realise that they have been through it; they see they don’t have the personality aspects or the wish to inflict that on somebody else. As soon as Neil and Jan had a map – a landscape of what had happened – they could see that it was all Ian and not them. It was a simple equation: any responsibility that they take, they are taking it off Ian. And the solution has to be that Ian is 100 per cent responsible for what happened.”

Arguments for risk 

  • At this stage of Neil’s life, all parties, including Neil, considered the best option was for him to remain at home with the family and to put an individual package of support in place to keep everybody safe.  
  • It was important to keep much of his life constant, leaving space to work on the problems. “Neil was very prepared to work as well. It would be oppressive and wrong to lock him up,” says consultant practitioner Andrew Durham. 
  • To have moved Neil away from his home life would have increased his isolation, broken up his family and labelled him a dangerous person – “which he wasn’t,” says Durham. “It would create a whole range of other issues to deal with on top of having being abused. It would be labelling and blaming. He definitely felt responsible and had the feeling that ‘If I’ve done it once, I’ll do it again. I am an abuser’, when in reality he is totally a victim.”   

Arguments against risk 

  • It could be argued that, given the closeness of the family, removing Neil would just compound the impact of what had happened. However, Neil proved that his behaviour was difficult to manage. He ran away a lot, stayed out overnight and so on. He also had some short periods in foster care anyway, so it was clearly on the agenda.  
  • Perhaps the biggest danger posed by Neil would be his learned behaviours. There was evidence that Ian was preparing Ricky through Neil. Ian would talk about Ricky in a sexual way, which suggested that Ricky was being targeted. With Ian no longer around, Neil might assume Ian’s role. 
  • One of the continuing problems for Neil was that he had been immersed from an early age in sexually abusive experiences that were on the surface pleasurable and he wanted to continue having experiences. Thus he was forced into potentially dangerous situations by seeking out men for sex.     

Independent comment

The pressures on child-safeguarding services too often lead to an approach that focuses on dealing with symptoms rather than causes, writes Patrick Ayre. It would have been easy to concentrate on the risk that Neil’s behaviour posed to Ricky and himself. However, had he been removed from home precipitately, it would, at best, merely have relocated the problem. In reality, the situation would almost certainly have deteriorated since it would have confirmed the negative self-image that was already having such a powerful effect on Neil’s behaviour.  

The approach of consultant practitioner Andrew Durham allowed Neil and his family to gain a clearer perception of what had happened to them, to locate the blame appropriately and, one hopes, to correct some of the unhelpful learning to which Ian had exposed them. The damage in this case is most unlikely to have stopped at Neil alone. There is a danger that media attention on the grooming of lone adolescents through the internet may distract us from those more common cases in which the perpetrator undermines the child’s whole protective environment.  

Neil’s case is a classic example of the grooming of a whole family. Though Ricky may not have been involved at a physical level, he and his mother were being induced to adopt the behaviours and attitudes that would make a future assault easier. Had Neil been removed, the risks arising from this would have remained.  

Patrick Ayre is senior lecturer at the University of Luton and an independent child welfare consultant.

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