A month ago, I sat in the quarterly meeting of our local family carer partnership board as the terms of reference were updated to include people caring for victims of crime and trauma. The emotion I felt at that moment surprised me.
Here was a tangible change that recognised the utterly exhausting battle I’ve fought on dozens of different fronts since I discovered that my daughter had been sexually abused – and more recently, since the establishment of Restitute, an organisation which supports the people who care for survivors of sexual or violent crime.
For the first decade of that fight, our family was completely alone: stigmatised, isolated, frightened and ashamed. We didn’t understand how the system worked, and we had no idea who to ask for help or even what help to ask for. My son – three years older than my daughter – was utterly confused by the disclosure. At first, he was disbelieving and angry, then horrified, appalled – and eventually utterly exasperated by his sister’s behaviour.
He became a young carer, but was completely excluded from support because his caring responsibilities were not recognised. He frequently cooked meals when his stepfather and I were dealing with his sister’s self-injury or suicide attempts. I am incredibly proud of the life he has made for himself, but can take little credit for it; he brought himself up from the age of 14 while we battled to keep his sister alive.
There was one moment of clarity when my daughter’s protracted disclosure provided enough information for social care and police involvement. But once it was decided our family was “good enough” and that the perpetrator wasn’t a family member – but also that there was no realistic prospect of conviction, despite police and social care being absolutely convinced that she suffered horrific abuse – everyone faded away and left us to “rebuild our lives”.
There was no rebuilding. Instead, there was endless, horrific self-harm, destructive behaviours, destroyed friendships, overdoses and hospital stays. Meetings with school, an EHCP, a reduced curriculum and three attempts at college – all collapsing after six weeks when a period of ill health put her too far behind.
Drinking and drugs, increasing physical pain and weight loss, good care coordinators (and appalling ones, too – one of whom suggested that my 19-year-old child should face the consequences of her decisions if she decided to become a sex worker). It took me 23 attempts to get a carer’s assessment, and only then because of the intervention of my MP.
Three years ago, my daughter’s physical and mental health became stable enough for me to create Restitute. I set up the organisation because I wanted to offer more than just advice or guidance to carers. I wanted to offer practical support; to take some of the incredible burden of negotiating a complex system that claims to want to support children but has no coordination or understanding of the demands expected – or the damage caused to traumatised families.
I hoped we would support between six and 12 families in our first year. Three years later and we have supported 231 families, some with levels of complexity that make my own challenges seem mild. While my support workers listen to the sobbing parents of babies who have been raped, I spend every hour trying to find ways to keep us going financially – and worrying about where the next penny is coming from.
Society expects traumatised parents to raise and protect children, who – because of the abuse they have suffered – are at increased risk of drug and alcohol abuse, homelessness, criminality, poor physical and mental health, sexual exploitation, and domestic violence.
At the same time, those parents are offered almost no support, while being constantly stalked by a narrative that seeks to blame and shame parents who have done nothing wrong. Often, children are abused by another parent, a grandparent, another child or an adult with a spotless DBS record and no criminal history.
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Tomorrow, a group of parents, carers, and staff from Restitute will be at parliament to meet with MPs and to let them hear firsthand about the challenges parents face. We want every constituency to have access to Restitute, independent of any service being offered to their loved ones, to help families learn how to support traumatised children. We want them to learn from lived experience, from those who understand how to reduce the risk of family breakdown.
At Restitute, we have written to every MP to encourage them to meet us. While Matt Hancock is in the jungle, we’re supporting 18 families in his constituency. They are the lucky ones.
It has taken three years for our service to make an impact in Norfolk and Suffolk, and although we are beginning to offer our service to people in other areas of the country, childhood is finite and we don’t have time to wait for the rest of the UK to recognise the life-changing impact Restitute can have for survivors and their families.
Cath Pickles is the CEO of Restitute