The reports in the media on the deaths of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson were extremely distressing to witness. This disturbing footage left many of us with feelings of outrage and despair. How could anybody inflict such terrible suffering on these vulnerable children? This is not an easy straightforward question to answer, particularly when such powerful feelings are evoked.
It was heart-breaking, to say the least, to see bruises on Star, a child so young and to witness Arthur’s pleas to be fed whilst looking so helpless, vulnerable, unloved and frightened. And, amidst all of this, reports of how the front-line staff had somehow managed to miss the signs can be baffling for outsiders, let alone those within the professional environment. So, how does this happen? I will attempt to add some of my own thoughts on this.
It is clear that when one is working with such disturbance, the capacity to think when overwhelmed can be incredibly difficult. At the best of times when working in this area of social work one can often feel challenged. In the pandemic the helping professional's role has intensified, budgets are tight, sometimes thinking is difficult due to overwhelming circumstances.
In some helping roles personal therapy is required to carry out the role. This can help to increase the capacity of the worker to know his or her own valency in the choice of work one is drawn to. To help one understand what and how one’s own history might impact on one’s capacity to think. For some reason there is no requirement in social work training to have this. In this particular area of social work, I wonder if it might be necessary to reconsider this due to the extreme vulnerabilities that can be evoked in child protection work?
The valency (unconscious motivation of one’s choice of work) for those of us drawn to this work is important here. The conscious reasons for one’s motivation in becoming a social worker or helping professional are clear in some ways: wanting to help, to change and help others lives and make a difference etc. However, the unconscious reasons are perhaps less clear and can potentially influence our capacity to think and withstand disturbances in others.
There are many who are drawn to work with vulnerable children and families because of their own childhood struggles which were often painful and often left unresolved, which may perhaps contribute in part to the attraction of wanting to work in this area.
The problem with the above, the lack of supervisory space, staff shortages and budget cuts is that when one is faced with the most distressing and disturbing feelings. Our capacity to bear these feelings becomes limited and may leave us open to seduction by skilful perpetrators. We can be hoodwinked in some scenarios because of our lack of awareness despite our training, overwhelm and of course the impact of the pandemic.
At the best of times social work is a very hard profession to work in. And in particular, when working with the most vulnerable children and families in society. It is clear that those family members who also wanted the best for these children were pushed out and will be suffering.
The social workers who might be thrown under the bus for these tragedies are cannon fodder due to the terribly distressing nature of what happened. I wonder how the impact of the above was and is being thought about with them. I would guess this must be a terrible time for them and the organisation too. The usual response is to blame and this is part of the process. However, there does need to be further soul searching on many levels to how this happened.
Another aspect of this case is how other professionals worked in partnership. What does this mean when they too are open to the same unconscious processes as their social work colleagues are?
Do the police get any input around understanding unconscious processes in themselves and in working in partnership? Are all the problems in others? Do we not need to understand what draws us to such disturbing work? And, do we fully appreciate the impact of overwhelming stress on one’s capacity to stay connected and think?
As I have said previously, we all have conscious motivations to do this work. I want to help, to protect children, to make a difference. All true, but in my opinion, this is only part of the picture and misses the unconscious motivation, which probably originated in our own childhood experiences and is less conscious, denied or cut off. Or worst still is dismissed as not relevant.
To expand on what I mean by unconscious processes, these are feelings, thoughts, experiences that we are unaware of usually because of their painful nature. We use defences to keep these feelings/knowledge of them away from our conscious minds.
In the case above, if the staff were overwhelmed, lacking in both supervisory and personal therapy spaces and unable to think about the painful possibilities in this household, it is not surprising that an unconscious turning a blind eye might happen. This is often the case when something is too difficult to think about, Nazi Germany, sexual abuse, Sarah Everard’s killer, to name a few.
Therapy, in my opinion, must become a core component of training professionals in this area of work along with group analytical supervision, and/or organisational consultancy that address unconscious processes. This is necessary because working in child protection, the most dreadful, disturbing feelings can be evoked, personal histories can come into play evoking a response of turning away or over reaction due to feeling completely overwhelmed and often feeling helpless.
The times we are living in are horrendous so when faced with such horror, disguised by the cleverest perpetrators, you can begin to see how these tragedies might happen.
The rage we all feel is necessary, but without an input that addresses the above and more, I fear further repetition. The intellect and rational theoretical thinking alone is not going to address unconscious motivations in both workers and those inflicting such terrible pains on children. The projective processes involved in such work, often unconscious, can impact on one’s capacity to think. The levels of distress in our society are currently off the scale, so it is not surprising the most vulnerable are the ones who suffer.
A helpful understanding of the perpetrator/victim/perpetrator philosophy applies here. The inflictors of such terrible pain have probably experienced similar humiliation and suffering in their own childhoods. What can often be the case under certain conditions is that the perpetrator enacts these experiences, memories on someone smaller, more vulnerable and helpless. The tragedy is complete.
We use language like 'wounded healers' in a positive sense and I agree with this. However, the flip side can also apply, where enactments can happen due to vulnerabilities and wounds being unaddressed and which are too painful to think about. This can and will have an impact on our work. The social workers, those in positions who help them think and managers who are trying to manage all this disturbance need further help.
The container/contained idea is relevant and much needed. The containment of the most disturbing feelings in society, if contained and able to be thought about, will enhance our capacity to think about the most distressing feelings we don’t want to think about. This in turn might help us to act in a way that lessens the need to turn away or be seduced.
The heartbreaking suffering that Arthur and Star endured, touched us all deeply. Unless we continue to think together about these dreadful experiences, we may well see this again.