Catherine Murray, 10th April 1992
Working with the aftermath of child sexual abuse
How would you define child sexual abuse?
I think I would define it as any kind of behaviour of a sexual nature which is imposed upon a child by someone who has more power, perhaps by reason of their age or their position or the authority they hold. That covers a multitude of things from what we might call molestation, or touching, to intercourse and beyond that of course to forms of ritualized abuse.
You work in therapy with children and survivors of child sexual abuse in Manchester. Could you say a little bit about that?
I’ve worked for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) for nearly twelve years, and in 1987 I was successful in obtaining a grant from Greater Manchester Council, as it then was, to open a Unit which specialized in child sexual abuse. This Unit was to provide training facilities and consultancy facilities for other professionals and, most important of all as far as I was concerned, to provide treatment for children and adults who had been sexually abused. In addition to being a social worker, I’m a psychodramatist and I was keen to use those therapeutic skills with abused people. The Unit was very successful and ran for three years and the grant ran out at that time. The Unit was then taken over fully by the NSPCC and they now subsidize the work that we do although we do work on a fee- paying basis and fees are usually paid by agencies
Could you say something about the actual methods that you employ?
I work a great deal in a one-to-one situation with children of all ages. The youngest children that I deal with are two years old and I don’t just stop at eighteen because I work with adults as well. Usually people are referred to me by another agency although adults refer themselves, and I work using psychodrama and also drama therapy of which I am also a practitioner, in order to help people to get in touch with what has happened to them, to resurface the trauma of the abuse, to help them connect it perhaps with other abuse in their life and understand perhaps how it may have distorted their learning and their cognition of events. I help them to bring it to the surface and sort it out, if you like, and then they can transfer what has happened to their past memory. It is sometimes very painful work. It’s painful for the therapist as well as for the survivor and accordingly team work is very important. I have a very small team that I work with – two or three social work therapists and an administrative staff, but I am lucky in that I can call on much wider resources within the NSPCC and also on some doctors and psychologists. I always work very closely with the social workers so that they always know exactly what is going on. I don t follow what is known as a medical model whereby I see the clients and they just come to see me and nobody else knows what is happening. I work closely with the person that referred them, whether social worker, foster mother, residential worker, so that they can continue the work after the person has finished therapy, so that they understand what has been going on, understand some of the methods I’ve been using and so they can continue the support and work on the same lines. So in a way, the team work with my own team also extends to team work within the community. I find one of the most important things is having people work on the same wave- length and it’s such a joy when I find that the people who are providing help for the child’s parents are working on the same lines as myself so that the whole family can help each other to heal their lives again.
You mentioned there the pain that the therapist goes through – could you say a bit more about that?
I find that unless I attend closely to what is happening within me, not only would that actually destroy me but it would also be very bad for my clients. I think that’s not only the way to personal burn-out, but it’s also the way to damage others. The team work I described actually supports me a lot and I can go to any of my colleagues and ask for personal help. I also have a strong supervision structure in place and more than one professional person that I call upon regularly to discuss the work and the personal issues that arise for me as I’m doing the work. I personally would find it very difficult to do this work if I didn’t have support in my home life.
I wonder if you could say something, Anne, about disclosure, validation and resources?
When we first started working with child sexual abuse, we were extremely keen to find out how much there was and validation or disclosure was a big issue. That was very important because we do need to listen to children and I wouldn’t like to detract from that in any way, but we are now finding that that is only the beginning of the work that has to be done, so we need to note the resources that are available to us in the community because it seems to me that it can be quite cruel to go through a validation procedure with a child which may have no hope of succeeding. That in itself can actually trap a child into a worse situation than they were in before, or, if it does succeed, the child and the family, the non-abusing parent in particular, is left stranded without any support or help for them to cope with the further difficulties that are bound to ensue after validation. This leads me on to make a point about the political situation. I’m very conscious that child sexual abuse is a product of a patriarchal political and social system and those of us who are working in this area need to be aware that it is not sufficient just to paper over the cracks, that we need to look at the systems that are in place and change them where necessary. Therefore it’s important in any country that we have people who can not only meet practical resources but can act as a ginger group, if you like, to change policies. People must not bolster up rigid hierarchical systems on the one hand and on the other hand try to alleviate the consequences of those systems.
What then would be your major message to psychotherapists, counsellors and people working in the field of child abuse and its survivors?
I would say that survivors are very sensitive people and that therefore we must be very careful not to seem to be critical or judgemental in any way because that can simply add to the damage that has already been done. Our task is not only to alleviate the pain that has been caused, but to prevent further pain, so it’s not helpful to make any judgements about anyone who’s been abused. So we should not only listen to them, and listen with our eyes as well as our ears, but we should seek to empower people so that they can use their own resources for healing, which I believe we all have, and the task of therapists is to facilitate people to use their own resources to heal themselves.