Friday, 21 March 2014

This is not what disclosure of abuse is like

I am an admirer of Barnardos, and have watched with interest their attempts to put over what they (and others, such as social workers) do to support vulnerable children. Their first TV campaign, "breaking the cycle" was compelling and disturbing, using TV editing (the repetition of the same sequence in shorter and shorter segments) in a similar way to their juxtaposition of visual images in the controversial "heroin baby" poster. They then appear to have decided to put the emphasis more on their supportive work than on the traumas faced by the children they work with, and their first effort at this, "Life story" I think took an excellent approach, even if its intention wasn't quite matched by its execution.

However their recent TV advert is I think dreadful, and carries a real danger of doing more harm than good. My attention was drawn to the advert by the absurd juxtaposition of a small boy worried about playing the recorder at a school concert and a teenage girl disclosing abuse. Having read Barnardos' blurb I learn that this juxtaposition is intended as a contrast between the supportive environment within which the boy confronts his fears and the lack of support faced by the girl. Which of course implies some similarity between the challenges they face. Really? What world precisely do the ad makers live in?

The second reason for taking against the advert was the melodramatically "actorish" playing of the part of the teenage girl. Whilst this seems to conform nicely to most people's image of what the disclosure of abuse is (must be) like, I am afraid that to me it was far more reminiscent of a Year 10 drama class than any actual disclosure. The actress has clearly been told to get into character and then give it all she's got, and I certainly don't blame her for the result. Also, of course, they have to shoehorn the disclosure into a 60 second ad, so cannot possibly give any sense of the halting, reluctant and time-consuming nature of most conversations of this type. Children generally take time, not just to trust the person to whom they are talking but to get round to what the real issues that trouble them are, and of course time is what the ad-makers did not have. Nevertheless "Ellie's" progression from angry self-hatred to reassurance in about 25 seconds of screen time comes across as ludicrously and simplistically compressed.

There is a deeper point at issue here. People at large, if they have to to think about child abuse at all, want to think of it as something "other"- as the action of demonic and inhuman monsters from whom children can, and must, be rescued by social workers or charities. In fact of course the situation is probably always more complex than that. There may be cases where one or more parents is genuinely monstrous, but they are vanishingly rare, and generally in such cases no one is ever allowed to discover what is going on until too late. In every case of disclosure of abuse I have ever encountered the inter-relationships within the family are complex and so are the children's attitudes towards their parents. It is this that makes disclosure so difficult for the child, because they sense at some level that their disclosure is going to change those relationships for ever and may break them completely.

The adult in the TV ad looks reassuringly trustworthy, and gains "Ellie's" trust by telling her that she doesn't think she is worthless. In reality however, it will generally take a lot more than that before a child will effectively hand over the future of their entire family to such a person.

Which leads me on to the real issue I have with the advert, and the aspect that I think makes it dangerous. "Ellie's" nod of trusting agreement comes after the adult tells her that, "Together, we're going to find a way to make this stop." Her voice is calm and reassuring and there is a note almost of complicity when "Ellie" nods her agreement. The implication is that "we" means "Ellie" and the adult, and the viewer is left with a sense that, having thrown her lot in with this lady, "Ellie's" problems are now over because the two of them are going to find a way to sort things out.

This is almost the opposite to the message an adult has to give a child when they disclose abuse. One of the first things the adult MUST say to the child is that they cannot keep this information to themselves and they are going to have to pass it on. Far from drawing the child into the entirely illusory comfort that they and child together will find a way to navigate this abuse it is the adult's duty to tell the child that this situation is NOT their responsibility any more. The child will have been trying for some considerable time to "make this stop" and will have disclosed to an adult precisely because they have recognised that they simply can't do it.

The juxtaposition with the recorder-playing boy makes this even worse. All that the boy needs to conquer his babyish fears about standing in front of an audience is a few comforting words from a supportive teacher. The inevitable implication is that the teenage girl similarly just needs to buck up her ideas a bit and then, with the support of the bespectacled Barnardos lady she too will be able to confront her fears and "make [the abuse] stop."

This is a truly dreadful message to put across, and whilst it may not have been intentional, one would have thought that Barnardos, with all their experience in working with vulnerable children, would have seen that this is how some children might read the ad.

At one level of course I cannot blame Barnardos for all this. The population at large has a simplistic, black-and-white and often contradictory understanding of issues relating to child protection. Social workers are simultaneously condemned for meddling and for allowing abuse to go on under their noses and being taken into care is seen as an obvious solution to any case of familial abuse despite the worrying statistics about the future for children in care.

The public at large want to imagine that the situation is as pictured in this advert: that when a child is being abused, all that needs to happen is for them to pluck up the courage to tell a suitably soft-spoken but determined-looking Barnardos lady and that will make the abuse stop. They don't want to think about the mess and complication and family disruption of a police Sapphire investigation or a Social Services child abuse case conference. They don't want to think about the complications around finding a place of safety for the child (which is worse, an adult brother with a conviction for burglary or police cells until someone can get emergency foster care set up?) and they don't want to think about the burden the abused child is so often carrying in trying against the odds to hold their family together.

Clearly a 60 second advert can't make the public at large understand all these things, and nor (probably) should it. What really worries me though, aside from the appalling messages this advert gives to any child or adult directly involved in a disclosure of abuse, is the illusory comfort it gives the public that by donating to Barnardos they can make the world as reassuringly simple as this ad makes it seem.

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