Do No Harm – Victoria Childs

DO NO HARM Seminar 11 September 2018, House of Commons

VICTORIA CHILDS, Psychotherapy and Counsellors Union – the (lifelong) impact of separation from birth families

Well I’m sorry but I’m not able to speak to you tonight about the lifelong impact of separating children from their birth families- and this is because it’s not a lifelong impact. The impact of removing children from their birth families is transgenerational, it creates an emotional imprint of trauma which operates on a historic level and damages the whole fabric of society far into the future and sometimes over hundreds of years. We create a level of trauma through forced separation which is so painful that it can’t be contained in one lifetime. It can leave such children – and often their descendants- open to leading diminished lives, suffering mental distress, often with greater chances of entering the criminal justice system, of experiencing addictions or of committing suicide. The human and spiritual cost of all that is one thing but the economic aspect also effects us all. It’s a huge waste in every sense.

We might be familiar with the negative portrayal of native aboriginal peoples and the native peoples of America and Canada – how they’ve been derided as lazy and alcoholic. We know that these communities have had their children systematically removed over hundreds of years, by colonials. How easy to blame the victims. We might be familiar with the negative portrayal of Afro-Caribbean men as bad parents and abandoning fathers. We know that generations ago black fathers were systematically removed from their families by slave traders who exploited them for profit- and the families were split up. Such traumas damage people over generations. The history of forced separation is a shameful one and today, we need to be very careful about the legacies we are creating.

We need to be mindful that the very bonds of civilisation are forged in the womb and shortly afterwards in the symbiotic relationship between the baby and the mother- how we all learn to care for each other as humans is based on the quality and texture of that primary relationship – it is the basis of all subsequent social relationships. It is the basis of society and of a sense of social justice. The most sacred image in the whole of human culture is of the mother and baby and it can be seen replicated all over the world. The idea that we can tinker with this relationship is a perilous one.

The basic tenets of psychoanalytic theory are also founded on the primacy of the mother and baby relationship- and more recent developments in neuroscience have borne this out. For instance the growth of neural pathways in the brain have been found to be determined by the security and containment of the relationship between the baby and the mother – and the baby’s brain development can be inhibited by the disturbance of the relationship. The recent ACE study coming out of Canada, on Adverse Childhood Experiences includes separation from parents. It studies brain development after trauma and it links traumatic separation to all the problems I’ve mentioned – as well as morbidity- premature morbidity through strokes and illnesses. Why is it then, that we see the family courts and their associated professionals like Cafcass, social workers and even court-appointed psychiatrists completely ignore this evidence and treat children and mothers as though they exist in a vacuum – disconnected from each other, their wider families and society? Perhaps it fits in with their “state parent” ethos, which is a political directive, but we say it’s wrong. And the levels of misinformation we are hearing coming out of the family courts is quite frankly astonishing.

So, the members of our union voted overwhelmingly to affiliate with the Support Not Separation Coalition because as psychotherapists we hear these repeating cycles of suffering every day in our consulting rooms. We listen to the impact of forced separations- that’s our job. I’ve worked with people in their sixties and seventies who are still traumatised by being separated from their families as children, under the age of five. As psychotherapists we can speak with authority about the damage separation does- and we want our opinions heard. This is entirely preventable damage- spending money on keeping families together, however they are struggling, makes economic sense- whereas prioritising adoption as the “gold standard” and incentivising social workers to remove babies is a scandalous misuse of resources. It damages the whole of society and is entirely counter productive. We as a union stand in solidarity with the campaign to redirect these funds into supporting families to stay together. It’s straightforward, it’s cost-effective, we’ve got the skills to do it and carrying on as we are is damaging the future for all of us.