Comment: Preparing ourselves to share and listen
In 2015, the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry was established to investigate the abuse of children in care in Scotland all the way up until 2014. To put it into perspective, that was the year of the Scottish independence referendum.
The inquiry works within a terms of reference set by Scottish Ministers. Initially, the inquiry was to report and make recommendations within four years. However, such were the numbers coming forward, that this was changed to “as soon as reasonably practicable”.
Two weeks ago, I joined the legions of people who opened up about the abuse we experienced whilst living in care. I was removed from my family home because the state determined that it could care for me better than my family or anyone in my community could. It then spent a lot of money paying for me to be cared for by strangers.
I often reflect on what my life or that of my peers might have looked like if the same level of support had gone into our families and our communities.
When I was young, I never really discussed the fact that I was in care. Nor did I spend much time privately thinking about it. I was quite happy to gloss over it and I did so out of fear of bullying and discrimination. Not only of myself, but my family.
It took years for me to open up about being in care and to this day, even in this column, I don’t relish sharing it unless it’s about driving change or helping transform the public understanding of who we, the care-experienced community, are. As someone who writes a column and speaks about the issue on a professional and personal basis, you may be under the impression that I’m an open book, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Until two weeks ago, I worried about the emotional toll it would take on me to share aspects of my life that I had never shared with anyone else. I was afraid that in opening up, I was betraying the 14-year-old me who vowed never to linger for too long on my own experiences for fear of it dragging me down. If I’m being honest with myself, my biggest fear, then and now, was that I wouldn’t be heard.
In 2017, I began working for a charity in the sector and learned about all the formal processes currently underway to understand the societal cost of care.
Two years later, a friend opened up about their experience of speaking to the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry. They said they had felt like they had finally been heard. I left the room and searched for contact information online. It took two more years before I mustered the courage to send an email.
I spoke via the phone and by email with a helpful advisor who created a space for me to speak about my life, in as much or as little detail as I wanted, to understand whether my experience fell within the remit of the inquiry.
Abuse within the terms of reference of the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry is described as most often meaning sexual or physical abuse, but may include other forms of abuse such as emotional abuse, neglect, and medical experimentation.
I was informed that what I experienced met their threshold of abuse and that if I wanted, they could place an application for me. I didn’t return their email.
I was afraid of not being taken seriously or feeling like I was someone’s job. Growing up, I learned to understand the abrupt pauses in conversation that someone was using to read a checklist and why my social worker always asked for a receipt for expenses when discussing my private life with me in a fast food restaurant.
Just over a month ago, I picked up the conversation where I left it almost a year ago.
Over a period of five hours or so, I was guided through a series of questions that sought to understand my life from beginning to end and explored the abuse I experienced in care. With regular breaks and an understanding environment, I opened up about my life in a way that I never had before.
I don’t quite know how to describe how I felt before, during or after. But now some time has passed, I can say it feels like the deep imprint that had been set in my soul because of care has finally been lifted a little. I feel like my experience, in its entirety, has been heard for the first time ever.
I don’t quite know what we’ll make of it as a nation when the inquiry comes to an end, but we need to prepare ourselves to listen. In communities across Scotland there exists a version of “Maggie Murphy’s home” and other threats, embedded in our society from a time of systemic, widespread abuse and oppression. In sharing these jokes, we’re complicit in maintaining a society where those abused in care haven’t felt able to speak up about our experiences.
Once we’ve heard about the experiences of everyone abused whilst in care in Scotland, what will we do as a nation to make sure we all step up and embrace a world in which it never happens again and create an environment where care means care?