“I Believe” — Two little words that can allow someone to take control of your life.
For the most part I feel that social workers do an excellent job in difficult circumstances.
However, some don’t. In fact in my experience some are incompetent, clueless and in a few extreme cases just plain vindictive.
This is the story of me and my mother and the clueless, incompetent and vindictive social workers we have been dealing with for the past thirty-odd years. How they took me away from my mother based on lies and how now that my mother in in her 80s they have taken her away from me.
I was born in Carlisle, UK in 1976. My mother was originally from Derry in Northern Ireland and worked as a seamstress. My father was Latvian and worked for Cowan Sheldons crane makers.
My early years were completely uneventful. Well, until my father passed away in 1981 when I was five. That was a pretty big blow to me and my mother. But we persevered. My mother tried to find me a new father figure, but it was all to no avail. Eventually she decided to move back to Derry in 1986 to be with her family and to feel a bit more grounded.
In hindsight that was a terrible mistake.
The Move to Derry
The first thing I should mention was that Derry in the 1980s was a very different place to what it is today. The ‘Troubles’ were in full flow. The area was economically depressed. To be honest it was a strange place to move to from the banality of a small regional city like Carlisle.
Upon arrival my mother needed help to settle in and seek housing. She spoke to some nuns, whom in tun passed us off to social services.
For the next two years Derry social services were actually quite helpful. They helped source us social housing and were there to help when we needed them. But alas, it was not to last. In 1988 we got a new social worker who turned out to be a bit of a nasty one.
My mother had for some time needed an ear operation that might keep her in hospital for two weeks. Unfortunately, she didn’t quite manage to get on as well with her family as she hoped and as a result she was struggling to find me somewhere to stay for the time she would be in hospital.
Our new social worker, Kathleen, suggested I be admitted to care under a “Section 103 voluntary” order. She said I would be in care for a maximum of eight weeks and that my mother could take me home at any time. My mother agreed to this idea as did I, but with a degree of some reluctance.
That was the worst mistake we have ever made.
“You and your mother fight a lot, don’t you?”
I was admitted to the now infamous (I’ll explain why in a bit) Harberton House in April 1988 when I was aged 12.
Soon after admission I came under a lot of pressure to admit to relationship problems between me and my mother. My keyworker (the staff member primarily responsible for me) used glove puppets to try and create a situation where I was hitting my mother or vice-versa. I thought the whole thing to be a bit surreal and ridiculous.
I came under similar pressure from my social worker on her weekly visits, as well as from other “house parents” — yes that is the ridiculous title the staff of Harberton House had.
My mother had her operation and was discharged from hospital early, about four weeks in to the eight week period.
She tried to have me discharged, but the attitude of social service staff changed. She was told that in their opinion we were a danger to each other and that if she tried to take me home they would go to court to have me readmitted within a matter of hours.
My mother was terrified. I was terrified. But what could we do, we just went along with it in the hope that social services would realise they were wrong.
But it got worse, much, much worse.
By now it was September 1988. I should have been home a long time ago, but instead I found myself moved to the medium term end of Harberton House.
One day Kathleen visited me and started talking about a supposed allegation I had made some time ago. Namely that my mother had sexually abused me.
That was odd I thought. I had never said any such thing or anything that could be misconstrued for such an allegation.
I told Kathleen I didn’t know what she was taking about. She got aggressive with me and said I did make the allegation and demanded I sign a statement that she had prepared in her notebook. She implied my mother would be going to jail and I would never see her again if I refused.
But I did refuse.
As a result of my refusal all the houseparents gave me a hard time. I was accused of being a liar and of making Kathleen look bad and that I would be punished for not going along with her. It was a very unpleasant experience for me, and more so for my mother who was for want of a better phrase “freaking out” over the whole affair.
Not long after Kathleen tried to force me to agree to a false sexual abuse claim, she applied to have me mad a Ward of Court. Our solicitor was up against a 500lb gorilla in trying to argue our case. Social services portrayed my mother as neglectful, nasty and with a penchant for going out drinking. All of this was a fabrication. My mother hadn’t been out for a drink in years. Of course they repeated the sexual abuse allegation but in a carefully worked “we believe there may be an issue” kind of way.
Of course, social services won. I was made a ward and social services pretty much owned me.
My contact with my mother was limited to a a few hours each week inside Harberton House.
I wasn’t present in court for the first wardship hearing. Instead I was invited up tot Belfast one day to meet the judge in charge of my case Justice Higgins.
I was invited in to his chambers and we talked about my life. I kept reiterating that my social worker was lying, but I knew I was up against it when he looked at me smiled and said “social workers just do not lie”.
There in a nutshell was a perfect demonstrtion of out problem. Social workers are seen as inherently trustworthy. If one does go “rogue” it is very hard to do anything about it since it is better to let a social worker go too far rather than risk a vulnerable person.
All they have to do is start an allegation with “I believe” and they have a get out of jail free card.
The Hell of Harberton House
For most of the time I was in care I was detained (I use that word deliberately) in Harberton House. It was a bit of a dump. The staff were lazy and incompetent, many had no formal childcare qualifications. Some turned up for work reeking of booze. There was little oversight of residents. Bullying was rampant, there were also sexual abuse rings.
I had everything stolen from me, I mean everything. Not a single thing I arrived in with I left with — including irreplaceable personal items. Even my bike was destroyed.
I was seriously assaulted on many occasions, but little action was ever taken. On one occasion I was forced to apologise to the person who tried to break my jaw as his keyworker refused to believe he would do such a thing.
Harberton House was one of the homes examined in the recent Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry. Have a look at the report and see for yourself how awful the place was.
Time Goes By
The extremely aggressive and vindictive tactics used to make me a ward of court implied that me and my mother were about to implode or kill each other. Social services made out that if I was not under the protection of a wardship then something truly terrible would happen.
But the odd thing is that despite all that effort they went to, once I was a ward they neglected me. In fact they let me go home for the weekend and eventually I was at home four nights a week.
Of course when they went to court to renew the warship order they implied everything was still terrible between me and my mother. And they also still hung the threat of imprisonment over my mother to keep her scared and nervous.
Come January 1992, just before I turned 16 they let me go home. I was still a ward, but that would expire on my 16th birthday in April.
The day I went home all I could think was “So what the hell was all that for?”
Not long after I went home in mid-January 1992 Kathleen visited me at home.
I told her what I thought of her in very colourful language. Although I swore a lot I made a point of keeping well away from her. Sadly that did not protect me from more of her lies. Later that evening when I was at Scouts she had me picked up and taken to St Patrick’s Training School under a “Place of Safety” order. St Pats (as it was known) was basically a teenage detention facility, not a nice place at all. I was in there with kids who got in trouble for petrol bombing and hijacking buses.
I was in there till April 1992 When I was let home again.
The whole experience did horrific damage to my mothers mental health. The once happy outgoing woman I knew was now paranoid and withdrawn. What didn’t help was that everyone seemed to know our business, she was called a child abuser on the street by strangers. Rather than help us, social services did us tremendous harm.
1992 till 2013
From 1992 until a 2005 I refused to speak to any social workers in Derry. To me they were just scum. I’m sure some were good, but the actions of a few spoiled my opinion of the whole lot.
I went off to university, got a good degree and even managed to get on a graduate scheme with a UK blue chip firm.
I did make many attempts to get justice for the abuse I suffered at the hands of social services but I kept coming up against a wall. Either the complaints went nowhere, or when I complained to Shaun Woodward MP (the health minster) he passed my complaint back to the local social work team — the very people I was trying to cut out of the loop.
I did consider legal action, but no solicitor would take the case without a sizable upfront fee.
In 2005 my mother had a stroke which forced me to move back to Derry to care for her. She recovered well enough, and she had a home help. Her new social worker Eilis, seemed Okay but I was very, very wary of her all the same.
In 2007 I met my wife and moved to Dublin. I visited my mother every weekend and all was well.
Until 2013 when her health took a turn for the worse and she was admitted to sheltered accommodation. All good so far. But…
My mother had a decent amount of savings in the bank and her social worker plus the manager of the sheltered accommodation she was living in seemed obsessed with taking control of it.
They took her bank card off her and limited her access to it. I would visit and she would have no money and no way to access her account.
She knew this and tried to pass control of her finances to me, but Eilish and the accomdaion manager kept putting a stop to it.
One day she went to her bank with me and asked the bank to write me a cheque. When Eilis and the accommodation manager got wind of this they had a minor breakout..
At one point Eilis told me that she would prevent my mother from buying gifts and toys for her grandchildren, something that gave her great pleasure, and that she would be controlling her spending. Why Eilis and the accommodation manager were doing this I just do not know. My mother was paying her bills and had plenty of disposable income, but according the the social services machine it was up to them to decide how she spend it.
My mother was aware of what was going on. She did not trust social workers and most certainly did not want Eilis taking control of her money.
The Office of Care and Protection
All my mothers attempts to prevent social services taking control of her money were moot. A few months ago Eilis applied to the Office of Care and Protection* to take control of my mother affairs.
(*a part of the NI Courts service that manages the affairs of people with mental health issues.)
There are several problem here. Firstly my mother, while she may be suffering from vascular dementia, is fully aware of her money matters. Secondly, Eilis told the court that my mother had no family other than me. This is an odd claim to make seeing as her other family regularly visited her and held big parties for her in her sheltered accommodation. Thirdly, she told the court I was trying to take her money. The fact that my mother was trying to get her money away from the hands of her social was overlooked.
What is most concerning is that I did not know about this. I was not given advance notice and was only told the order had been approved in a passing conversation. There is something seriously wrong when a social worker can effectively take ownership of a person and their affairs without having to inform any family members and to tell lies to help their case.
This brings me back to my story title… “I Believe” — Two little words that can allow someone to take control of your life.
The fact is that social workers have a lot of power, they are deemed inherently trustworthy and if one decides to play funny all they have to do is say “I believe” before any allegation or expression of concern and they will probably get what they want.
It happened to me when I was made a ward of court, and now it has happened to my mother.
Unfortunately, the system sucks.