Social Work & Victim Blaming
Although I have a lot of personal examples of being victim blamed, I wanted to write from a professional perspective. Mainly because some of the worst examples of victim blaming have come from social work professionals.
Having worked in Youth Justice for many years, and more specifically with girls, I have lost count of the times those young women have been blamed for their experiences.
There is a prevailing misconception in Care services that teenage girls have agency and autonomy over their decision making. Many of the young women in the Youth Justice system are vulnerable. The reason they are vulnerable is because they often have a history of abuse and trauma, they often have damaged family attachments, they are often in the care of the local authority. Just one of these factors will increase vulnerability and, in the case of girls who are coerced into sexual exploitation, it means they are highly susceptible to flattery and attention.
Many of the girls I've worked with believe they have no value other than their bodies. They view themselves as only worth what a man will pay.
One 14 year old had a tattoo paid for by her perpetrator. It said, "love is pain" above a roll of banknotes. She did not doubt that this was true.
In many of the multi agency meetings, child sexual exploitation meetings and other professional meetings I have chaired or attended, the blame for the trauma lies firmly with the girl.
Below are a selection of examples:
"She needs to start making the right choices"
"She's out of control"
"She loves him. There's nothing we can do"
"She needs to take more responsibility"
"I just don't understand why she behaves like this. She knows she's going to get into trouble but she carries on"
"She's storing weapons in her room. We're letting the police deal with her now"
"We can't stop her going out to meet him. She makes her own choices"
"I told her he was bad news but she wouldn't listen and now look what's happened"
To be honest, in the social work world these are not surprising attitudes. Both boys and girls are subjected to a high level of victim blaming for what they experience. As ‘offenders’ first and foremost they are not the same as other children. They are ‘different’. The difference comes from the belief that, if they are capable of committing a crime (regardless of what that crime is) then they are capable of taking responsibility when something goes wrong.
I want to share two stories with you. They are not unusual stories, nor are they rare, but I think they give a good sense of how children (young women) are dealt with by both social care staff and criminal justice professionals. Both girls were charged with the same offence.
By the age of 15 S was a heroin addict. The men that provided her with the drug were much older and lived on a traveller site nearby. She was frequently forced to pay for her drugs with sex although she believed she consented but, on one occasion, S was brutally gang raped and beaten. She reported it to the police who investigated. One of the men in question provided an alibi and the case fell apart. S was then charged with wasting police time and sentenced to four months in prison. She celebrated her 16th birthday on self harm/suicide watch.
K was 13 and disclosed repeated contact sexual abuse from her older brother. Her parents took her to the police but, because of the problems it caused in the family, they managed to persuade her to retract her statement. The police then charged her with wasting police time and she received a three years Supervision Order. She then targeted the police station, repeatedly damaging their property and assaulting them verbally and physically whenever she could. They continued to arrest her and she was a prolific court attendee. She was close to a custodial sentence when her brother returned to live at home. K attempted suicide 7 times in four weeks. Social Care refused to act as they felt she was attention seeking. Only a formal complaint to higher management resulted in her being removed from her family home and relocated in another county.
There are many stories like that. I could write for hours about the things I’ve heard and seen, and the trauma experienced by children. The fact remains though, that these things did not happen to me as an adult professional. They happened, and continue to happen, to children. And we continue to blame them for it.
It’s got to stop.