A Case for Advocacy and Connection for Single Mum Escaping Family Violence & Sexual Assault
This vignette illustrates such a situation and highlights an aspect of the work that I really enjoy as a therapist and which ultimately, makes a significant difference in the life of an individual client.
Jenna’s story: From Childhood Abuse to Sexual Assaults, Drug Addiction & Single Motherhood
Jenna is a young, single mother in her thirties with a three year old son. Jenna has a history of childhood abuse and neglect and as a young adult was the victim of serious domestic violence. Jenna is exceptionally bright, yet sadly her experiences as a child and adolescent in a dysfunctional family, has resulted in many lost opportunities and an almost impossible task of discovering who she is and what her potentials are in life.
Jenna completed high school but didn’t pursue further education, although she was more than capable of achieving whatever educational outcome she wanted.
Without self belief and parental mirroring, it is common for individuals to be unable to identify what they want, let alone put their hand up towards a significant life achievement.
Jenna remained living at home with her dysfunctional family well into her twenties, further entrenching the values and beliefs of failure and worthlessness that she had been crowned by her unsupportive parents.
Jenna’s Demise: Sexual Abuse from a Drug Addicted Partner
By the time she moved out in her mid twenties she had partnered with an equally unsupportive and humiliating boyfriend, who made the perfect choice for his purposes of choosing a pliable and deferential girlfriend, someone who would allow him to do whatever he wanted.
A non drug taker, Jenna was soon being injected with substances by her drug addicted boyfriend. Jenna didn’t want the drugs, but she did want to please her boyfriend and he then enjoyed his total power and control over her life, her addiction and her ultimate dependence on him.
The horrific rapes began soon into the relationship and took a particularly humiliating form, resulting in some serious injuries. Still, Jenna couldn’t leave. She was dependent on this man and without a supportive family, or independent friends of her own, there was no one she could turn to.
A pregnancy was welcomed. But the context of Jenna’s situation meant this anticipated baby in utero was also repeatedly raped. Jenna was lucky to survive these nine months, as the violence stepped up and her life was regularly threatened.
A Baby Boy born Addicted Struggles for Life. Family Violence Continues
Authorities became involved in the early days of Jenna’s pregnancy. Warning signs to doctors and midwives alerted them to the dangers Jenna and her baby were in. Monitoring of Jenna was intense, and the baby boy was subsequently born addicted. Underweight and distressed, the baby was struggling, and early parenting was difficult. By this stage the authorities were informed to the level of violence experienced by Jenna at the hands of her boyfriend.
It became a condition of Jenna having custody of her son that the relationship ended with her violent partner. Jenna was told that if she didn’t end the relationship then her baby would be taken away. The requirement for custody was to be a protective mother, in this case not allowing access of the child to the father. These conditions served to save Jenna from an ongoing violent relationship.
Full Custody for Jenna and an Olive Branch in the form of Emergency Housing
From the outset she had no intention of losing the care of her child. The relationship ended before they left hospital and Jenna was placed in emergency housing. At this point, being a part of the social services system was a godsend, providing appropriate protection for Jenna and her baby. The violence continued, in the form of harassment and trolling and stalking.
The perpetrator’s family got in on the act and shared in further perpetrating of violence in the form of stalking and harassment. Intervention orders were secured and helped, although breaching the orders was an ongoing problem
Counselling to this point had been provided informally by human services workers. There was also abundant community health support. However, no one showed any interest in Jenna’s history, her childhood experiences of abuse.
There was little provided in the way of real, thorough debriefing of the traumatic experiences from the three years of suffering in a very violent relationship. Workers helped fix a lot of practical problems, but no one attempted to understand her psychic wounds, the questions around her future and the significant potential that was lying dormant in this young woman.
She was labelled as a victim; she was given much practical support, but no one had shown an interest in the woman herself.
Through victims of crime assistance, Jenna finally was linked to myself. It was quickly identified that she had never explored anything to do with her past, her feelings and most definitely nothing about who she was as a person.
“a simple, but profound interest in an individual, combined with a capacity for the deepest of listening, can be transformative”
There were important questions to explore about where she might like to head in her life and with the possibility of healing and recovery, what might free her to head towards a new and hopeful future. This is where a simple, but profound interest in an individual, combined with a capacity for the deepest of listening, can be transformative. This deep listening translates to understanding.
When understanding on a very deep level is conveyed, connection is possible and real trust and respect exchanged. A new relationship is formed.
For the first time, Jenna started to hear and understand herself and this new relationship with herself brought hope on a level she’d never experienced before.
How Providing Advocacy for Jenna in the face of Bureaucracy Helped her get back on Track
One very simple healing experience, repeated on many levels, was the advocacy I could provide on Jenna’s behalf.
One problem involved Centrelink, who in their wisdom had imposed a new program on Jenna called ParentsNext. I stress the word imposed, because Jenna had no choice but to be involved in this program.
The program has certain conditions for clients, usually young, vulnerable parents, conditions to be passed in order for them to receive a Centrelink benefit. The conditions can be burdensome and imposing, in terms of setting up rules regarding receiving a parenting payment. Vulnerable groups are targeted, particularly indigenous. Requirements vary, but include things like compulsory playgroup attendance, volunteering and job related courses. Another is compulsory preparation for work classes. These requirements did not meet Jenna’s needs, nor her son’s.
Jenna had already enrolled her child in kindergarten, so the child would have opportunities to play with peers and learn in an educational setting. Being such a young child, Jenna prefers to spend time with him, mindful these preschool years are fleeting and precious.
With the support of her doctor, Jenna was initially able to get an exemption from the program’s strict conditions. This enabled her to receive her payments without the debilitating administrative gymnastics, like logging in repeatedly to the Centrelink system.
With the exemption expired, and the doctor unavailable, this is when I stepped in to advocate on Jenna’s behalf. Clearly, the burdens of this program were weighing too heavily on Jenna’s fragile mental health. The conditions, after negotiation, were exempted for three months.
I doubt the effectiveness of this program. I doubt the political agenda that drives it.
I do know from direct witnessing that for some recipients it adds stress, anxiety and despair to their lives. Ultimately, for these individuals, it is unhelpful, shaming, sometimes destructive.
For Jenna this program has negative impacts who is a vulnerable individual, caring for a three year old, who has no family support. Being asked to jump these difficult hoops every three months, when the status of her mental and physical health is chronic and disabling does harm.
To complicate things, for Jenna, and for many others I’ve worked with, compliance requirements require logging on facilities. These technical requirements often fail due to lost internet connection or/and limited phone deals. Other barriers to successful technical access are lack of funds to purchase phone credit or no access to the technology at all.
Ultimately, no access to the internet means no payment. The number of times I have loaned my phone to clients in sessions for this purpose is numerous!!
“I believe these systems set people up to fail and contribute to their declining mental health.”
Jenna finds the support provided in counselling helpful and supportive. She is learning to trust and share herself, in some regards for the first time in her life. This trust supports her ability to face difficult chapters in her life. Having someone on her side, providing real belief in her worth and value is a healing experience which is ultimately transformative.
From this new experience of being understood, Jenna can learn new ways of relating to her child, thus ensuring a different, healthier parenting style and future for her son. Jenna is becoming the first person in her family to stop the generational abuse and neglect and to build authentic, sustaining relationships. The future looks different and the learning continues but the hope is real.
Names have been changed in this article to protect the privacy of individuals