Recently I heard from a trauma survivor whose story I included in my 2010 memoir, Confessions of a Trauma Therapist. Shelagh Stephen was fourteen years old when she told helping professionals about ongoing sexual abuse at the hands of her father. This was a time when the textbook for psychiatry students assured them they’d be unlikely to encounter child sexual abuse. It was considered extremely rare: nothing that would happen in our communities.
Shelagh tells how she was further traumatized by being trapped in a mental health system where she could not get help. Worse, she endured further harm under the care of those whose job it was to help her. The psychiatrist, the social worker and others charged with treating troubled children, regarded her with scorn and blamed her for making up nasty tales about her respectable father.
In light of today’s statistics, it’s clear that Shelagh was not alone in being shunned and reviled for disclosing her terrible secret. How many children risked going for help, only to be told they were lying? The numbers must be staggering. Punishment for telling no doubt added to the silencing of other children who were being abused by adults in charge of their safety.
You can read the letter Shelagh sent to me. Do you know of similar stories? What was your experience? Clearly, Shelagh is not alone.
Dear Ms. Armstrong,
In your book Confessions of a Trauma Therapist you write about Dr. Angus Hood, supervisor at the Hincks Treatment Centre in Toronto. On pp. 89 you relate that “…fourteen-year-old Shirley Turcotte…was a suicidal teenager who revealed to…(her therapist Harvey) the sexual horrors of her childhood. Fortunately both Harvey and his supervisor, Dr. Angus Hood, were open to believing the unthinkable. Before long Harvey was treating a handful of youngsters who had been sexually abused in their homes.”
This was the same Dr. Angus Hood who was in charge of the Hincks Treatment Centre when my therapist, Dr. Jon Plapp, assured my parents that I had imagined the precisely documented sexual horrors of my own childhood. Dr. Plapp refused to believe a word I said, dismissed my physical pain, did not respect my testimony, and filtered everything through his prejudiced assumption that a father like mine would not sexually abuse his daughter through formative years, ruining her life. Or perhaps he had truly malicious intent. After all, I had informed him in no uncertain terms of the multiple felonies my father committed against me, yet that evidence was not in his files.
My parents’ advisor, a social worker named D. Jaffey, told my parents sympathetically that I would occasionally act out. This sounds like a description of slaves on southern plantations who just ‘went crazy’ every once in a while, then succumbed to suppression and settled down. It was assumed that that this childish behaviour should be treated with zero tolerance by my mature, self controlled and responsible parents.
My name was Shelagh Watson and I was admitted to Hincks when I was 15, in 1970. I am now 57 and guess what? I still say what I said then, that I was habitually and systematically abused by my father for years. What a life I had. A life that was made worse by the abject failure of every person who knew about my father’s crimes and allowed them to continue. Dr. Hood was told that I wanted lie detector tests. Dr. Plapp went out of his way to persuade Dr. C.K. McKnight of the Clarke Institute that in my case they shouldn’t be given, and consequently Dr. McKnight informed my parents that they didn’t yield correct results. But the 60 million dollar question (guessed it yet?) is: Why, then, did the Clarke Institute have them?
I was a gutsy young person. I called a policeman in the middle of all this. But he didn’t believe me when he found out that I was in treatment. And why was I in treatment? Maybe – radical thought – just PTSD from being abused. No, make that TSD, since it was still going on. Dr. Hood, Dr. Plapp and Dr. McKnight were in a position to support me, and they didn’t.
Please post your comments below.