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Watch your mouth

"We're having an uphill struggle with Lena — you know, I'm absolutely sure she's abused. Probably sexually ..."

"What do you mean you're 'absolutely sure'?" I asked. "What do you mean 'probably sexually'?"

Sarah looked at me.

I went on. "The words you are using suggest that you think you are 'sure' about something which you are surmising. You think there's a 'probability' of something you suspect, but which you don't know."

"No, I don't know!" she answered fiercely, "But you know how you just 'know' these things."

*     *     *

The truth is that one doesn't 'just know' these things. The truth is that when you do know, you don't talk about them to people who don't need to know. If you make an untested assumption about something so serious and so private, and then talk about it with others as though it were true, you are on very thin ice.

There was a program in town "for victims of abuse". It said so on the sign board at the gate. The damage which this public assertion did to all who walked through that gate was inestimable. Every parent or other adult was thereby criminalised; every child indelibly labelled. It seems to be the ‘done’ thing these days, to label our programs with words which make us look heroic or modern; perhaps with words which draw approval (and funding) from our communities. If I were a child who had to walk off to school from under an arch which read "Home for abused children" that would be the most vicious torment I could imagine — whether or not the words were true. If they were not true, I would be the subject of a cruel libel — indeed I would have become a victim of arrant abuse. If the words were true, then I would be betrayed and treated with piteous insensitivity.

I thought we had all learned about stigmatisation forty years ago from the writings of people like Erving Goffman. We stopped the idiocy of talking about ‘a home for unmarried mothers’ or ‘a home for delinquent boys’, yet somehow today we need to let it be known that we move in the world of the abused (or the otherwise marginalised, the addicted, the bipolar, the violent, people living on the street ...)

Child and youth care workers see beyond the labels to the real people, whom we love and serve irrespective of their identifications or qualities. We are in danger of using such labels, not for our clients, but for our own glorification. We need to be transformed as was Carling (1963, p.80) who realized that "cripples could be identified with characteristics other than their physical handicap. I managed to see that cripples could be comely, charming, ugly, lovely, stupid, brilliant – just like all other people, and I discovered that I was able to hate or love a cripple in spite of his handicap."

The people we work with, the children and families who lose their way and feel guilty and worthless, share with us the secrets and truths of their lives. We hold these things, as water in our tight, hollowed hands, never daring to spill a drop, faithful to the trust and confidence placed in us. If words suggest themselves to us, we hold them as the most tentative hypotheses, the property in every way of our client, never ours. Our aim is always to attend to the hurt and harm of what we know — or the benefit of kids and their parents so that their lives can go onwards, unhindered, unspoiled.

What we come to know may well fire our calling to advocacy and justice — but only what we know. We may never use words which heal our anxiety and fears, either in our heads or with others. Sorry, Sarah. You cannot say to me that you are "absolutely sure she's abused. Probably sexually ..." when this is what you only think. Until you know, these words remain unspoken, and even when you do know, the words are spoken only with the greatest circumspection.

Carling, F. (1962) And yet we are human. London: Chatto and Windus
Goffman, E. (1963) Stigma: Notes on the management of spoiled identity. Harmondsworth: Pelican Books.