Clare Jerrom talks to Emma Lewis about her experience of the care system, her unique work with care leavers and the importance of listening to victims and survivors
The greatest insult to a victim and survivor of non-recent child sexual abuse is to suggest that they are only interested in financial compensation to make up for what has happened to them, a survivor of abuse has stated.
In fact, the compensation which was awarded to Emma Lewis after she was abused as a child - that many would describe as a pittance - was seen as what Emma described felt like “dirty money,” which she squandered quickly with little guidance or advice as to how this compensation would need to support her needs for a lifetime of distrust, lack of self-esteem, and feeling “useless, worthless and pathetic” due to the trauma she encountered as a young girl.
Emma, who is a Victims and Survivors Consultative Panel member for the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) and who founded The Roots Foundation which supports children in the care system and care leavers to live independently, was awarded £6,000 in compensation for the sexual abuse she suffered as a child. She disclosed the abuse aged 12 and received the payment when she was around 14, although could not access most of it until she was 18 years old.
“As a teenager it felt like a tremendous amount of money. My biological family would never have that kind of money in their life savings,” said Emma. She spent the money on a car she never drove, eating out and paying for other people’s meals in a bid to feel accepted and liked and today, aged 41, has nothing financially to show for it, which she is fine with.
You hide from the labels
The compensation did not provide her with any kind of closure, in fact, she just felt guilty that her biological family had never experienced sums of money like this.
“I saw it as only what I can describe at the time as dirty money. All I wanted was to not have been abused. I wanted to be believed and I wanted to feel safe. The greatest insult for any victim or survivor is to say they are only interested in the money. It seemed a lot at the time, but as an adult, in hindsight, it occurred that the money would not have paid for one therapy session a year. On reflection, if someone had said you could have £6,000 or one session of therapy a month for the rest of your life, of course I’d have taken the therapy,” she adds.
Emma states that at the time, no counselling or therapy was offered to her directly, and she says her care records show no sign of any accompaniment to the compensation such as any acknowledgement. As she was in foster care at the time she disclosed abuse, her foster carers may have been offered counselling for her but it wasn’t anything that she is aware of. However, she admits that she would have been hesitant to accept any offer of counselling had it been made. “When you are 12 and in care, you don’t want to highlight yourself in any way – you want to hide from the labels that people are trying to put on you - so I would not have wanted to be singled out. I probably would have thought I didn’t need it, but on reflection I should have been offered it and I should have taken it.”
“At that time, I probably needed the adults and professionals in my life to have a true understanding of the damage that had occurred. They should have checked I was ok mentally and emotionally and they should have insisted I have some form of therapy. I didn’t know anyone else in care who had been sexually abused and it would have been beneficial to have a safe opportunity to talk about what had happened in a support group with other people who had experienced similar things to me – I had no one to relate to. I don’t know if there were support groups then, but it wasn’t the Dark Ages, it was the 90’s. It certainly wasn’t spoken about,” adds Emma.
Useless, worthless, pathetic
In fact, it was only when attending one of IICSA’s Victims and Survivors Forum events on the topic of redress when Emma heard other victims and survivors talking about the compensation – or lack of – that they had received. It led her to question the £6K and “given the trauma and mental distress she had endured following the abuse,” she recognised that it was nothing at all in comparison. “I feel useless, worthless, pathetic – even now – and I will have to experience that for a lifetime,” she said, adding that it has also affected her ability to have relationships and has also affected her family and friends. At the time, she was just trying to get through the process, at a very young age, in the care system.
As Emma was in foster care when she disclosed the abuse, which had occurred prior to her entering the care system, it was her foster carers and social workers who provided her with support. She had been taken into care due to her biological mother’s battle with addiction and inability to keep Emma safe. The police handled the matter “very carefully and sensitively” although to this day she is unsure why she was made to go to the doctor to be examined given the abuse was non-recent, saying that the examination “was almost as traumatic as disclosing the abuse”.
It was the professionals in Emma’s life along with her foster carers who took the claim for compensation forward. She vaguely remembers being asked about relationships, friendships and presumes she was being assessed as to how she was coping emotionally and mentally and whether considerable stress had been caused. Thankfully, she didn’t have to go to court for the process.
However, she left care to live independently at the age of 18 unprepared for independent living, she spiralled into a chaotic lifestyle with no qualifications and few people to guide her.
I refused to be silenced
Yet, with a lot of work on her behalf, and the benefit of significant adults in her life, she gradually turned things round. One woman worked at a local pub and offered Emma a job collecting glasses, another invited her round every weekend for Sunday lunch. Her Job Centre adviser also provided vital support and helped Emma to access counselling and volunteering. “They wanted to help me and invested in me. As an adult looking for employment opportunities I hadn’t disclosed my abuse or the fact I’d been in care to anyone. As a child in care, people feel sorry for you, but that wears thin when you are an adult.”
Emma met her husband, who has supported her and believed in her. She worked in various voluntary sector roles with different community groups & young people in the care system and kinship care and saw the many young people falling through the gaps in provision. She remembers seeing a documentary about the care system and saw that the many children leaving care were experiencing the same vulnerability and isolation that she had experienced years before when she started to live independently. “I’d felt lonely and isolated and didn’t want anyone to be wandering round a supermarket for hours on the off chance of bumping into someone they knew to offer to take them home for a coffee as I’d done those years before. I realised that there needed to be far more support for care leavers,” she said.
In 2011, Emma founded The Roots Foundation, a volunteer led charity based in Swansea, which aims to support young people in care, care leavers, children in need and adults who have left care with the transition period of independent living. “I wanted young people leaving care to have access to adults who would be invested in them, understand them and listen to them, whether that was practical cooking skills or help applying for a clothing grant from their social worker.”
At that point, Emma had been involved in numerous consultations around children’s social care yet in those eight years, nothing was changing on the ground for young people in care and care leavers, who are more likely to have experienced neglect and abuse and who tend to do less well educationally as a result of the trauma they have experienced. They are also likely to have mental health problems and those young people who have been abused in care are likely to have issues emerging from trauma including PTSD, problems around trust, forming relationships, feelings of low self-worth and low self-esteem.
It was not easy setting up The Roots Foundation, with many professionals at the time trying to ‘advise’ Emma to keep away and that ‘it wasn’t her problem’.
Thankfully, for the many care experienced young people who have benefitted from the project, Emma refused to be silenced.
“It wasn’t always easy. Sometimes I was sitting on a car boot talking to a hostile young man who was experiencing a difficult placement to make sure he had eaten something. It has taken until now to be trusted by professionals. Admittedly I am outspoken, I am an advocate for children in care. Sometimes, when these young people have been neglected or abused by adults – why would they trust other adults after that? We ask them what do they need? What would help them?” she adds.
Emma later became involved with IICSA as a member of the Inquiry’s Victims and Survivors Consultative Panel and as such, has been involved with much of the Inquiry’s work, including their recent Forum event on the topic of redress. “There are eight of us on the Victims and Survivors Consultative Panel and we all come from different walks of life. Some have set up charities, others are working as psychotherapists, accountants, consultants, development workers. We all contribute to the Inquiry from a learned perspective.”
“The Truth Project is part of IICSA and it is something I am most passionate about. It was set up with victims and survivors at the heart to enable them to feel safe to share their experience, and it offers so much,” she adds.
Given her history and experience working with others, Emma has heard a range of views about how a national redress scheme could work, if one were to be introduced as is happening in Scotland currently. First and foremost, victims and survivors should not be ‘lumped’ into one homogenous group. “Everyone will want something different as a result of their experience of abuse, and not necessarily compensation. If people do seek compensation, it is more than likely to help them to recover from their experiences through, for example, paying for therapy.”
“Some will want accountability, an apology, a meeting with the person responsible for the setting in which they were abused, an acknowledgement of the impact the abuse has caused and access to a recovery toolkit, which includes ongoing therapy. One thing I heard during the Inquiry’s Forum workshop is that people do not want underhand tactics. I heard how survivors were approached on the steps to the court building and told they would get more money if they would accept not having an apology. Those people feel failed by the system.”
“Any key components of a redress scheme would have to come from the individuals themselves and not from professionals. The system also needs to be creative and not just think about counselling in terms of talking therapy but also provide access to music or art therapy, writing poetry – whatever it takes to help and heal that individual,” said Emma.
“The idea that one size fits all when it comes to victims and survivors is archaic. The approach needs to be bespoke and holistic. Lumping victims and survivors together and assuming that everyone has been abused in the same way and feels the same way is archaic,” she added.
“Absolutely, there will still be victims and survivors who want their day in court, regardless of a redress scheme, and those individuals should not feel guilty or ashamed. They have been failed when they were children and people should be held accountable. They have a right to their day in court and should not be silenced,” she added.
“A redress scheme should be person-centred and focused on the benefits of support and therapy. Access to a lifetime package of care can only be a good thing for victims and survivors,” said Emma.
She also highlights a system used by banks whereby, if a family member dies, that information is filtered through to all the necessary channels to prevent the bereaved family having to go over and over the same re-traumatising events.
Emma says maybe a system similar to this should be adopted for victims and survivors to prevent them being retraumatised and re-triggered.
Emma says it is vital that people are seen as individuals and they should be asked what they want. “There is a fear that if you ask a survivor what they want and how they want to be helped, there is an expectation that the person will be upset. But survivors want to take control back and they want a person-centred approach. They want to be asked.”
One foot in front of another
Emma continues with her work volunteering for The Roots Foundation. The organisation provides courses and workshops for care leavers including budgeting, food and nutrition, health and hygiene, relationships, self-esteem and employment, volunteering and educational support.
In 2017, The BBC’s DIY SOS programme provided a state of the art support centre including accommodation which means the foundation can provide independent living as well as the workshops. The Roots Foundation works with many organisations such as The Prince’s Trust in providing accreditation on an independent living project and, ahead of their time, the organisation acknowledged that children falling through the gaps of education, health and social care provision were susceptible to exploitation such as county lines and, as such, launched a project aimed at young people at risk of child sexual exploitation.
The Foundation also runs a dedicated project for kinship carers and their children who “do not access a level playing field in terms of support”.
“Kinship carers are saving the government thousands and need to be better supported,” says Emma.
The Roots Foundation mainly provides practical support for care leavers as, in traditional settings, it is “often left too late and they are set up to fail”. “Our job is to equip care leavers for the future and to fight against the barriers and stigma that they face. Young people in care often feel it is their fault which is ridiculous.”
In terms of success stories at The Roots Foundation, Emma has many, but as she describes: “Sometimes, that means an individual just getting out of bed, or putting one foot in front of another. For others, it is seeing a care experienced child graduate from university. For some, it is seeing them having beautiful relationships and having their first child, for others it is receiving their first ever educational certificate or being recognised for volunteering,” said Emma.
“Success looks very different for everyone and all achievements should be celebrated,” she concludes.
The Truth Project is closing in 2021, but victims and survivors who would like to share their experience can still do so by phone, via video call or in writing. More information about how to share can be found on the Truth Project website.
The Roots Foundation
The Truth Project