Silencing the whistleblower: Reactions to the truth in the field of abuse
By Jessica Eaton
This blog is sometimes a way for me to share my thoughts and experiences. I did it in the ‘whataboutery’ blog that went super-duper-viral and I need to do it in this one.
We need to talk about telling the truth in our field of abuse and violence – and what happens when we tell the truth. I have made the decision to commission work into this area of research through my company, VictimFocus, because the topic quite frankly baffles me and I think any improvement will benefit us all in the long run. We desperately need to understand why we silence whistleblowers after we expressly tell them to tell the truth.
So why do we hate truth tellers so much and who do we seek to silence whistleblowers in our own field?
How can the field of abuse and safeguarding engage in the cognitive dissonance required to convince victims and perpetrators to ‘tell the truth’ or to ‘disclose what really happened’ when the entire field is characterised by cover ups, liars and the silencing of whistleblowers?
No, not just the silencing. That’s too neutral. The demonisation of whistleblowers.
My first full time job in this field was in Victim Support, as a manager of the vulnerable and intimidated witness programme. Whilst the criminal justice system revealed itself to me to be a game of snakes and ladders in which no victim ever wins – I didn’t come across any cover ups or abuse of people in VS.
However, the criminal justice system I worked within taught me that there were many abuses of vulnerable and traumatised people that went unchallenged. There were bad practices aplenty and professionals had eventually become so desensitised that they couldn’t even see why something might be harmful or bad practice. It was the norm. It was one of the reasons I left, and decided to never go back to colluding with the CJS again.
(Edit: the first time I ever had to whistleblow was not actually work related. I whistleblew on a nursery where I found a baby bleeding heavily alone in a room. I reported to OFSTED and the local authority and police. A week later I was put in hospital by the manager and a group of others. Turned out the police officers were family members of the nursery manager and they were in on it.)
However, the first time I had to whistleblow at work, I didn’t really think about it. I just sort of did it. I didn’t expect what was going to happen to me at all. I was in a job as a manager in a rape centre. In short, my CEO at the time told me that she had covered up a case of sexual abuse of three children and was going to go and amend some records, and put another professional’s name on it to protect herself from action. She said it casually like I was going to reply ‘Yeah okay, cool.’
I think my face must have been a picture because I still remember the look on her face when she realised I was not going to allow her to do that – to the children or to the other professional, who was one of my staff. We stood and argued about it and she asked me who on earth I thought I was to challenge her decision making. I told her I would report her to the police and safeguarding board and gave her the final option of telling the truth.
She didn’t. I reported her the same night. I knew she was going to make life difficult for me but there were three very young children at imminent risk from a registered sex offender and I was horrified that she would do this – not only to the children but to our committed staff member she was going to frame.
When I told the staff member, she was absolutely horrified and could not believe that our CEO was going to change records and put her name on what she had done. She left shortly after and I don’t blame her.
However, the next time I was in work, I was taken into a room with the CEO and the board members of our charity and told I was being sacked for gross misconduct and had ten minutes to leave the premises and was given a letter from their solicitors threatening me to sign a gagging order. I asked them what the gross misconduct was and they said they didn’t have to tell me. I asked them for a proper investigation and hearing and they said no. I knew straight away by looking at the CEO’s face that this was retaliation because I had reported her.
I was young, poor and had no idea what on earth to do. I tried to seek free limited legal advice and the solicitors told me to sign the order, leave the job and look for somewhere else to work. The gag was for two years so I couldn’t speak openly about it until around 2015. I am still baffled as to why the board above the CEO chose to protect her over the children – and why I was punished so harshly for doing the right thing.
However, if I had my time again, I would do it exactly the same way. The only difference is, I wouldn’t have signed the gagging order and I would have told them to shove it up their arse. I have never signed another and I never will.
I was actually extremely lucky that I had already been applying for new jobs when this happened, as I used to have a personal policy of always looking for new jobs even if I was happy, especially if they would increase my experience or knowledge base by challenging me. The day after I signed that gag, I got a phone call telling me I had been shortlisted for a job as a trainer in child sexual exploitation (CSE) prevention. A few days later, I was told I had got the job. I was unemployed for about 6 days. Phew. I was extremely lucky that this happened as I had 2 very small children and my husband was working part time. We would have collapsed without a wage.
I did have to negotiate a very tricky conversation with my new manager when they asked whether they could speak to my previous CEO for a reference. I was terrified that they wouldn’t believe me. However, they did believe me and I was okay. Another ‘phew’ moment. You see, every moment after you stick your neck out to whistleblow is ridden with anxiety.
I went to work in the new job as the trainer and writer in CSE and was very successful, being promoted to manager of the national programme quickly and being given a national team of trainers. I had supportive management and CEO.
However, twice I was asked to attend meetings about telling the truth. The first one was because national organisation in CSE, the NWG, didn’t want their charity name in an article I had written about CSE toolkits being invalid and having no evidence base (even though they had developed said toolkit and called it the NWG toolkit, so it was pretty difficult not to mention them). I had written that they were responsible for developing one of the first CSE toolkits that was then rolled out by them without any testing. Sure, it doesn’t look great for them but it is the truth.
The second was when a local authority had complained that I kept writing about CSE toolkits being bad practice and they wanted me to shut up because it was raising questions amongst their staff.
Further, I was contacted by a CSE lead in the West Midlands who kept asking to meet me but wouldn’t tell me why. I was reluctant but eventually agreed to meet her in 2016. Once at the meeting, she said to me ‘You know, being this direct with people is not going to make you very popular. You are not going to have any friends left in this field if you keep criticising CSE toolkits.’ I laughed at her and said, ‘You’re talking to the wrong person, love. I’m not here for popularity.’ It turned out that she had met me solely to tell me that they were developing a new CSE toolkit and that they were sick of me speaking out about them. I challenged her as to whether they would put it through rigorous testing or whether they would commission experts in psychometric or risk assessment to develop and test it but of course the answer was no. No one wanted to test the toolkits because they knew full well they didn’t work.
I eventually came to the conclusion that the only way I could challenge bad practice like this without someone trying to threaten me with my job or report me to my boss, would be to have no job and no boss.
So I left my job and set up my own company to do the work I wanted to do, in the way I wanted to do it. I set VictimFocus up. It meant I could challenge poor practice and issues in safeguarding without the worry of an employer hanging over my head.
I started to wonder why no one wanted to hear the truth about CSE risk toolkits and why local authorities and national influential charities in CSE would be more concerned about their name than their practice being right for children. At the time, I didn’t see the CSE toolkits controversy as whistleblowing but now I can see why it had riled so many people.
The reality of the only toolkit in the country being a load of made-up rubbish with no validation, no evidence and no rigour, being used to make decisions about the lives of children is pretty scandalous. They don’t want to admit or face what they have done and they don’t want the responsibility of changing it.
When Brown et al. (2016;2017) published their work showing the flaws in the CSE risk indicators and toolkits, I thought people would finally bin them – but even their work would be swept under the rug and as we approach the end of 2018, every local authority in the UK are still using them. For my part in the CSE toolkits critique, I ended up with a reputation for being ‘controversial’ and ‘too challenging’. People called me ‘overly-critical’ and ‘trouble.’
Then it was the CSE films. And oh, the backlash I got for challenging the use of rape films with children. Films that depicted the graphic rape and abuse of children, being shown to hundreds of thousands of UK children in order to ‘educate them’. I challenged them, naively thinking that people would see what was wrong with this unethical and unevidenced practice and would see the light, so to speak. How wrong I was!
Psychologists got it right away. Feminists got it right away. Women’s organisations got it right away. But the field of safeguarding and abuse didn’t get what was wrong with the films for over a year. Not only did people not get it, people hated me talking about it. I was harassed for months. I was no-platformed. I was ridiculed. I was attacked. I was bullied. By people I didn’t even know. People who made the films, used the films or were emotionally invested in using the films. Speaking out against the use of these films with children was a nightmare. Professionals grouped together and rejected any evidence of children being harmed, cutting themselves after watching them, bed wetting or having panic attacks.
Instead of these professionals taking a step back and considering that I might be raising a valid issue, I was positioned as ‘attacking’ people and trying to harm people’s careers.
Thankfully however, there is a positive outcome to this one and a few weeks ago Barnardos announced that they would no longer be using CSE films with children, or any materials that might traumatise or harm children. Barnardos Directors are a lot more reflective and are moving towards much better evidence based working than some other organisations and had already started taking action to stop the use of films in their services.
Being able to look back on the #nomoreCSEfilms campaign, I am glad I did it and I am glad I whistleblew on this practice but the way I was treated was disgusting and exhausting.
Even now, the NWG have been consulting on my work in secret, not inviting me to meetings because of my views and then putting out consultation documents that don’t even cite or reference my work. Even when challenged a few weeks back, they chose not to tell me the truth about the meetings about my CSE films work because they knew I would speak out. This is the second issue in which the NWG has kept silent or tried to shut me up as a national specialist in CSE. Rather than encouraging open debate and discussion, their approach is to shut down the discussion and then pull it back into their organisation and pretend they have the solutions to it.
This pattern has continued throughout my career. Most recently I have whistleblown on a commissioner after I found serious safeguarding and safety concerns were being ignored and their service users were at imminent risk of death and injury and that’s gone down like a lead balloon.
Recently I spoke out against Tommy Robinson wanting to speak to children who had been sexually exploited despite him having absolutely no training, experience, regulations or ethics.
Both decisions to speak out have caused me unimaginable shit and I have gained absolutely nothing from doing so.
In relation mainly to the CSE films, I was then harassed and bullied by Dr Gozna of Leicester University for 7 months (someone I didn’t even know and had to google who she was as I had never heard of her) and by my own university department when they decided to use the fact that they had read a magazine interview I gave in which I said I had a baby from rape against me to try to prove in some perverse way that I was not fit to do my job.
And yet it is me who is being framed as ‘unprofessional and unreasonable’ by speaking out against them and taking action against them (which I won in July and September 2018).
Personally, I would be more concerned about these psychologists holding such discriminatory views of victims of rape than protecting them from action. I wouldn’t refer anyone to any of them. And I certainly wouldn’t recommend they performed research with women with histories of abuse or rape. Their views revealed that their interest in violence and trauma is just that: an interest. Empathy for real victims stops at their office door.
Unfortunately for ALL of them, they picked the wrong person to try to silence and bully.
And this is not just about me and my experiences. Far from it. This is common for hundreds of whistleblowers. People who whistleblow on local authorities, police forces, prisons, mental health units, children’s homes and politicians are quickly discredited and shut down. They are demonised. They are positioned as liars, trouble causers, fantasists and attention seekers. Their lives are ruined, their careers are stolen. They lose their jobs, their homes, their reputation, their income, their friends, their colleagues and their futures. They are reported to the police or their regulatory bodies.
You don’t need to look far to find examples of these people. Their stories are terrifying. They are often people who discover something by accident or in the course of their work and report it in good faith, believing that the system works and the issue will be investigated. Sadly, they quickly find out that not only will their complaints or safeguarding concerns not be investigated, but they will also face serious consequences for daring to speak out. There are so many people who have reported the abuse of people, policies, corruption, exploitation and illegal activity who have had their entire team turn on them in an instant the second they told the truth.
So, I have some questions that need to be answered:
Why do we bring up our children to tell the truth as a positive action and then spend our whole lives punishing them, and others for telling the truth?
How can we encourage children and adults who have been subjected to abuse to tell the truth or to tell us their disclosures, if we aren’t prepared to tell the truth ourselves?
Why should victims and survivors trust us with their secrets, their disclosures and their abuse, if we don’t even trust each other?
If we want our practice to improve and we truly want the best for victims and survivors, why are we so scared of criticism of our practice?
Would we rather protect our ego and reputation, even if it means ignoring bad practice and the harm of vulnerable people?
Why should any professional support mandatory reporting laws if they know it means that they will be treated like a traitor for whistleblowing? If they will not be supported and protected, why should we force them to whistleblow at all?
Provocative questions, I am sure. But we need to keep speaking out.
Massive respect for the truth tellers and the whistleblowers everywhere. Love to you.
Written by Jessica Eaton
Tweet: @JessicaE13Eaton and @victimfocus