Like peeling an onion… Treating child survivors

Freedom from Torture therapist Patrick Bentley says that unravelling the trauma of child torture survivors takes time and patience.

I work with the Children, Young People and Families team, providing individual therapy to children and young people who have sought sanctuary in this country. I meet them separately and with family members, often speaking through a skilled interpreter.

I have been working with traumatised children and families for a long time. I’ve learnt that the people who we see here at Freedom from Torture are some of the most extreme cases, the most seriously damaged, by torture. Many have been referred on by the NHS or social services, who cannot offer the specialist help they need. 

For these young people their suffering can be enormous. They may experience Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). If so they can’t sleep. They may be terrified by nightmares. They may hear voices and or think their torturer is following them. You need to help them and give them some release from their terrors.

People who get tortured are often people who lack power in their own country and are unable to protect themselves from abuse. I’m working with a young Afghan woman who was abused from girlhood and then experienced torture. Yet she couldn’t go to the local authorities for protection because she knew they wouldn’t listen or act for her.

The same is true of many of the young men I see. For example, I am seeing one young man who left his home country and was captured and held as a slave in Libya, before he finally managed to escape and reach the UK.

When so many bad things have happened, we can’t deal with them all at once. We focus on one thing at a time, try to find a way through. And if that works, the young person may feel more confidence and trust in me and will hopefully be prepared to look at something else with me.

Our clients' cases are complex and it takes take time and patience to unravel the layers of torture – it’s like peeling an onion.

You peel one layer off and there’s more underneath. You deal with one issue and you might be referred to the trauma caused by their torture. But when you see them, you realise this experience came on top of earlier forms of abuse, such as child abuse and neglect. So you realise there are layers of trauma and to deal with that trauma, you have to keep pulling back the layers.

How long will it take? We never know. We help take off one layer. We hope that people feel better for that. They may sustain that improvement or there may be something else happening they couldn’t tell us before.

I think probably people generally underestimate the length of time needed. It’s long term work. It can take years. That’s why we are here.

Patrick Bentley is a volunteer therapist with Freedom from Torture. He previously worked as a social worker with Children’s Services and in the NHS as a Child and Adolescent Mental Health therapist and a manager.

We are the only charity in the UK that specialises in healing the effects of torture. With the terrible events in countries like Syria and Afghanistan, the number of child torture survivors who need our help is increasing. Many arrive here alone, having seen and felt the most appalling brutality. If you want to support our work, please consider making a donation.

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