The Panopticon functions as a kind of laboratory of power. Thanks to its mechanisms of observation, it gains in efficiency and in the ability to penetrate into men’s behaviour; knowledge follows the advances of power, discovering new object of knowledge over all the surfaces on which power is exercised.
—Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish
Privacy allows us to determine who we are and who we want to be.
I would like to offer a disclaimer to this article. I am aware that most people living in the United Kingdom are extremely protective of the NHS and their country’s social services. This article is written in the spirit of critique due to the abuses mentioned herein but is certainly not meant to suggest an elimination of these systems. I do, however, think the evidence presented here does demand reflection and vast changes in a system which has proven time and time over that it cannot distinguish between the parents of Baby P and parents who are proactive in raising their children. As someone who supports public health systems to include the NHS, it is important to understand that only through constructive critique can we better these systems when they fail us. –JV
While pregnant with my second child I was in touch with a friend in Armenia who like me was a single mother and who faced certain forms of discrimination in her country specifically for this fact. I remember telling her of various incidents of sexism related to being a single mother that I experienced in the UK during my pregnancy, from doctors in the NHS who somehow elided the fact that I was single defaulting to the ever so charming title of ‘Mrs’ when called into doctor’s surgeries or the constant intervention into my private life about my reasons for having a child, questions parents in heterosexual relationships are simply not asked by their doctors. I remember telling this friend that sexism is pervasive throughout the world because women who constitute roughly half the population, are still considered negligible as subjects with agency and are viewed as persons who have private lives which should be regularly subject to intrusion and dissection by public institutions and their agents. At the time I had thought that my friend in Armenia was experiencing far more acts of discrimination and misogyny due to her status as a single mother in a far more traditional culture. I was unaware of the kind of institutional violence that awaited me in the months after this conversation.
This is a story of Kafkaesque proportions about the abuses that happen when people with entirely inappropriate or no training possess enormous amounts of power while operating within a bureaucratic system which discourages thought and encourages box ticking.
Let’s skip back to December 2012 when I received an email from the hospital in Montreal where my son died. It congratulated me on my new pregnancy in order to let me know of a program called CONI (Care of Next Infant) run by the Lullaby Trust in the UK which supports parents who have lost children to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). The specific support that is regularly offered is a breathing monitor for the next child which is really designed to allow parents who have lost a child to SIDS to sleep at night rather than stay awake worrying about their newborn. I had already known about this program and was interested to try out the monitor, unsure if I would really use it—or if so, for how long. A nurse from the Whittington Hospital, Jo Carroll, came to my house and interviewed me and showed me baby CPR. I made her tea and it seemed like a lovely encounter at the time as informal as it was given this woman was a nurse but by no means a specialist in SIDS. It was also clear her job was that of an agent of the NHS to assign a monitor and show me how it works. In our discussion she asked me about my son and his death. I remember telling her that the worse part of losing a child in Canada was how the medical system there conflated the loss of a child, bereavement, with mental illness because after I spent half the day with my child’s body at the Montreal Children’s Hospital, I was whisked off to a nearby hospital to wait in the psychiatric waiting room in order for a doctor to prescribe sleeping pills. A colleague from the university and I were both perplexed as to why they proceeded with me in such a way aside from the obvious fact that a children’s hospital is not mandated to see adults. This colleague waited with me in the waiting room and the psychiatrist who showed up several hours later was demonstrably irate that I was sent to the psychiatric waiting room. She said that any doctor could have prescribed the sleeping pills which is a common practice when the subject has lost a child. It was clear that I was treated within that system in a bizarre fashion mostly because I was a single parent, a woman, and was viewed as ‘vulnerable’ despite any need for concern. I was given a prescription for 40 sleeping pills and sent home. So when I told this nurse from the NHS that the worse part of how I was treated in Canada was to have my mourning conflated with mental illness if only procedurally, little did I know that this nurse from the Whittington Hospital was writing up a report to send it to the health visitor, advising her that I had been institutionalized in a mental hospital.
In speaking with this nurse I learned that a health visitor would be involved in my life. New to the UK and unfamiliar with these job titles, I asked about this health visitor who was ostensibly to come to my house. After hearing about what they do—offer mother’s advice on their newborns, give information about vaccinations, advice on feeding, etc.—I ascertained that I really did not need this sort of support. I told Jo Carroll that I lived a few hundred meters from my GP (general practitioner or in the USA ‘family doctor’) and that I really did not want someone coming into my domestic space who was not either family or friends. I had received a lot of pressure from nurses and doctors as well to have this ‘health visitor’ and so in the weeks leading up to the birth I read up about these health visitors to learn that these people are nurses who are often referred to as the ‘health police’ and have in recent years been utilized more as a service of family surveillance. There are numerous websites devoted to critiquing how these health visitors come into the homes of private individuals and break down new mothers by intimidating them into using formula since the child is not ‘fat enough’, insinuating that the mother’s instinct is not as good as the health visitors and generally, prying into couples’ relationship problems. Overall I had found very few positive comments about health visitors in any online group or any local mother’s network. It was clear from all I had learned that these health visitors were fulfilling a role that the Internet was quickly superseding in terms of giving out information and that much of the historical need for health visitors (ie. families living in rural areas far from any hospital and without means of transportation) was no longer the case in a city such as London where transport and access to medical facilities abound. Moreover, I was disturbed to learn that the majority of women reporting on these websites had begrudgingly let these health visitors into their homes so as not to cast suspicion on them, despite the fact this is a voluntary service that we are all free to reject. So, I decided to be proactive and I went to my GP in December 2012 and told him that I really did not want a complete stranger coming into my house after I give birth and that I would be more comfortable coming to him for my baby’s medical needs. He was fine with this and said that the only problem he foresaw was that the health visitor has the baby scales to weigh my child. I said that was not a problem and that I was fine to see her on her clinic day at my local practice. I thought this issue was resolved for me and officially recorded on my GP’s notes so I would stop receiving this constant droning on by doctors and nurses about this impending visit. In short, I had not even given birth and I was feeling enormous pressure to behave in a way that was not in line with my character and that felt like a forcing of me to open up myself and my home to an institution in a way that was simply uncomfortable and stressful.
I gave birth to my beautiful daughter on 16 January, 2013 and upon being discharged from St. Mary’s Hospital, I was given a dozen pamphlets of information about newborn health, vaccinations, and SIDS. I found it bizarre to be given so much information—much of it in duplicate—despite the fact that I had already had a child and that everything in the UK is noted in the child’s ‘red book’, a record of every child’s health. It would be virtually impossible not to know when to vaccinate your child given this book we are all given. So we went home with our discharge file which included a note from my midwife who noted that I did not wish to have a health visitor visit me at home (since they had also asked me about this detail). I was visited by midwives on several occasions until they ascertained that I was healing properly from my C-section and that my daughter was healthy and growing. Two weeks later, I received a call from Angela Lancaster, the health visitor. She sounded as if she was reading from cue cards in her approach which was dry, yet initially polite, as she congratulated me for the birth of my daughter and in the very next sentence asked if she could visit me the next day. I thanked her for her well wishes and noted that I had it recorded both at St Mary’s and with my GP that I did not wish to have a health visitor in my home and that I was happy to bring my child in to weigh with her on her clinic days when it was the prescribed time. The health visitor kept insisting to come into my home and I repeatedly answered, ‘No, thank you very much. I have all the support I can handle now.’ After the third time of insisting she came right out and threatened to report me to Social Services. I was surprisingly very calm and I said to Angela Lancaster, ‘I am aware of the law and that I have the legal right to refuse your entry into my house; hence my having my GP and the hospital notify you of my decision. I am also aware that your threat to report me to Social Services is entirely illegal. So I am going to put the phone down now and I am going to ask you not to call me again.’ I then called my GP who put me in touch with her supervisor. I was to learn in the following days that what this health visitor did was entirely unethical and the Head of Nursing at Homerton University Hospital, Marcia Smikle, had informed me on 19 February 2013 that in fact there is no policy to outrightly report parents who refuse a health visitor stating:
[A] child/family would only be referred to Children’s Social Care if the health professional could not make contact with the family and another agency could not confirm that you and you baby were alive and well. In your case you were seen by the community midwives and you had notified your GP that you would be declining the Health Visiting Service and attend the practice for the interventions outlined in the Healthy Child Programme.
Given this policy and that I had been seen by my GP and midwives, why was I threatened by this health visitor, Angela Lancaster? Even after this incident I had attended all my medical appointments, vaccinating my child according to all NHS recommendations and there were no problems with either my child or myself. Yet the Internet is abuzz with women who, like me, are threatened with Social Services for not letting into our homes an aggressive person posing as a ‘professional.’ More to the point, why are so many health visitors like Ms. Lancaster inclined to threaten and harass women or at the very least obscure the fact that we are within our legal right to deny entry to our homes? How did it come to be that health visiting has become, as the Association for Improvement in Maternity Services (AIMS) puts it, the ‘health police’ whereby there is much evidence to indicate that mothers are actually refusing services based on this invasion into and surveillance of a stable family network? And why in Marcia Smikle’s letter to me did she include the information that this health visitor would have given me upon her home visit—the same exact dozen pamphlets I received when I was checked out of St Mary’s Hospital? What I was to learn throughout 2013 was how my story mirrored so many other women’s experiences and the depravity with which many of these professionals execute their professions.
In March 2013, I brought my child to a ‘stay and play’ at the Golden Lane Children’s Centre (part of the Prior Western School) in the City of London, the same nursery where I had registered my child at birth for admittance when she approached one year of age. I was told the ‘stay and play’ was a great place for parents to interact with their children in an environment full of toys and where they could interact with other children. I was curious about this format of interaction wondering if my three-month-old would be happy. My child was generally aloof to all things around her and was more interested that I breastfeed her which is pretty much what most of the other mothers were doing during their time in this group. I exchanged names and some kind moments with the other parents but I was rather taken aback by two things in my 90 minutes at this ‘stay and play’. First, there was not a ‘no-shoe policy’ which is quite typical of play areas in under 18 month spaces—only half the parents removed their shoes and I did not see the leader of this group advising them to do so. I was alarmed when at one point one of the parents had placed her boot literally two inches from my three-month-old child’s head. And then there was a more serious issue when the group came to a close: the woman leading the group led the group of parents and children in song, to include songs which were highly sexist. One song ‘Bella Mamma’ invokes the mid-twentieth century racism and sexism of the Italian woman objectified as ‘bella’ as the lyrics repeat over and over ‘bella mamma’ such that females are reducible to the typical trope of ‘beautiful,’ while other songs presented that day represent boys as active, thinking and having agency. The second song illustrated the fingers of the hand: ‘Tommy Thumb’, ‘Peter Pointer’, ‘Toby Tall,’ and the sole finger given a female personification was ‘Ruby Ring’. Thus, the only references to females in all the songs were in these two songs whereby the female was a passive object of beauty or of marriage. I was troubled to find such lyrics in a public daycare and so after this ‘stay and play’ I went to the front desk and asked to speak with the director of the school, Karen Lansdown. She was not in so I spoke to the woman with whom I had interacted in January 2013 regarding my child’s registration, Louise Buckley. I approached this subject gently stating, ‘I know I am new here but there are two issues that concern me and I would like to address them so that I will feel comfortable sending my child here for daycare later this year.’ I went on to explain the problems of the boot near my child’s head and the two sexist songs. Louise Buckley seemed uncomfortable and attempted to explain these songs away stating, ‘But these are traditional songs. We all sing these songs growing up.’ I retorted, ‘Yes, I understand traditions very well. I come from a country which was founded on the ‘tradition’ of slavery. Not all traditions are good, and most need to be questioned and changed. I have come here to address this problem because I do take sexism very seriously and I can assure you I would still be standing here even had I a boy and not a girl at your center.’ Louise Buckley looked perplexed—disturbed even— and said that she would have the director address my queries. Weeks passed and I heard nothing back.
In September of 2013 after having returned to the daycare to see where my child was on the list to enter the school later that fall, I learned the centre had lost my child’s forms for the third time. I asked again to speak to the director, Karen Lansdown, and again she was not in. I was frustrated by this centre’s incompetence with record keeping and the lack of communication about issues I deemed important. Finally, the next day Karen Lansdown called me. She called to tell me that she had reported me to Children’s Social Services because she was concerned about my ‘mental health’. I was apoplectic that I had to present myself in front of a social worker for well over two hours with my child to answer some rather invasive—if not surreal—questions about my life. And this is where Michel Foucault becomes quite relevant for the power of the state lies precisely giving enormous control to individuals who are not trained at all in most every field they are reporting upon or engaging with. Let me elaborate further.
I sat down in the office the social worker, Joanne Eglington, who was assigned to ‘interview’ me. I was asked questions about why I wanted a baby, how I got pregnant (again, questions that no heterosexual couple would ever have to answer), I was asked about my childhood and basically I was asked a load of questions that did not pertain to the welfare of my child. But I knew that were I to refuse to answer these irrelevant questions, I would have been labelled as ‘non-compliant.’ Hence, I answered questions that had nothing to do with my child, that were very much questions that should be specific to an encounter with a psychologist—or rather with a bad psychologist. So, why was I asked to come in for this meeting to meet with someone who is not a psychologist?
Then Joanne Eglington, twenty minutes into the meeting asked me about my time in a ‘psychiatric hospital’. I exploded with laughter and said, ‘You must have your files confused. I have never been in a psychiatric hospital.’ ‘Oh, Dr. Vigo,’ she exclaims, ‘It says right here that you were in a psychiatric hospital.’ Again, I said I had never been in any such hospital and I suggested that someone had made a grave bureaucratic error. Then Ms. Eglington qualified her earlier statement, ‘It says that you were in a mental health facility after the death of your child…at least this is what you told Jo Carroll of the Whittington Hospital.’ My mind imploded a bit—not in that ‘mental health’ kind of way, but rather in that ‘oh shit’ kind of way. I went on to explain that in fact I had never been in any mental health facility stating that when I met with Jo Carroll she had asked me about the death of my son and my reaction to it. So I detailed for her how the Canadian health system conflates mental health issues with mourning—they are not one in the same, certainly not seven hours after the death of one’s child. There is only mourning. I then asked Joanne Eglington how she would have received such information and why Jo Carroll was sending Social Services such mis-information. Joanne Eglington pressed me again, ‘So you have never been in a mental hospital?’ By this point I was annoyed, I found myself put in the position of repeatedly having to answer to the most ridiculous results of professional malpractice—that a nurse comes into my house, is apparently recording what I am telling her with very bad note taking skills whilst not asking for my authorization to take notes (ie. I would have insisted that I record our meeting had I been informed of this state intervention), and that this mis-information is not only defamatory but it forces me to relive the actual abuses of the Canadian health system all over again within the UK health system by virtue of being assumed to have had, as the social workers have written, ‘a historical mental health episode’. I consistently state that Jo Carroll made a grave error, that I have never been in a mental hospital and that I was simply commenting upon the Canadian healthcare system’s inability to deal with a mourning parent.
Despite an interview that lasted just over two hours whereby my child and I were forced to sit in an office, answer questions that generally would be considered within the mandate of a psychologist and not a social worker, I patiently answered most every question, found the bureaucratic necrophilia over my first child did not merit my response, and when on 31 October, I finally did see the copy of my Social Services file, I might as well have never attended this meeting. Peppered throughout this report is written that I had a ‘historical mental health episode.’ This fact brings to the fore two of the greater problems in the UK with child protection: nobody is listening and people are acting outside of their professional mandate under the auspices of being professionally trained in the actual task at hand. The nurse who came to my house to assign me a breathing monitor was not at all competent in issues of bereavement or psychology, yet she was given free reign by the government to write secret e-mails to the health visitor with an axe to grind because I complained to her supervisor about her unprofessional conduct (ie. her threats to me). Then the social worker, Joanne Eglington, whose professionalism and kindness in many respects was far greater than anyone else I had dealt with during this entire debacle, is nonetheless assigned the task of psychologist asking me questions that were—that still are—entirely personal and which have absolutely no bearing on my child. These are questions which are also outside her professional training as a social worker. That my childhood was ‘good’ or ‘bad’ becomes, as we in the UK all know, part of this never-ending series of box-ticking that begins to establish on a pseudo-scientific level probability to this or that, or rather possibilities that have already been disproven by some of the studies I cite above. So why the return to 19th century positivist standards of data collection when I sat there repeatedly clarifying that an error had been made. Why was my word only good enough to misquote but not to amend?
I walked out of that meeting with my child and looked at the sky and realized this was one of the few bright and sunny days of London. Because of this surreal experience we had missed our afternoon trip to the park and all the tender moments that parents share with their children. Walking with my child in the City of London I became aware of the delicacy of private space and the precious relationship of parent/child. While I was in this new culture, it was not the first new country I have lived in for I have lived all over Latin America, Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East. I am someone who adapts quite well to the nuances of new cultures and the spiraling bureaucracies usually inherent within social institutions. Yet something touched me profoundly about the two hours I spent in that chair, my child next to me in her stroller, as I was forced to explain the presence of an invented mental health history in a file, or that mourning is not psychosis, or even to protect the primacy of human life—my child’s and my own. For what was at stake, I suspected, was that my notion of motherhood and subjectivity was different from theses state functionaries. And I refused to the disciplinary object of the state that seeks to homogenize parenthood and even childhood. As someone who grew up having to fight racism, as a queer woman who has had to fight the sexism and heterosexism still prevalent in the world today, I was reminded how this form of state pressure resembled the very vile forces of racist and sexist structures from which I wanted to protect my daughter. I was also reminded of Giorgio Agamben’s notion of ‘bare life’ which he posits as the abandonment of natural life to sovereign violence. ‘Bare life’ indicates the break with the political rationality of modernity and the increasing convergence of democracy and totalitarianism. In my dealings with this particular state structure, the intimacy of parenthood was interruption with the state function of biopower attempting to render me its ‘new political subject.’
So let me briefly recap thus far. When Jo Carroll came to my house to tell me about the CONI program, she showed me baby CPR, she shared other related information, and she asked me about my first child who died as a result of what is classified as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). It was incredibly painful to have to recount my child’s death and yet I did so simply because I was asked by Jo Carroll. But I added a personal detail that had much weight for me. I told Ms. Carroll that the worse part about losing a child was living in a society incapable of dealing with death. I told Jo Carroll how I stayed with my son’s body the day of his death to be transferred in the afternoon to a hospital (I was in a children’s hospital, hence the doctors where I was could not write a prescription for sleeping pills for me). I told her of how I found myself in the waiting room of the hospital with patients who were greatly in need of a psychiatrist as if the health services of Canada had confused mourning for a psychiatric illness. I told her of how I waited in this waiting room with a colleague from the same university where I taught and how when the doctor came later that afternoon, she was shocked that I was made to wait with these patients. She herself expressed her disgust with the system in which she worked. I told Jo Carroll that this treatment of me that day was horrifying in a society allegedly illuminated about human rights issues. And to now have Jo Carroll misrepresent what I said, to have written that I was institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital not only falsifies what I told her that day, but rather it re-institutionalizes me in the very way I told her that I felt was done symbolically in Canada. This entire affair has made me live through the most difficult part of my life in a way which I term ‘bureaucratic cannibalism’—that is to take the experiences of a human who describes the abuses she suffered within another system, enter this story incorrectly into a new bureaucratic structure and then to force this same subject to relive this original experience and pain within the new bureaucratic landscape, repeating the original violence that the subject had originally and precisely described. This was not only a breach of professional ethics, it was an extremely cruel process to put a parent through. Then this quasi-report—in fact, an informal email—is written by Jo Carroll which was sent to the health visitor who in turn sent this to Children’s Services. This is how the domino effect of ‘rumors’ of my mental health began with misinformation in my file: by one individual making a grave mistake by writing an inaccurate statement down. In and of itself, this would not seem to be a great travesty. But within the construct of information reporting within the NHS and within the UK this in fact was what began a series of other ethical violations.
I only learned of this furtive system of recording and reporting of information without the subject’s knowledge or consent the day when I met with Joanne Eglington, Senior Social Worker with the City of London’s Children and Families Social Work Team. I had no idea that files on individuals were created, maintained, and more troublingly that unethical exchanges of information were made between individuals and agencies in order to frame a person as a ‘potential risk’. To the contrary, I believed that my utilization of the CONI program was a responsible act on my behalf and would not result in a nurse surreptitiously taking down my personal information—albeit incorrectly—and then using this information to label me as having had a ‘historical mental health episode’ within a system that would later seek to survey my every action based on this fiction which spiraled out of control. This is where Karen Lansdown comes into the picture since her report to Children’s Social Services directly references gossip shared by her staff and certain staff members of the City of London regarding my mental health. Karen Lansdown in her own words also admits that she referred me to Children’s Social Services because of the concerns I voiced about the sexism in the songs and the lack of a no-shoe policy at her centre—the only time I raised any concerns. Karen Lansdown states in her report that she had ‘concerns regarding ‘unusual’ things’ that I had raised. Keep in mind this woman had never met me or my child and I had exchanged one email with her and discussed with her employee, Louise Buckley, the issues concerning me. How odd that a parent who is proactive, for Ms. Lansdown, is a sign of a parent with mental health issues. Also on her referral form, Ms. Lansdown has knowledge that I refused to allow the health visitor into my home. So this fact is also a ‘black mark’ on her form where in fact she should not even know anything about my NHS records whatsoever. And in her referral a woman who has no education in the field of mental health, whose staff neither has any formal education beyond secondary school nor any type of competence in this field writes: ‘I am aware that both Golden Lane staff and City professionals have had increasing concerns about mum’s mental health in recent months.’ This statement reflects the unethical breaches of information from various ‘professionals’: from Jo Carroll who wrote an email to the Angela Lancaster (the health visitor, who held a grudge against me for reporting her threats to me to her supervisor) and then from this Angela Lancaster to the head of a children’s centre, Karen Lansdown. In this context, ‘mental health’ has become synonymous for a group of uneducated, bigoted people who infer truths from gossip and the UK government allows this to be passed onto paper as ‘official’.
Now let’s look at some of these ‘professionals’ from Karen Lansdown’s center: the ‘stay and play’ leader, Esther, who had only positive things to say about my child and myself (ie. ‘you are so relaxed with your child’, ‘your daughter is so happy’) who does not appear anywhere in this file and Georgina Poullais, a woman whom I met all of two times at the baby massage course and once at another childcare centre. I had no idea who this woman was when I brought my child to the massage class as she was not teaching the class and eventually I assumed she was in-training. She never introduced herself to me as being “assigned” to the centre or to me. My only interactions with Georgina Poullais were to receive her compliments about my child (that my child is “beautiful” and “happy”) or when I joked that I had hoped my child learns to give massages quickly because I could sure use one. The second time I met her I explained that I had to leave my mobile on because I needed to receive a call from the police due to a report I had filed (a completely unrelated matter). Then out of the blue, Georgina Poullais had asked me if I wanted her to babysit my daughter, a request I found entirely bizarre because I did not know her. I responded that I was fine and did not need any help at my home. I remember thinking that this was a weird request from a complete stranger. Little did I know that this woman actually worked for the City of London as a Family Support Worker, a title I still do not understand because she was more invasive than supportive. For instance she wrote me once to ‘help’ me with finding a daycare centre in the City of London but never returned my emails requesting help.
But the invasiveness rather than ‘help’ did not stop here. When I was abroad in the summer of 2013 I received an email from Georgina Poullais asking if I wanted her to come to my house and watch my child. I found this intrusive because I had already told this woman the month earlier that I was fine and that if I needed someone to care for my child I would hire a nanny or ask friends. I did not understand why between Angela Lancaster and Georgina Poullais my home became this frontier that needed to be crossed and assessed. Bottom line: I did not like it nor was I comfortable with this deflection of my clearly stated desires for autonomy. I wrote the following in my rebuttal to Social Services regarding this person’s invasive behavior:
Who is this person to be writing me an email over the summer? I do not know her nor have I authorised her to contact me in such a manner. Such behaviour is intrusive and unprofessional. One simple question: is Georgina Poullais my BFF? I am a person who is profoundly gifted in communication—if I need help, I ask for it. I do not need someone to ‘babysit’ me as this seems the type of interaction in which G. Poullais has been trained…. That this report mentions Georgina Poullais has not seen me at my home should also not appear in the record. She has not seen me on my giraffe or with my pet elephant either. This has nothing to do with anything and makes me worry that this office is attempting to render me, through a report which frames me, as ‘not cooperative’. G. Poullais never asked to see me at my home and I would actually worry about a complete stranger making such a request. She did ask to babysit my child which I took as lunacy given that I do not know her.
It is troubling to think that the state parachutes into private citizens’ lives agents who surreptitiously attempt to gather information about parents while also remain unidentified to the parent as they try to push their way into the more intimate relations between parent and child, posing as an interested third party. In fact, I have to wonder if Georgina Poullais’ repeated pressure to babysit my child was not part of the ploy to enter into my house. (I am amused to think that the UK government operates through tropes reminiscent of gay pornography such as the pizza delivery man who comes to a patron’s door ‘surprisingly’ for a gratuitous romp.) For this is what is indicated by the language utilized in the report: the importance placed upon seeing me in my home, first by the health visitor, then by Georgina Poullais and then echoed by others who seem to all have the same checklist to follow. Indeed, there is a concerted effort by the many actors in this faction to frame virtually every aspect of my being—my first child’s death, that I chose to have a child alone, and the fact that I am not a UK national—to tag me as ‘isolated’ and ‘reluctant’. In Georgina Poullais’ meeting with Social Services she said I was ‘reluctant to support’, a tendentious statement which attempts to set up the system as that which ‘knows better’, a system which sees women—namely single mothers, parents who do not want strangers in their home—as vulnerable. What I have found in my experiences with this system thus far is that it does not take into account women who do not need or desire the services they are offered and who have loads of support that they prefer in contrast to invasive health visitors, family support workers and generally a state-supplied network of salaried individuals who seem to have nobody’s interest at heart outside of these functionaries’ seemingly pathological need to check boxes. I have support. I simply do not need or desire any other support, thank you very much. The way many of these contributions to my Social Services file are written would have me painted as a right wing, gun-toting person who is awaiting the Rapture holed up in a West Texas ranch praying that Jesus takes me first. That is not how I am nor how I interact in my life. If I do not wish a health visitor or an ‘undercover’ family support worker entering my home (which seems to be the ethos here), then this is my right.
Also within Georgina Poullais’ interview she notes that I have made complaints about the health visitor and the Golden Lane Children’s Centre as if this should count against my character. She inappropriately weighs in on my son’s death—a woman whom I do not know, who never met my child, is mysteriously authorized by the United Kingdom to gossip as part of her professional duty and then the yoke of her voice and a social worker’s interventions would have this officially recorded on paper. This woman who legally should not have any access to my NHS file also reveals that she has been privy to my private records, stating that my child has not been measured or weighed by my GP. The problem when people who are not authorized or trained in certain fields is that this results in errors as in this particular case since my child was both weighed and measured by my GP. Again Poullais makes myriad assertions which are all patently untrue. The mind reels from the dozens of ethical breaches committed by this and almost every other person involved in this affair. This file is self-explanatory and the message is clear: question what the government does, question the untrained thugs who hold titles like ‘family support worker’ or ‘head of centre’, or merely be a pro-active parent, and you will be labelled as ‘uncooperative’, ‘difficult’ and ‘reluctant to support’. Or worse, these ‘professionals’ will simply make up shit about you and threaten to jettison Social Services on you again. And why the hell not? There is literally nobody who will stop them as I have learned in my dealings with followup investigations. This report contains so many tautologies of which one is painfully manifest: complain about the abuse you receive as we falsely claim you have had a ‘historical mental health episode’ and the state will ensure you receive more of the same via measures of even more bureaucracy, further attempts to enter your home, various and creative ways to paint you as mentally unfit—even if they have to resort to gossip and inventing lies. Sounds terrifying?
And what is most frightening is this: you cannot have any of these lies removed from your record because the laws of information in the UK are such that everything is not only information—incorrect or correct—everything is couched as opinion. So when I complained after receiving my Social Services file, noting literally dozens of fabrications therein to include primarily the fiction of my having been sectioned in a mental hospital, I was told, ‘Dr. Vigo, you are free to submit your opinion on this matter.’ I objected stating that we are not having a discussion about if we like or dislike Brad Pitt, we are not discussing subjective ideals about which is better—bittersweet or milk chocolate. I underscored that what I wanted corrected, even entirely removed, was an official record replete with errors—if not outright lies—by some to cover their own misdeeds. I was then told that the files in the UK of all records contain opinions and as such they are all valid pieces of information, incorrect or true. So let me share with you, dear reader, some of the nonsense in this file to which I responded. My report delineating errors and inaccuracies was twenty-eight pages, single-spaced.
I was given copies of referrals and notes from interviews, quite befittingly, on 31 October, 2013. One of the emails from Jo Carroll stated: ‘Julian is multicultural by her genetic and socially being.’ This mind-bogglingly racist and patently illogical demonstrates how dangerous it is when enormous powers are given to people who basically have no idea what they are saying or doing. It is painfully obvious that this person has no clue what she is saying, as she utilizes words whose definition she clearly does not understand. Yet these words flow freely and they illuminate how deeply steeped in empty rhetoric that this individual is. Quite plainly, one cannot be ‘multicultural’ ‘by genetics’—this is a meaningless, vacuous phrase for which any meaning gleaned herein would necessarily rely on racial tropes. At that, this is a racist statement to which anyone would take great offense. And multiculturalism is a cultural paradigm, not a somatic one. Also baffling in this report is how Jo Carroll ‘googles’ me and actually includes the search results as ‘information’ in her report that are taken from my own website! It is one of those situations that I do not know whether to laugh or cry since Jo Carroll actually quotes what I have written on my own professional website in her documentation and this passes as ‘information’ for the UK government. Just to add to the fanfare, I am also a Scorpio and you can chart my bio-rhythm here.
But let’s look at the procedural problems in what ‘went down’: every statement that Karen Lansdown wrote on her referral form to Children’s Social Services directly contradicts what she stated in an interview with Children’s Social Services. Not surprisingly these contradictions did not come up in any of the notes by Children’s Social Services, by either Joanne Eglington or her supervisor Shaista Afzal. What was repeated throughout their notes, however, was my fictitious stay in a mental hospital with zero facts to back up anything they had written. Also of great concern to me is how these alleged professionals are given carte blanche by the state to trade information and conjecture (in other words, gossip) upon issues that lie far outside their domain of expertise. Jo Carroll writes up notes on my first child whom she has never met, perpetuates and records a lie about my having been in a mental hospital, Angela Lancaster using threats to enter my home is stopped once her supervisor alerts her that it is my right to refuse her services so she then conspires with Jo Carroll to ensure that fraudulent information is entered into a Social Services file that frames me as ‘mentally unstable’. A daycare director, Karen Lansdown, who has never met me but heard that I had enquired about a matter of health and safety for small baby spaces and about practices of sexism within her centre targets me as mentally unstable because she found my critique of sexism of her center was cause for ‘concern’. Karen Lansdown was also told by Georgina Poullais that the health visitor, Angela Lancaster, received news regarding my ‘stay’ in a mental hospital from Jo Carroll. Then Karen Lansdown shares this information with her staff working at her centre and, in the same fashion of Jo Carroll who quotes my own website in her report, the gossip which Karen Lansdown had started weeks earlier she later hears repeated from the mouths of her staff to whom she had originally told this gossip. After hearing this repetition of the gossip she instigated about my alleged sojourn in an asylum, Karen Lansdown then reports this to Social Services (call it gossip ‘blowback’) mentioning specifically the various persons in her center and the City of London who have ‘increasing concerns about mum’s mental health in recent months.’ Again the very people whom her gossip has reached. In short, these individuals are creating precisely the very drama and gossip they freely exchange amongst themselves only to later write reports to reflect that this is what they have ‘heard’! If it were not so pathetic this entire scene would be hysterical! More seriously however, this legally constitutes conspiracy.
I am not surprised in reading the reports of these supposed ‘professionals’ the repeated and grotesque demonstrations of the dangers inflicted when individuals are given enormous powers outside of their specific training and mandate. One common thread running throughout this report is the professional misconduct of various actors here: neither Jo Carroll nor most of the others in my file have the professional knowledge and education to evaluate my parenting abilities, nor is it in their mandate or professional training to render me an unwilling therapy patient. Yet I was rendered the object of scrutiny for my defying the threats of one health visitor, for critiquing a daycare center’s sexist practices and lack of health and hygiene measures, for being a single mother, for having lost my first child, and for having the misfortune of settling in a country where professionals have no training in mental health yet freely write up evaluations of a person’s psychological status (even without having ever laid eyes on said person) that can negatively and irreversibly impact a family’s existence. And worse, there seems to be no authority that oversees all of these abuses collectively since I have had to address separately each person’s direct supervisor in lodging a complaint about the professional misconduct, the defamatory statements and fictions created about my person, and the gossip between these people and agencies that further snowballed one lie into many. To this day, I have received an apology from the Whittington Hospital dated 13 December, 2013 about Joe Carroll’s unethical behaviour to include an apology specifically regarding the inaccurate statements she made (ie. that I was in a mental hospital) stating, ‘we have found no documentation within the records to support Ms. Carroll’s claims’. Also the Whittington Hospital has concluded that these records taken by Ms Carroll ‘are not of the standard that we would expect and we consider the tone and content of the email to be unprofessional and unacceptable.’ In short, Jo Carroll should not have written surreptitiously to Angela Lancaster setting in motion a perpetual chain of lies about my mental health and history.
I spoke with Tony Walter, Centre Director of the Centre for Death & Society at the University of Bath. I wanted to know why health professionals and social service professionals in the UK seemed to have zero knowledge of mourning and yet with equally as little education on the matter default to regarding the loss of a child as a mental health issue. I was also curious as to the kinds of training these health and social services professionals had. Walter told me, ‘I suspect they get an hour in their training… I think they get the five stages of grief of the Kübler-Ross model.’ Walter goes on to explain our cultural conceptions of death in the early 21st century as compared to contemporary notions of death:
The infant mortality rate didn’t go down until 1900 in Western countries. Until the beginning of the 20th century it was a common experience in parenthood to have a number of children die. Death was seen as a normal part of parenting. Now the death rate is very low and what this means is that losing a child is now seen as the most unnatural thing. And other parents can’t cope with this. 100 years ago everybody knew it could happen to them. It’s a part of life. It is a very unfortunate consequence of a very good thing that most human beings get through childhood in one piece. So parents have few children and assume they are not going to die. The reactions to others who have lost a child is stronger than those who have lost another person.
Understandably, I would assume that people on the street would react more strongly about a death of a child than a health professional or social worker. It would seem that in the UK, this is not the case. For the experiences I have had were nothing other than the projections of people who seemed to project their own need to ‘protect’ me (from what?) and to infer the horror of a loss that was mine alone to experience. Walter discussed with me how in the United States ‘there has been a move to include a medicalization of grief, ‘complicated grief,’ entered into the DSM-IV (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).’ But my experience of being transferred to a hospital waiting room to receive forty sleeping tablets hours after the death of my child simply does not qualify as complicated grief which is a term used to refer to people who are significantly impaired by prolonged grief symptoms after six months of bereavement. So how could what I lived through be interpreted as anything other than grief day #1 when prescribing sleeping pills to the bereaved is simply part of the local medical practice? Might this not indicate a desire in the UK to pathologize what is nothing other than a fact of life?
Sheri Jacobson, Clinical Director of Harley Therapy in London, details how so many ‘normal emotions’ are being medicalized: ‘The DSM-5 are medicalizing everyday emotions. For children, for example, they include ‘oppositional defiance disorder’. This begs the question to what degree is this rebellious behavior by children? And there is more medicalizing of normal emotions. There are emotions such as bereavement which has slipped in as well. We all suffer from bereavement in one form or another. but it does come under the spectrum of the psychiatric lens as are a range of other expected emotions.’ Jacobson goes on to discuss how the DSM has been critiqued by mental health professionals for contributing this sort of growing pattern in pathologizing human emotions: ‘There are two big criticisms of the DSM: who decides who composes that professional body which decides on the DSM and whether they have been influenced by the pharmaceutical industry. The more you medicalize behaviors that are not extreme and that are consistent with everyday life, the more there is an opportunity for prescribing pharmaceuticals.’
I have met and spoken with other parents who had lost a child or who simply refused certain optional services within the NHS (ie. the health visitor or certain vaccinations) and we all shared one thing in common: this panoptical gaze by the state over our decisions to opt out on these ostensibly optional ‘services’. And the Internet tells this tale, at a fingers’ reach, of parents who like myself have been threatened by Social Services because of a real mental health history even as these parents have no recent or current mental health issues, of numerous parents who mostly regard health visitors as ‘useless’, incompetent, harassing or as an extension of state surveillance, of single parents whose words are misrepresented by various incompetent professionals whose default setting is to threaten or prematurely involve Social Services, and because of a system that inordinately targets single mothers invested in knowing ‘why they got pregnant’ with no respect for the privacy and autonomy of these women. More generally there are increasing numbers of parents who question this strong-arming by the state which renders the early months of parenthood as nerve-racking if not unbearable for those whose lifestyle, marital status, sexuality or modality of living their lives does not reflect the heterosexist normativity with which these state institutions undertake in their ‘evaluations’ of parents. Most parents confirmed to me that they found the health visitors as useful as a ‘chocolate teapot’, a term often used to describe them on Mumsnet. And there is even a thread on Mumsnet dedicated to collecting ‘the strangest things’ that health visitors tell mothers: from statements made such as ‘formula is poison’, to a mother being yelled at for breastfeeding at eight months, and other parents being scolded for swaddling their newborns despite being advised this by other health practitioners. What is clear from speaking with parents in the UK is that although a small percentage found their health visitor helpful on certain issues, the consensus states otherwise: most feel that health visiting is obsolete as a profession, that it is not professionally up to date with the latest medical information, that health visiting has been perverted from its traditional mission of supporting mothers to now becoming a surveillance system with an added force for menacing parents, and that the health visitor along with many other professionals such as daycare workers and family support workers are simply not adequately trained for the amount of power they wield over parents and children’s lives.
After dealing with Social Services and receiving the confirmation that they ‘never had any protection concerns’ for my child within 24 hours of meeting the social worker, Joanne Eglington, she told me that she ‘just wanted to ensure that [I] was receiving support.’ So if what I went through amounts to ‘support’ in the City of London, I am entirely understanding the skepticism with which a burgeoning group of people approach these institutions. I was both horrified and fascinated by Eglington’s statement—fascinated by what she told me because the punitive measures invoked by these agencies reminded me of this country’s colonial heritage and horrified for obvious reasons. I asked Joanne Eglington that since this entire case was undertaken in error, I would like the file removed completely. I was told by the City of London that my file must remain intact for three years despite there being grave errors throughout my file from the spelling of the names of Karen Lansdown, both my GPs and even my own name! Also incorrect in my file are dates, ages, my reasons for living in the UK, the fact that Karen Lansdown wrote on an official form that she knows both me and my child (when she simply does not), references to my first child who is also unknown to these people, and in Karen Lansdown’s report she writes down information she later directly contradicts in her interview with Social Services. All this constitutes good practice in the UK apparently. In short, there is absolutely nothing right about the process which has impacted my life quite negatively.
So what began as a nightmare for my family became one of bureaucratic proportions. How, I wondered, could so many mistakes and unethical conduct constitute the basis for a Social Services file which now found to have been invalidated must nonetheless remain ‘active’ for three years? Tony Walter explained to me how pieces of information are handled within these agencies: ‘Once someone is in the files it is treated as fact. But when you talk to the professionals they recognize that they are a constructed series of events; still they are treated as facts.’ Also troubling is that most everyone interviewed about me and my child had never met me or my child. From the health visitor, Angela Lancaster, to the childcare centre director, Karen Lansdown, people who exhibited the professional ethos of 19th century ‘armchair anthropologists’ were welcome to comment on me and my child through conjecture (ie. as a single mother she must need support). The fact that I refuse a service indicates that I am ‘isolated’ as this word appears throughout my file and paradoxically this also plays a role since I was labeled as ‘isolated’ despite the fact that I was engaging in ‘stay and play’ and other events at the local daycare centre. So my engaging in activities with the community is interpreted falsely as ‘isolationist’ and I suspect much of this labelling again comes down to my having been a parent who was proactive in her child’s upbringing and directly engaging sexism within a local daycare setting. As I wrote to the City of London:
Most of everything in this report has been written as a result of assumption or hearsay and those first-party actors giving ‘evidence’ here made grave errors because they were not trained in the field of their reports (ie. mental health) or they lacked any information to deem me a parent ‘at risk’ (ie. to find if I am isolated you would have to actually have a conversation with me, to know me even). These above reasons are no reason to ‘detain’—even bureaucratically—any parent. The pretext is child safety but after reading your report it is clear to me that there was never any concern for my child’s safety. This report does, however, demonstrate concern that you have a parent in your ‘charge’ who is not compliant, who states that she does not need any help and is still nonetheless surveyed, disbelieved.
When I told Will Cooper, Acting Family and Young People’s Information Service Manager of the City of London, who had been actively assisting me to find a daycare for my child for 2014 what had happened to me his response was this: ‘The City of London has a very small population compared to other boroughs and the population is extremely low for the size of Social Services. So when Social Services gets involved in anything they often overdo it.’ Will Cooper was one of two people who told me this, the other being a social worker in Hackney who wanted to remain unnamed. There seems to be an imbalance between the pressures put onto these services to avoid their historically famous oversights and the respect needed to be maintained in dealing with families and the autonomy of these families.
When I called the City of London to start the complaints process I was put through to Sharon McLaughlin, Business Support Manager, for the Department of Community & Children’s Services. Not only is Ms. McLaughlin the person who handles investigations of complaints in such matters, but she made no secret of her bias towards her colleagues stating that they were ‘just doing their job’ adding, ‘But you would have to agree that it is in the best interests that investigations are carried out.’ This is the person I have to trust with conducting an ‘objective’ investigation? Worse, Sharon McLaughlin makes it clear that I should be a complaisant participant in my own oppression, happily lending credence to state power as I smile saying I am taking one for all the Baby P’s of the United Kingdom. In my rebuttal to the City of London which asks for a complete and impartial investigation of what has happened to me and my child, I made it clear that I wanted McLaughlin to have no part in any investigation given her self-confessed tendentiousness for both the system and her colleagues and her clear bias that the public should suffer in due measure the errors of the state. I learned recently that in fact, McLaughlin is not recusing herself from this investigation, as Chris Pelham wrote me on 7 January, 2014: ‘I can confirm that the parts of the complaint where you have referenced Sharon McLaughlin will be not be considered by Sharon but will be looked into by another party not linked to the case.’ So essentially what began as a circus continues thusly with a bureaucrat who is aware that I have lodged a complaint against her trusted with the objective review my complaint against her department.
Robert Dingwall, Professor in the School of Social Sciences at Nottingham Trent University and Emeritus Professor and Founding Director of the Institute of Science and Society, shares his views on surveillance that has encroached upon the health visiting profession for several decades:
The role of health visitors has been pushed more towards surveillance than support since the 1970s and the positive aspects that were strongly entrenched in the occupation have been taken over by this task of surveillance. There has always been an element of surveillance since the end of the 19th century when their task was to convince working class women to clean up their households. It was supposed to look out for incipient health and mental health and the idea of searching populations. That is the spirit of the health visiting profession since the 1970s. It has become much more focused upon child protection and has had a box ticking enterprise. Women are more reluctant to share problems that they wouldn’t have 30 or 40 years ago. You can see where in the 1980s they were providing information, you can also see that women who were on their own either as single parents or remotely from their own families, the health visitors could be enormous supports for guidance. There has now been a focus on child protection aspects. Personally I think this is a tragedy. This is part of the restructuring of the British Welfare State which would take us all day to discuss.
So what began as a system invested in helping parents—mothers in particular—has morphed into a structure where parents—mothers in particular (you know because our bodies make us crazy)—are suspect to child abuse simply because. In responding to my queries about profiling and the use of ‘risk assessment’, Robert Dingwall discusses the dilemma between the methodologies and theories that are utilized to calculate which parents could be considered ‘at risk’ even when these methods are not proven and are riddled with problems:
There is a certain evidence basis for asking profiling questions. There is a theory that I am quite skeptical about personally which suggests that if your parents abused you than you could be considered high risk for abusing your own child; if your pregnancy had not been intended that you would have a higher risk factor…the system would have you asked this question in order to understand the risk factors. Many of these questions do have some kind of evidential basis. This is part of the dilemma that everybody is under. There are all sorts of methodological problems with these studies. But the system can then say, ‘If we missed this case at least we have asked all the right questions. We have this piece of paper with the boxes ticked.’ It is the way that profiling is used in lieu of professional judgment. Yet any professional who is accorded any degree of autonomy who can sit down with you for five minutes would get a different picture. Professionals in the UK are not really trusted with this autonomy. It is about targets, checklists, profiles, and loss of trust in professional judgement. That means it is hard to understand the individual clearly.
But what of the targeting of parents like myself who have done nothing wrong but exercise their choice in opting in certain forms of interactions and opting out of others, or pointing out issues of sexism in a local daycare? How about individual and family privacy in relation to the state apparatus? Dingwall discusses how over the years profiling has come into practice and it can ‘throw up’ innocent parties without hesitation, especially when it relates to foreign residents:
What you are talking about is the total child protection and the respect for family privacy and this tension with surveillance… Many North Americans found it very hard to come to terms with the way UK health services operated. There was this mismatch of expectations and I can see that with this drive for more intense surveillance. I can see how that has intensified the pressure on the professionals. This is what you are experiencing and it is not unique to you.
While it is reassuring to know that I am in good company, it is distressing to know that these institutions are not overseen, they do not correct their mistakes, and that they do not issue retractions of their erroneous fabrications.
So, what exactly are the issues that might trigger a health visitor today to report a parent to Social Services? As Allison Dixley, blogger for The Alpha Parent, describes, health visitors screen for certain criteria into which to predict mothers as ‘at risk’:
The screening looks at risk factors such as the mother’s age, marital status, education and whether the baby was premature or in special care. Many of these ‘risk factors’ are related to poverty, so just being poor makes labelling more likely’ (Robinson. J). Mothers with physical problems are additionally picked up by the radar, so having a disability also makes labelling more likely. ‘Alternative lifestyles or ‘non-compliance’ of any kind may be regarded with suspicion—including breastfeeding toddlers, use of alternative practitioners and rejection of immunisation’ (Robinson. J). These crunchy mothers undermine and challenge a health visitor’s authority, as that authority is derived from their mainstream textbook training.
Examining the changing scope of health visiting Dixley details how health visitors are actually no longer invested in the mother’s or child’s health, but instead are on the watch for signs of child abuse acting covertly as an extension of Social Services attempting to ‘assess’ potential hazards. What is clear is that the methods used by health visitors are neither scientifically proven nor within their professional training to ascertain ‘mental health’ from queries which are about as ambiguous in nature as interpreting the day’s horoscope:
Even if there is no depression or other ‘problems’ health visitors screen all new parents for any likely risk of child abuse. In some areas, they even visit mothers before the birth to do so. Intentionally vague and probing questions are rattled off, such as “How loving do you feel towards your baby/child?” and “How confident do you feel being a parent?” Such questions are designed to catch mothers off guard and although some health visitors attempt to distance themselves from the procedure by attributing it to a higher authority, the questioning creates an unnecessary climate of judgement (The Guardian)… Risk-assessment measures are increasingly used to pass judgments, and exploited retrospectively to justify past decisions and actions (Goddard C et al. Structured risk assessment procedures: Instruments of abuse? Child Abuse Rev; Openmarket). This increasing involvement in child protection threatens the ethical basis of health visiting (Taylor. S and Tilley. N). Is it ethical for health visitors to seek out and identify risks that they cannot effectively treat? ‘We cannot ask our Health and Social Services to act as a kind of anti-abuse intelligence service, smelling out the bad parents long before they have committed any crime’ (Barker W. Barker, W. (1990) Practical and ethical doubts about screening for child abuse. Health Visitor, 63(1), 14-17.) The paradox is that when a mother is threatened with Social Services for ‘refusing’ help, they are then seen as a risk when they ‘accept’ help.
As a result there are many parents who are rightfully skeptical of the health visitors, especially mothers like myself who have made an informed choice to forego this ‘service’ with good reason. What is most puzzling and troubling, however, is why the NHS is not keeping up with the current anecdotal information readily available which demonstrates that mothers are not feeling supported with the health visiting scheme, especially when declining this scheme often means a referral to Children’s Social Services. Likewise there is sufficient statistical data which demonstrates that health visiting does not in fact function to stop abuse in families:
Only one in 13 of the ‘high-risk’ families went on to abuse their children within five years, and 6 per cent of non-abusing families were incorrectly identified as ‘high risk’ for child abuse. In the 964 cases labelled ‘high risk’, there were 892 false positives. What’s more, one-third of the families who did abuse children had been classified as ‘low risk’. Are health visitors merely preparing the ground for the harvesting of babies for adoption? (Robinson, Jean. ‘Health Visitors or Health Police’ AIMS Journal, 2004, Vol 16 No 3, citing Barker W. ‘Practical and ethical doubts about screening for child abuse.’ Health Visitor, 1990; 63: 14-7)
While recent high profile cases of baby deaths has put the NHS and Social Services under scrutiny by the media, there needs to be an understanding that scrutinizing all parents as potential child abusers through the health visiting scheme is not only not the way forward but the system used to profile parents simply does not work. What is clear is that this system invokes punitive judgements thus forcing women who might need some form of support to defer their needs (ie. postpartum depression) for fear of being targeted as ‘at risk’ and of their children being taken from them. It is clear in the United Kingdom that care of mothers comes last while scrutiny of parents as potential abusers is the primary line of surveillance whereby a quasi-methodological trawling of these mothers is invoked by the state to profile parents.
What I would like to know is why the NHS puts women’s health last. I was told to take Healthy Start Vitamins by my GP while breastfeeding. Women who breastfeed should be taking anywhere from 1,000-2,000 mg per day of calcium depending on age. After having pain in my joints last August and September my GP did not even bother to verify my calcium levels or bone density. Since leaving the UK, I consulted a doctor in India who ran tests only to find that I have a calcium deficiency brought on by being given these supplements which contain absolutely no calcium. I wish I had received one iota of the vigilance over my physical well-being that was protracted onto my family.
There are many issues that come to mind in addressing the what has happened to me and countless other parents. My first thought when I discovered that the government had fictively invented my stay in the mental hospital was, ‘But what if I had been in a hospital. Are parents with mental health issues to be surveyed with such Stasi tactics?’ Indeed the recent story of the Italian woman, Alessandra Pacchieri, who was given a forced caesarean section sheds light on the depravity of current practices with patients who suffer from mental health issues. This 35-year-old woman’s baby was then stolen from her by the UK government and put up for adoption because of her bi-polar disorder. Pacchieri who is addressing this betrayal through the UK court system states, ‘Something very unfair has been done to me. I am fighting to get my daughter back and I never want another innocent mother in your country to suffer as I have.’ But there are many women suffering from similar situations. Just yesterday I met a Canadian gentleman here in India whose cousin’s child was removed by Social Services in the UK because she had in her past a moment of depression. If these are the criteria by which children are removed or threatened to be removed from families, we should all fear. That bad month at the office? That divorce that took you a year to bounce back from? An adolescent period of depression? Evidenced throughout numerous websites devoted to parenting in the UK is how many people are mindful that honesty about one’s personal life with anyone in the NHS or the larger network of social vigilance is not the best policy for keeping the family together.
Since this happened last Fall I have been speaking with friends, family and colleagues in the UK and abroad to let them know the dangers of bureaucratic institutions where ostensibly well-intentioned people are rendered automated cogs in a machine which eliminates all intellectual activity. I have also spoken with many other parents who have experienced similar investigations, many of whom like myself are single mothers. Many of these parents have expressed similar concerns that the state has focussed on them because of their marital status, their childhood experiences, or any emotional upheaval in their lives. More generally there is a sense of distrust amongst these parents that the state can so brutally intrude upon one’s private life without any cause whatsoever. In fact, what happened to me and many of these parents is pre-emptive child protection: just the vaguest idea of possibility ensures these untrained state agents are empowered to evaluate anything they desire simply because they can. With Taylorism pervading public sector services in Great Britain, how can we not look askew at single mothers who ask for their autonomy or privacy, how can we not screen for possible, future mental health issues despite their being palpable proof that such screening is inaccurate, and why not place people with absolutely zero speciality or training in mental health to keep tabs on parents while disciplining those who do not comply with such ludicrous scenarios? With a system that is established specifically and uniquely for box ticking, we should be alarmed that in present day Great Britain government agencies allow heads of childcare centers to write up reports on parents they have never met, that those mandated with the power to refer a parent to social services are accountable to nobody, and that family support workers and health visitors are informally or officially mandated to act as domestic spies for the state.
After all of these aggressions, I felt as I had been a victim of a crime. The psychological stress this has accumulated on my life and that of my child’s is simply ineffable. What I have in common with these other parents who were likewise thrashed by this system is that we were all denied recognition and closure. What Great Britain needs aside from assessing and dismantling this system of abuse is to install a process of reconciliation for parents who are wronged by the system. As it stands now, the state and its actors are pretty much accountable to nobody and phrases like ‘everything was inspired by the best of intentions’ are the only peace offerings thrown out in an attempt to dismiss the ferocity of what has transpired. Such clichés, while seemingly offering an explanation for the violence, are elusively asking the subject to ally herself and to empathize with her oppressors.
In Discipline and Punish Foucault asserts that the “individualizing distribution” of power maintains an “organization in depth of surveillance and control, and intensification and ramification of power” (p. 198). Thus, through the video cameras, televisions, the massive grouping of workers, and the individualized offices we see the surveillance system inscribed. The maintenance of relational power which “sustains itself by its own mechanism” preserves the institution’s hold over the body and the mind, thus eliminating any subjective action or identity (p. 177). This debacle with the City of London demonstrates a society where the system of surveillance “automatizes and disindividualizes” power and the individual becomes an “object of information, never a subject in communication” (Foucault, pp. 200-202). In short, the moment I gave birth to my child I ceased being a sentient being with individual needs and desires as viewed by the state. I have been reduced to a series of tick boxes for people who: utilize gossip and institutional cronyism to further their own careers whilst these ‘professionals’ are acting outside of their training, expertise and education; behave unethically as they both create gossip and then share the very gossip they have fabricated which is snowballed into a series of ‘facts’ in official reports; and who have a curious power to unleash these falsehoods yet no power whatsoever to pull the emergency brake. In parallel with Foucault’s body of work on panopticism, the state is never wrong and the individuals running this vast machinery of surveillance are only empowered to enact violence, never to retract, acknowledge or apologize for it.
As a result of what has happened I had to make a decision to protect my child and myself which resulted in some upheavals in my professional life as I decided to leave, at least temporarily, my visiting position at Goldsmiths, University of London. I also put several of my editors in the uncomfortable position of having to wait for articles and chapter submissions. I lost several months of my time dealing with this unnecessary intrusion into my personal life, I have had to spend money on solicitors for advice, and I had to think very quickly as to where to go to continue my life in a safer environment. I am now awaiting my complaints to be re-addressed formally as the sheer amount of nepotism and investigatory incompetence is mind-boggling. I am not holding my breath that I will receive as hospitable a treatment from the Prior Weston Children’s Centre or the City of London as I did from the Whittington Hospital which extended me with a swift and thorough investigation and a heartfelt apology to boot.
Everyone else concerned in this matter has been dragging their feet or giving over my complaint to investigation the very colleagues of the persons whom I have accused of professional misconduct. For instance, I made a complaint about this school and a report was completed in November 2013 by Islington Council; yet I was told that Ruth Gee, the Chair of Governors at Prior Weston Children’s Centre and Primary School, would ensure I received a copy of this report and her response to it. Months later I was still awaiting a copy of this report and her formal response despite my having received verbal confirmation regarding certain matters contained herein by the principle investigator. After weeks of foot-dragging, I was then admonished by Ruth Gee for the fact that I was planning to write an article about this entire affair. As such Ruth Gee refused to send me both the report and the copy of her response to the report as an act of coercion to keep me from including more of the findings which do not bode well for her school’s director. This coercion has been extended to the London Borough of Islington whose commercial lawyer has intimidated me to include his warning me from making any negative reviews of the school online. After invoking legal precedent for my right to have a copy of this report I was finally sent the report with the response written by Ruth Gee conveniently missing (the response by Ms. Gee was the reason why I was made to wait several months for the report). It is now one year later and I still have received no report from the City of London for my complaints about their actor’s unprofessional conduct.
The Nursing & Midwifery Council initially responded to my complaint in January and then I was contacted by them in July as they informed me that they could not identify the health visitor who threatened me despite my naming her and the general practice where she is based. Those were the first seven months. Then in a fraction of the time they spent looking for this person, they somehow concluded a report on 10 September, 2014 where they do not even mention any of the specific claims I make about this woman who threatened me, who unethically spread my private NHS information with members of the City of London and the staff of the Golden Lane Children’s Centre. Not one word is mentioned and the language is sanitized to bureaucratic speak in which they spent more time explaining how they could not find this health visitor than actually dealing with the nature of my complaint: “Once identified the Trust informed us that they were aware of the allegations and that they undertook a full investigation into the matters raised within the referral. The conclusion of which, was that they found the allegations to be unsubstantiated and that there was no case to answer. In addition; the Trust has confirmed that there have not been any similar incidents or previous complaints about Ms. Lancaster’s practice; and similarly they have no fitness to practise concerns.” This is one of the most damning confessions of nepotism I have seen in my life whereby an organization says, essentially, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, Shorty told me that she ain’t done it so she ain’t done it! And hey they don’t have to talk to the witness cuz she don’t matter. It’s like it never happened.” Essentially my existence is elided from this investigation: the claims I make in my complaint are erased from all mention within the bureaucratic structure and processes; an overlord I have never heard of, “the Trust”, has told the Nursing & Midwifery Council that they have investigated but oddly I was never interviewed or contacted; and there is a clear move to sweep this affair under the carpet and ignore any form of procedure despite the backdoor inter-institutional discussions that have attempted to erase me and my experiences with this health visitor with some success. Seven months to locate this health visitor and five weeks to not conduct an investigation.
It is a sad irony that a system which sets out to survey and humiliate parents for not conforming to their inflexible and monolithic constructions of ‘family’ now attempts to set up measures to ensure that information is obscured or rendered inaccessible from public view. Or more oddly, is that suddenly confidentiality—albeit of their own cohorts—is a primary concern. I realized quite early on in this debacle that these systemic problems exist because so many before have either been unable to say anything or have simply not been heard. It is in this spirit that I write this article to elucidate the details of my case in order to publicly set the record straight with regard to the abuses initiated against myself and the many other parents in similar positions.
What worries me most about what is going on in the UK is something Edward Snowden touched upon in his Channel 4 broadcast Christmas message last year: ‘A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They’ll never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves, an unrecorded, unanalyzed thought.’ I have thought long hours about this sentiment as Snowden’s foreboding is one that needs to be taken seriously, especially by those of us raising children in the UK where the state of surveillance indicates that being a single mother can alone target you for scrutiny; that asking about the prevalence of sexism in school songs might just result with a daycare director writing up a report on you about their ‘increasing concerns about mum’s mental health’; that having had a past mental health issue might mean you have to answer to the state in order to raise your child to jump through hoops that sycophants in deference to ‘the system’ have created with absolutely zero proof of such systems working to prevent potential ill deeds; or that not conforming to a system that is ostensibly voluntary will result in a mental history being created for you. Sounds crazy? It is. Or maybe I am having ‘another’ mental health episode?
Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. She can be reached at: email@example.com