Thursday, January 29, 2009

Violence and coercion by teenage partners

(This is my That's Men column from The Irish Times, Tuesday 27th January 2009): School programmes on dealing with physical or emotional abuse from a dating partner might seem a step too far.

Yet a number of states in the US have required schools to introduce such programmes. In some cases, the legislation followed the murder of a teenager by a jealous ex.

The fact is that controlling behaviour and abuse occurs between teenagers as well as adults.

That teenagers would stay around to be abused may seem highly unlikely - but the cycle of abuse for teens is no different than that for adults. I will explain more about that cycle later.

First, look at the story of one teenage boy as told on the Teens Experiencing Abusive Relationships (TEAR) website.

He went for a night out with the guys and with his best friend Marie. He was flattered when Angel, their pretty waitress, slipped him her phone number at the end of the night.

He rang, they met, they dated and he fell in love.

Then Angel began to get jealous of his best friend Marie. If he loved her, she told him, he would end his relationship with Marie. So he did. She still went out her friends, both male and female, but he accepted that. Angel liked him to keep in touch with her so that she knew where he was at all times. Soon he was spending all his time with her except when she was with her friends.

Once, when she met him after being out with her friends she flew off the handle because she found out he had called Marie. She screamed at him, slapped him, pushed him, punched him and kicked him. Then she walked out.

Next day she was back, full of smiles and they kissed and made up. Then the jealousy and the fighting started again. But, at the end of his story he states that he can't break the cycle "because my love for her would always be stronger than that."

The website includes stories of teenage girls who went through the same sort of experience with their boyfriends.

The cycle of abuse has three stages which can be thought of as the green, orange and red stages.

In the green stage, all is well and the relationship is enjoyable and loving. In the orange stage, one partner is making escalating demands on the other, controlling the other, perhaps threatening him or her. In the red stage, the abusive partner explodes, into physical, sexual or emotional violence.

And the next stage? The next stage is the green stage again, the hearts and flowers stage as it is sometimes called. The abusive partner apologises, is loving and romantic and swears it will never happen again.

In all likelihood, it's the return to that green stage that keeps the cycle going until the person at the receiving end realises what is happening and gets out.

But teenagers? A couple of years ago, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in the US surveyed 15,000 tens on the issue of abuse. Ten per cent said they had been hit or slapped by a romantic partner. Nearly one in twelve said they had been forced to have sex. (CDCP Factsheet - pdf).

If it happens there I think we can assume it happens here. What's behind it? In the case of the abuser I suspect it's a fear, even a terror, of abandonment. That terror of abandonment leads the controlling personality to put extraordinary and intolerable restrictions on the other person.

And why does the other person put up with it, even for a time? Partly out of love, partly because it takes time for the penny to drop, partly out of fear of the consequences of trying to leave (a justified fear in too many tragic cases) and partly because the return to that green stage, the romantic stage, keeps the person trapped.

The TEAR project is based in New Jersey and was started six years ago by four teenage girls.

Their website contains lots of useful information for teenagers trapped in this sort of situation. Actually, it contains useful information for people of all ages.

If you're being controlled by another person or if you're worried about someone in this situation, take a look at it. It's at

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Roscommon child abuse case - what we need to know

The Health Service Executive has appointed Norah Gibbons of Barnardos to head an independent inquiry into the Roscommon child abuse case. Few people in child protection work in Ireland have higher credibility than Norah Gibbons. She is nobody's fool. I wish her well.

Below is my article from The Herald of Friday, 23rd January, 2009 on the questions to which we need answers:

The history of child protection is signposted by a series of inquiries.


Each inquiry marks a failure. Each comes too late for one or more children - such as the inquiry into the death from extreme neglect of 15 year old Kelly Fitzgerald in 1993. She died even though when she moved to Co Mayo, West Lambeth Health Authority warned the Western Health Board of its worries and sent its child protection files to the WHB.


And now we have the Roscommon case and another inquiry inevitably on the way. In a sense this inquiry is different from the others because this case marks such a widespread failure on the part of the whole social system that surrounded the children.


Here are questions to which we need answers:


- Court evidence suggests there were concerns about child welfare in this family since the birth of the first child in 1989. What was done about this?


- Why did it take until 2000 for an arrangement to be made to put the children into the voluntary care of a maternal aunt and uncle given that further concerns had been raised  in 1996?


- Why did the High Court prevent this arrangement from going ahead and who helped the mother to take the case?


- The court heard that a "Catholic right-wing organisation" had helped the mother to seek the injunction. A social worker stated in court that he suspected the involvement of Mína Bean Uí Chroibín in the application. Who are these people and what was their involvement, if any, in the legal process?


- The health authorities applied to have the High Court order lifted in 2001 but was told it should stay in place until a child care order was made by the District Court. Why? Did the health board seek such an order? If not, why not?


- The children went to school in a condition which made it obvious they were being neglected. What did the school do about this?


- Were these children seen by doctors of nurses during their childhood? What did they see?


- An official Garda investigation began in 2004. Did anybody make a report to Gardaí in the years prior to that?


These are just some of the questions to which we need answers about this specific case. There are wider issues too.


Legally it would appear that social workers can only take a child into care on a compulsory basis if there is a serious and immediate risk to the child. Is this too restrictive and should it be changed?


Where is the promised constitutional referendum on the rights of the child?


Is the health board/HSE system capable of running an effective child protection system or is it time to give this task to a separate, dedicated agency?


A statement from the Irish Association of Social Workers this morning gives a strong impression that other children may be at risk of the same sort of neglect and abuse in other families. Let's get to work.




Let's hear it for the lazy guy

(This is the text of my That's Men column in The Irish Times on Tuesday 20th January 2009): I have hinted more than once in the past that when I was working for a salary I was far from being the most diligent employee on the floor.

That's when I was on the floor. More often than not I was to be found wandering around bookshops in the city centre, looking for the answer to everything.

Now that I am self-employed I actually have to work in order to get paid. Unfortunately the HR Department neglected to mention that little point when it put up a voluntary severance package that had 200 of us charging out the door.

Now that the jobs are vanishing and we're all going to live in caves, emerging now and then to be heckled by David McWilliams, I'd like to celebrate the world of the not-very-good worker.

I came across a few examples the other day in reports of a heartening survey by an American management consultancy called Caliper (now there's a name to conjure with).

One woman, on her second day in the job, was found fast asleep in the CEO's office. Anybody can fall asleep on their second day at work but to do it in the CEO's office takes a lot of class.

Actually, women can be a bit of a pain in the neck about doing a fair day's work for a fair day's pay. We men are better at slacking off so I'm a bit disappointed that it wasn't a man who chose the boss's office for his nap.

But fair play to the guy who, after starting work, looked for a week off for a trip to Florida. The employer said no so he went sick for a week and came back with a tan. I bet this man remembers his week in Florida with more fondness than any week in the office. Good luck to him.

Then there was the new guy who came to work late and went home early, explaining that he was going to be sick tomorrow. He has many brothers and even some sisters here in Ireland.

What is heartening about the Caliper survey is that it found that most managers will keep a worker who is not very good because they don't want the hassle of hiring someone new.

Nearly seven out of ten managers said they would persevere with an existing worker, according to a report on

Thank heavens for that, whether you're an underperforming bishop, bank manager, politician, or drone.

By the way, Caliper don't necessarily think this is a good thing, judging by their website which contains frightening sales pitches like "Get the most out of every interview and hire more people like your top performers." Tell you what - I wouldn't be too keen on seeing those guys walk in the door.

Talking of interviews, one of my most dispiriting tasks as an employee was sitting on interview panels. Somewhere around Day Two, the thought would hit me: If I was applying for this job, against this opposition, I wouldn't get it.

Assuring myself that all job candidates exaggerate their energy, dedication and commitment to the point of fantasy did not help to dispel the dark cloud that would hover over me until I finally escaped back to my bookshops and my long lunches.

I like the attitude of Alexander Kjerulf. He speaks all over the world about making people happy at work and, I suspect, makes a happiness-inducing truckload of money out of it.

On his blog, Chief Happiness Officer, Denmark-based Kjerulf suggests bosses tell their new employees: "My most important priority is your happiness and productivity at work. If there's anything I can do to make you happier and more efficient - tell me right away. This isn't idealism, it's good business, because happy people are more productive."

I couldn't agree more and don't be bothering about measuring productivity either.

"Life is more than work," he suggests new employees be told. "If you're regularly working overtime, you're just making yourself less happy and more stressed. Don't join the cult of overwork - it's bad for you and the company."

This great man has a book called Happy Hour is 9 to 5. It's available in many languages including Chinese. Laid-back Chinese workers - now there's a novel idea.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Fatima Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto - no love lost

Well, there's no love lost between Fatima Bhutto and her late aunt, the assassinated Benazir Bhutto. According to this article by Fatima in the New Statesman, Benazir's tomb has become a tawdry, Disney-like monument designed by herself and the Pakistani people are deeply unhappy about where their country is heading. Good read.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

A people neglected - Tony Gregory's North Inner City Dublin

(My article on the North Inner City in the 1970s and 1980s appeared in The Evening Herald on 7th January 2009 in a feature marking the death of Tony Gregory TD):

To many people today, Dublin's North Inner City is characterised by the Irish Financial Services Centre and the O2 concert venue.

Neither existed in the North Inner City which, in the 1970s and early 1980s, shaped Tony Gregory's subsequent political career.

The main public building of note, more dreary then than today was the still-dreary Busaras.

In the 1970s, when Tony Gregory was a teacher and community activist working his way into local politics, families lived in dreadful conditions.

At the time I lived in a flat in Upper Sherrard Street. My journey home each evening brought me past old Georgian tenements from which you could smell and sense utter poverty and deprivation.

Fr Peter McVerry, speaking at a Combat Poverty exhibition in 2007, explained far better than I can what conditions were like only 30 years ago:

"I went to live in the old Summerhill flats in 1974.  They were just awful.  They were small, the only heating was an open fire in the sitting room, Dublin Corporation had obviously never been told that sound-proofing had been invented, and the place was crawling with rats, rats the size of little kittens and immune from every poison ever invented.   Parents would tell you of waking up in the morning and finding a rat on the baby's cot.  

"Some blocks of flats had to share an outside toilet and the children had to be washed in the local Sean McDermott St swimming pool, as they had no baths or showers."

While the poor had the same rights as everyone else on paper, these rights meant little enough in practice, as that extract makes clear.

I remember Gregory as a community activist coming in to borrow a few minutes' use of our photocopier  in the National Social Service Council in Leeson Street. Needless to say, our masters in the Department of Health knew nothing of this.

Today, community bodies have their own photocopiers and staff but at that time this rarely happened. To pursue community activism in places like the North Inner City as people like Tony Gregory, Mick Rafferty and Fergus McCabe did, you had to have immense faith in what you were doing because little or no encouragement came from official Ireland.
At the time, the National Social Service Council was establishing what are now called Citizens Information Centres to tell people about their rights. I still remember the protests from one puffed-up minor official in the North Inner City because women, living in the conditions mentioned above, were now actually looking for their entitlements. Far better, he argued, to tell them nothing - that way they would look for nothing.

In this scenario of depressing poverty people turned, in too many cases, to drink or drugs. The heroin epidemic of the 1970s ravaged the North Inner City with precious little being done about it by officialdom. A social worker who tried to alert his boss to what was going on had his report thrown back at him. There is nothing I can do about this, he was told, so don't be sending me reports about it.

The outside world seemed to care about this area of poverty and unemployment only when people's property was robbed from their cars while they were sitting at traffic lights.
One has to wonder how many of the crime problems of today can be traced back to that indifference and to the failure to help families lost in poverty.
Nonetheless, the 1970s was also a period of social optimism and people like Combat Poverty and Kilkenny Social Services (Sr Stanislaus Kennedy was a leading influence in both) raised awareness of the need for change.

"They demolished Summerhill and Gardiner St. and Sean McDermott St in 1980," Fr McVerry recalled in that speech to Combat Poverty. He moved to Ballymun and it says a lot about the grinding poverty and dreadful conditions in the North Inner City that "after Summerhill, the Ballymun flats were paradise."  
But the North Inner City was no paradise. Poverty and unemployment remained high and in the 1980s the country entered a decade of cutbacks as it tried to cope with a frightening national debt.

When Tony Gregory was first elected to the Dáil in 1982, he held the balance of power. Charles Haughey, determined to form the next government, came looking for his support, the outcome was the Gregory Deal.

Tony Gregory could have looked for, and would certainly have got, a junior ministry - a terrific prize for a newcomer to the Dáil.

Instead he looked for, and was promised, a range of measures which included specific numbers of jobs and houses for his constituents.

But Haughey's government didn't last and so the Gregory Deal fell by the wayside.

Yet the people knew Gregory was on their side and they knew he was absolutely genuine. That's why they voted him back in election after election. He was as far removed as you can get from some of those politicians who strut about their constituencies with little or no appreciation of what life is like for many of those whom they claim to represent.
Gregory remained involved with the North City Centre Community Action Project, founded in 1978 and one of the oldest such projects in the state.

He brought a sense of pride to an area which could so easily have slid into a depression. He lived through a second heroin epidemic. He got deeply involved with local efforts to boost education, training and jobs. He was as much a part of the area as a brick in the wall. If you wanted to meet one of his right hand men such as Mick Rafferty you didn't have to seek him out: you would probably bump into him walking down the street.

The North Inner City still has many problems but there is no doubt that these would be immeasurably worse, and the area's capacity to deal with them weaker, but for Tony Gregory's relentless work since the 1970s.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Who let the dogs out? Top Dog, Bottom Dog and your New Year resolutions

(This is the text of my That's Men column in The Irish Times on Tuesday 30th December 2008)

Are you working on your New Year resolutions in the hope of creating a bright and shiny new you for 2009?

Heed my advice and take the whole idea with a pinch of salt.

We can all do with making some improvements in how we treat ourselves and other people. But all too  often we think the old self has to be shoved into the black bin and left outside to be taken away to the nearest landfill. In its place we look for a completely new self which will win the admiration and even the applause of all.

But this doesn't work, and here's  a doggish explanation as to why not:

In Gestalt Therapy there is a concept called 'Top Dog/Bottom Dog'. Top Dog is that part of your mind that knows what you ought to be doing with your life, how much you should weigh, how much exercise you should take, what you ought to eat, what time you should get up in the morning, how efficient you should be at work, how much you should be earning and so on.

Bottom Dog doesn't really want all this and resists the demands of Top Dog. Bottom Dog will have sausages and rashers for breakfast rather than a healthy bowl of porridge; prefers wine to water;  snuggles in bed on a Saturday morning instead of getting up for a jog around the park; and has a to-do list with uncompleted items stretching back to the time of Tutankhamen.

Bottom Dog is very good at what he does. In fact Bottom Dog usually wins.

So what you want to watch out for is that it isn't just Top Dog who is sitting there writing out the New Year's list of resolutions.  Leave the job to Top Dog and you can be pretty sure Bottom Dog will get busy sabotaging the whole thing.

I said above that we can all make improvements in how we treat ourselves and other people. Top Dog won't settle for improvements – he demands perfection. Bottom Dog knows better.

Top Dog would have you join the gym for a year.  But you would do better to try it out for a month because that's about all the time Bottom Dog is going to give you on the treadmill.

Top Dog would urge you to cycle to work regardless of the weather. Bottom Dog would encourage you to leave the bicycle at home when it's cold and wet, and maybe even when it's warm and dry so don't go spending €500 on a new bike until you've tried out a second-hand banger for a while.

Top Dog would have you eating a grapefruit for breakfast, a few leaves of lettuce and a tomato for lunch and a sliver of chicken for dinner.  Bottom Dog will tempt you with a Full Irish, a hot beef sandwich with chips and a half roast chicken with loads of gravy, so devise a human diet rather than a Top or Bottom Dog one.

 Top Dog wants you to get to work an hour early and leave an hour late in Bill Cullen style.  Bottom Dog thinks getting to work an hour late and leaving an hour early is the way to go. Actually, I'm with Bottom Dog on this one as all my former employers know.

You might be getting the impression that I like Bottom Dog more than I like Top Dog. Well, Bottom Dog has more fun than Top Dog in the same way that Catholics have more fun than Presbyterians (as I was born a Catholic I am entitled to make remarks that are mildly insulting to the old religion).  But Bottom Dog suffers from a bit of Catholic guilt over his behaviour. He is motivated partly by anxiety at Top Dog's demands and he's not quite as laid back as you might imagine.

So when making your resolutions, don't let Bottom Dog dictate them or you'll go to hell in a handcart. But don't let Top Dog dictate them either because Top Dog's plans inevitably collapse.

Go for something that might work for a human being with human faults.  Go for a middle way, in other words, and let sleeping dogs lie.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

The torture that makes 14 year olds smile for sex tourists

"The abolitionist cause simply hasn't been completed as long as 14-year-old girls are being jolted with electric shocks — right now, as you read this — to make them smile before oblivious tourists," writes New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof in this article. Kristof rightly sees forced sex trafficking as slavery. In the article he outlines the horrors to which young girls in Cambodia are subjected to make them comply with the demands of the brothel owners and of the men who pay to have sex with them. Most of these men, I assume, do not know what has been done to these young girls. One such girl was Somaly Mam who later escaped and started the Somaly Mam Foundation to rescue the victims of this slave system and to campaign for an end to trafficking around the world. She was named by Time Magazine recently as one of the most important people of 2008.