I wanted to write about a very difficult time in my early mothering days because it was an experience that still haunts me to this day and probably irrevocably altered my confidence as a mum. Maybe writing it down will give me some peace or to someone else who has been through the same.
What happened to us was incredibly painful, but as I was told at the time, it was protocol. It is a necessary safeguarding procedure. It happens up and down the country every day. Abuse and assaults on children, toddlers and babies are devastatingly common and each time a child ‘slips through the net’, fingers are pointed at the NHS, social services, schools and every other institution that is meant to protect little ones from harm.
Fingers are pointed at parents too, when no assault has taken place.
It happened to us and I still think about it probably about once at least every day.
When Zac was nearly 9 weeks old, I was due to take him into the local clinic to be weighed. I usually had a little list of questions I wanted to ask the health visitors every fortnight. Things that had popped up during the week that I wanted to check with them. In April 2016, I got up one morning to discover a small bruise on my baby’s forearm.
I couldn’t work out how he could have got this mark- perhaps on the changing table? Maybe he had bashed it on the side rail and left a mark? Or knocked it on his baby bath?
It didn’t seem to bother him, he didn’t mind when I touched it so I wasn’t overly worried. But I made a mental note to ask the health visitors about it that Tuesday afternoon. So off we went to the clinic.
As he was being weighed, before I had a chance to show them the mark, the two health visitors in charge noticed it first and asked me how it came about. I explained that I didn’t know and I had wanted to ask them this very thing. How does such a small baby get a mark and how can I make sure it doesn’t happen again?
I thought that by asking them for help, they would give me some advice or offer a plausible explanation or suggestion.
I was very naive.
I was told that it would need to be reported immediately as do all bruises on non-mobile babies. I was suddenly very worried. Was something wrong with him?
They asked me to wait in a different room with him while they made calls. I sat and breastfed my wee boy, starting to ponder everything that could be wrong. They came back and said I would be getting a call from the hospital.
Oh my god.
We left the clinic and popped into the supermarket next door to get a few bits. Whilst in the baby aisle some ten minutes later, I received a call from a woman – I don’t recall the organisation exactly but it had the words ‘social care’ in there. The woman asked me about Zac and his bruise and then asked me to go straight away to the children’s hospital in the city centre so they could check him over. I said yes of course.
We popped into my parents first so I could let them know what was going on. I was starting to fear that they thought I had done something to Zac to bring out this mark. But maybe he had a blood disorder that caused him to bruise for no reason? Either way, we had to get him checked.
I took him to the a&e department of the children’s hospital – they were expecting us and we were seen fairly quickly. The doctor who first saw us (I’ll never forget her) seemed nice, asked all the questions. Looked him over. Took pictures of the bruise. She and I went through different options of how he could have got this bruise. I suggested perhaps he had bashed it on the changing table rail while I changed his nappy and it left a mark? She thought not.
At no point during the examination did she ask me if I had hurt him myself. She asked if anyone else had tended to him alone. I was starting to get a sick feeling in the bottom of my stomach as I started to realise the magnitude of what was going on here. She wanted to admit him to the children’s hospital to be safe. It was getting late in the evening at this point and I just wanted to get him home to bed, so I said could we come back in the morning.
Then, I was told that I shouldn’t be alone with him until they’d checked him over thoroughly.
The penny properly dropped. They thought I had assaulted my newborn baby and they needed to keep him safe. Up until then I wouldn’t let myself believe this is what they were deducing.
I was told I was allowed to leave the hospital if I went to stay at my parents for the night and then come and get admitted first thing in the morning. So that’s what we did.
I barely slept that night, in my parents living room on their pullout sofa with Zac in the carry cot next to me.
My mum came with us the next morning. We were admitted to the ‘investigation unit’ on one of the wards and Zac was put in a little cage cot. We waited for hours on end before being seen. The nurses came every once and a while to check his blood pressure etc. I was told that he would be having a series of tests done to check for any other injuries. A CT scan, an eye check (to see for bleeding behind the eyes to indicate if he’d been shaken) and a full skeletal survey.
I am sobbing as I write this. As I remember.
I don’t recall every detail or the exact sequence of events, but I got a call at reception that evening and it was one of the women from social services who told me that the hospital had made an error the night before and I should not have been allowed to leave the hospital. I should have been admitted immediately. I was not meant to be alone with my child until the investigation had taken place – to protect both him and myself- in case he incurred another injury.
I sobbed loudly down the phone as I told her that this was intolerable. I had not hurt him, I had never shaken him or held him too tight or harmed him in any way. I was brand new at this job, just finding my feet and getting into our new routine and they had pulled the rug from under me.
She asked me if my mum could come and be with me on the ward 24 hours a day until the investigation had concluded, I said no. That wasn’t possible. My parents were in a state as it was, rushing back and forth between the hospital and my house to feed my cat and collect more clothes for us.
She finally said that I could stay in with him but would be checked regularly. She apologised for the pain this was causing but it was national guidelines and this procedure was in place to protect babies from harm.
I wanted to scream at her, that’s my job! I protect him from harm! I am meant to be his mum! And I am being told by this complete stranger who has never met me or my son that I am not allowed to be alone with him.
By Thursday morning, I was scared to touch him. One of the nurses encouraged me to change him, as my hands shook and I stepped away from him. He was lovely. He wrote down on his clipboard that I was afraid to touch him as a result of this – he also wrote that despite being greatly distressed, I was fully cooperative.
That day, my tiny new baby underwent an unpleasant eye examination by a Portugese woman with a special camera who took pictures of the back of his eye sockets whilst wrenching his eyes open to get a clear view of behind the eye. I held his little hands as he screamed out. I shook uncontrollably, tears streaming down my face.
We were then accompanied by a nurse to the X Ray unit where he was given a CT scan and then a long, tedious full skeletal survey, where they X-Ray’d all of his limbs, his back and chest and stomach. He screamed through it. I sobbed through it.
We returned to the ward, where my parents visited, a couple of other close friends came by. I was in a daze.
Friday morning came, we were told we’d hopefully have the results later that day. I hated the idea of having to be in hospital all weekend with him, I just wanted to get out. Go home. Sit quietly with him, away from beeping machines and crying sick babies and their worried parents. There was nothing wrong with him and I knew it so having to stay in that hospital ward amongst actually suffering babies felt wrong.
Friday afternoon we were visited by the social worker who took me and my mum into another room to talk it all through. He was amazing. He was kind, apologetic and explained everything very carefully to us and most of all, he had empathy. I told him everything I had told the doctors, the nurses, the health visitors and the other social workers. I didn’t know where the bruise (which had now completely faded) had come about. I had wracked my brains all night every night since that Tuesday and couldn’t figure it out.
The results of course all came back clear, his bones were all perfect, no blood conditions and no sign of any other injury. We would be allowed home but again had to be with my parents at all times until a social worker could come over on the Monday and do a home assessment.
This was a living nightmare. Though despite the unbelievable pain I was feeling, I understood.
If these procedures help them catch something and save just one child, then it’s worth it. But as my mum said at the time, it felt like it was using a sledgehammer to crack a walnut. It is an incredibly invasive and devastating thing to happen to any family who loves and cherishes and looks after their baby. I was a new mum. And doing it all alone.
I felt like I wasn’t meant to have him. That I was trusted to look after him. I stopped trusting myself for a while. I felt like I was an impostor and they would take him away and laugh at me: did you honestly think we’d let YOU have sole responsibility of a CHILD?? *laughter*
So after being discharged from hospital, we spent one night at my parents, then my mum came back and stayed at ours on the Sunday night ahead of the home assessment on the Monday.
My health visitor, who had been in regular contact on the phone since it all happened, arrived just before the social worker. After talking it all over and having a look around the house, she pointed at Zac who was resting his head on his arm, on my shoulder. His arm was in his mouth and he was suckling. I moved him and we all looked at the arm and sure enough, there was a little pink mark appearing on his arm, more or less in the same spot the ‘bruise’ had been.
I remembered the night before the bruise was discovered. I had been watching a film in the evening, with a sleepy Zac lying on my shoulder with his arms tucked in. So he had essentially given himself an arm hickey. And endured 3 days of invasive medical examinations and 2 nights in hospital with an emotionally broken mother, as a result.
Once my HV had explained this to the social worker and we had a good chat and she assessed that Zac was in absolutely no danger and I had provided a good, loving home for him, they both went on their way and the whole thing was written up, with ‘no further contact required’. We wouldn’t go on any list and Zac’s name wouldn’t be on their radar or database. We could just get on with our lives.
And we did, in a sense. But as I said at the start, this has haunted me ever since and I was ‘not myself’ for a long while after.
One thing that I would say, is that when this procedure takes place, there should be some kind of post-investigation support for the parent – or at least the offer of support or a counselling chat. Even a phone call a week or so later to check that they’re ok and getting through it. I was just expected to just get on with parenting by myself, like my entire reason for living hadn’t just been called into question and my son’s body hadn’t just been poked and prodded and photographed by dozens of different health professionals to look for evidence of abuse.
I am glad I wrote this down- despite it being a painful memory to dredge up (not that the memory goes away- but reliving the actual details is not nice).
I have read up online and found very little from other parents who have experienced similar – so when I was told it happened all the time, I thought I would find a forum or thread somewhere with mums losing the plot after experiencing the same. I found a couple of Daily Mail articles, that was it.
I think it’s because this is a subject that is so sensitive that people are ashamed. I was ashamed that it happened to us. Ashamed that my treatment of my own baby was being looked at by authorities, I was ashamed that I could be accused of something like that. I told very few friends about it.
As I told the social workers- I had come to the clinic to ask for help. If someone had hurt their own child, would they bring them in front of the eyes of health visitors? I was so naive that it didn’t even cross my mind that they would think that.
As a direct result of what happened, I changed doctors and only took Zac to one weighing clinic after that. I got him weighed at the doctors during routine appointments, I kept him up to date with his immunisations and took him to every mandatory check up, but I never sought to ask a health visitor or midwife anything again.
And there in lies the fault with this type of protocol. The heavy handed way of dealing with a situation involving an injury to a baby scares a lot of people into not asking for help or getting them checked. I wonder how many injuries (that happen perfectly innocently) go unreported because of these measures. I also wonder how many cases of post natal depression and anxiety start as a result of these investigations.
I do believe though that if these measures save just one child from an abusive carer or violent home, then it is worth it. I just wish that the effect that this has on the innocent was recognised by those who action the guidelines and something further could be done to soften the blow.
I never let him sleep on my shoulder again and always made sure his arms weren’t near his mouth.
If you stuck around to read this to the end, I thank you. If anyone has been through something like this and would like to share anything, feel free.