Img Wikimedia: The Infant (The Sick Child, 1858), Jean-Francois Millet
Original Title: Le Nourrisson (L'enfant Malade)
Children's Minds in the Line of Fire Blog
Mind in the line of fire: childism and beyond
by Jennifer Davids
Some children’s minds have always been in the line of fire. This fire is not only the cumulative traumata of excessive violence, uncertainty, illness, death, but also the traumata of absence and economic and social deprivation. Being under the line of fire is unfortunately not a new phenomenon; what might be new is our growing awareness of it, within the consulting room and beyond.
Young- Breuhl (2012) proposed her concept of childism which she defines broadly as prejudice against children. There is an attack on the very life, value and vitality of the child, sharing with other ‘isms’ an underlying envy of essential qualities of the object. I suggest an extension of this concept to what I call parentism, familyism, and communityism. I argue that we cannot consider the minds of children without considering the interplay with the minds of their parents or carers, along with the multi-directional systemic influences of wider social forces, which shape the communities in which children live, learn, relate, and, hopefully, play. When the community loses its social cohesion, its fault lines are exposed. Perhaps the starkest example of communityism is Margaret Thatcher’s assertion that ‘There is no such thing as society’.
With the injunction during the pandemic to stay at home, and keep physical and social distance from one another, the societal ties were weakened as were some family relationships. To some extent, the family as a structure was weakened. The relationship between families and professionals was also strained.
Parentism can take various forms. There can be a lack of attention to parents in dire need of support. Paradoxically, parentism can also manifest as a tendency to turn away from or deny the reality of neglect and abuse by parents, hiding behind the rationalisation that a child is always best served by living with their biological parents. Anna Freud, Al Solnit, and Joseph Goldstein contested this notion.
Since the first years of the 21st century many of us have been living in inflammatory times which present our minds, brains, and bodies with primitive anxieties and what can feel like unprecedented challenges. We have learned that our beloved planet is literally heating up with further global warming on the horizon. Populations are on the move from their homes where the earth is parched, where locusts have eaten their crops, where terror invades, and war seems to go on and on.
Children and adolescents have expressed their despair and anger about the climate crisis. They feel that the older generation, which includes us as analysts, have ruined Mother Earth for them, our children. Adolescents and young adults confide in me that they feel continuously confused. “It’s been one thing after another…. These past 10 or so years. Before one thing happened and then it passed. There was a gap. Not now. It’s relentless.”
In the midst of our burning and overwhelmed world, the case of the abuse and eventual death of baby Finley Boden during Covid represents an example of the confluence of childism, parentism and communityism. In this highly publicized case, Finley’s young parents have been found guilty of the murder of their 10-month-old son on Christmas Day 2020 and, after a five month trial, have been sentenced to life imprisonment. A child safeguarding practice review will be conducted to investigate the failure in the protection of this baby boy. Both parents were regular cannabis users and social services became involved during the pregnancy, as there were concerns over drug use, domestic violence, and the squalid state of their home. The father had been previously convicted of domestic violence. Baby Finley was made the subject of a child protection plan and immediately taken into care by his extended family when he was born. This was in February 2020 just a few weeks before the UK’s first lockdown.
The parents then applied for custody. A family court, sitting remotely during the Covid lockdown, on the basis of photographs supplied to social workers, who were also working remotely, ordered in October 2020 that Finley should be returned to the full time care of his parents within eight weeks. There was no order requiring tests for cannabis use. It was argued that the risks involved in separating Finley from his birth parents outweighed the benefits of leaving him in care where he was developing well. The social workers were not paying regular visits to the home, and the decision was based on the evidence of photographs, supplied by the parents, of the home and of Finley with his mother.
Finley was returned to his parents’ care in mid-November 2020. They then inflicted heart-breaking injuries including a fractured thigh, broken pelvis, 71 bruises. He had also developed sepsis and endocarditis. (Independent, 26 May 2023). Finley was returned to his parents’ care 39 days before he died. They hid their abuse of their baby son from social workers and family members. The hearing found that that the parents knew that their son was very ill in the days before he died. The female judge said, “By December 18th, you both agreed that you would lie and say that Finley was ill because he might have Covid, and you had ordered a Covid test.” The judge concluded, “You both knew full well that Finley did not have Covid, used it as a ‘perfect excuse’ to keep the social workers and family members from seeing your son”.
Both parents were recorded as showing no remorse for what they had done. When visiting Finley’s body in the chapel, his mother said, “His dad’s battered him to death. I didn’t protect him.” His father showed little remorse, saying how he was estimating the figure of the online sale of his son’s cot.
Here we see how infant abuse and infanticide occurred at a time when the usual containing and monitoring relationships around this family, to which social services were already alert, were largely absent. During the breakdown of the solidarity and normal links between children, their families and their hopefully protective communities, the systemic interaction between communityism, parentism and childism combined, resulted in collusion with the deception of disturbed parents. Lockdown with its sense of claustrophobia seemed to intensify the pre-existing neglect and violence in some disturbed families, who were more cut-off and isolated than usual. Clearly this couple, who one can imagine had traumatic histories of their own, were unable to parent consistently. Their baby boy was the target of their cruel neglect and hatred. Why the court and the social services were unable to recall their concern about this couple is difficult to know. Was there disavowal and a wish to idealise motherhood and/ or parenthood? Were the professionals also lacking containment? Were they, under the strain of this new way of working, themselves too isolated to deal effectively with their emotional responses to this complex situation? The breakdown in the cohesion of the social world leaves our systems and organisations blunted to the kind of containment and, in this case, regulation that parents at risk need.
Such tragedies we now face in the apres coup of our “near normal” world. It is incumbent on us, as analysts and perhaps as citizens, to think analytically under fire, to contain and think with other professionals under fire, and to help to rebuild solidarity and integration at the intrapsychic, interpersonal and societal levels.
JENNIFER DAVIDS M.Sc. Clinical Psychology
Adult, child and adolescent psychoanalyst
Fellow BPAS, IPA
Supervising analyst for child and adolescent psychoanalysis BPAS, IPA
Community member, PINC
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