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Book Review: Shattered Lives: Children Who Live with Courage and Dignity by Camila Batmanghelidjh

You may know Camila Batmanghelidjh as recipient of the UK Woman of the Year 2006. Her professional work with children and young people spans two decades. Her unfailing capacity to care for some of the most vulnerable and marginalised children as demonstrated in the book is truly inspirational. Camila graphically describes through a series of letters some of the harrowing experiences that these young people have survived with great courage. For those of us blessed not to have been born to a severely dysfunctional family, much of the content is unsettling if not disturbing, and as if the experiences these children have survived have not done enough damage already, Camila talks about how they continue to be stigmatised and re-traumatised by society and sadly very often this includes the professionals who are charged with their care.

Children are born trusting and vulnerable, totally dependant on their caregiver for all their needs. When children are subject to abuse or trauma in its many guises, the damage is as deep as it is lasting. Camila asks why society then blames them for the anti-social behaviours that they adopt as a defence mechanism; behaviours that often serve as an attempt to disguise the deep hurt and shame that is felt when no other sense can be made by the child of their experiences. The wrongs that they have suffered, undoubtedly made all the worse by the predictable media demonisation of young people, imposes upon them greater social exclusion and scapegoating.

Unarguably children and young people should be perceived as vulnerable and deserving of our protection rather than being vilified. Camila supports the view that all of us have collective responsibility for weaving the fabric of our society. By definition, those of us who work in the caring professions, health and social services, the schools and police service are also an integral part of that fabric. We should all care for society’s children because they are our children; some of them only have us to advocate for them – their own families unfortunately, woefully inadequate.

For those of us who work in the caring professions, don’t we all have our CV ready for the next promotion opportunity? We have acquired the technical skills, we have done the courses; we tick all the boxes. But where amongst this plethora of information is the ability to be a caring human-being assessed or in fact even acknowledged? Why is it that during an interview to be a doctor, nurse or paramedic, if you were to come out with the immortal phrase ‘I want to help people’ you would immediately go down in their estimation as they collectively stifle their laughs? If I am honest, most of what I do for a living isn’t about technical skills; it is about listening, hearing, accepting, empathising and reassuring. The image perpetuated to the public of a highly skilled individual, powerful in their uniform carrying out life saving tasks such as cannulation or administration of medications may be a preferable veneer to that of a human being with the capacity to give care for numerous reasons.

I imagine that this book does not make for a comfortable read by health care professionals. It made me question and explore my own practice, my core beliefs and attitudes to young people. I am only human after all and not immune to the forces of the media and political legislation. What influences have impacted on my views and actions and how valid are these influences? I believe that everyone who works with children and young people or is involved in developing policies that impact on them should read this book. Trust me, you will develop a deeper understanding of the plight of vulnerable children and young people and cannot fail to be moved by it.

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