Problems Shared – Robert Montagu

Family Counselling Trust, previously known as The Dorset Child and Family Trust, has been renamed to facilitate its expansion beyond this county.

Fergus Byrne has been to meet with The Hon Robert Montagu whose fervent belief in the need to tackle issues facing children is helping the charity to move forward.
Photographs by Robin Mills.

It’s fair to say that even the hottest news stories have a limited shelf life. The public’s thirst for spectacle and the media industry’s need to sell their product means that whatever horrors befall those around us, there can only be so many column inches or broadcast minutes devoted to them. Many may say that it was always thus, but the advances created by the internet and social media mean that there is now no shortage of opportunity to highlight yet another injustice, horror or grievance. Sadly, that also means that as the methods for breaking new stories proliferate, the victims are forgotten all too quickly.

Robert Montagu, whose recently renamed charity, Family Counselling Trust (FCT), helps families and children, is well aware of the short attention span of the press. When the story of the collapse of Kids Company dominated the news channels a couple of months ago, he was acutely aware of the effect its demise would have on those children affected. But he is also acutely aware of the need for non-government organizations to step in to help where government simply doesn’t have the resources. His charity, FCT, offers a grant-supported service for children, adolescents and families. They specialize in offering counselling to families who have children dealing with emotional, behavioural or other mental health problems.

Whilst the press focus on the demise of Kids Company sought to highlight how badly run that particular organization was, the story failed to bring home the message that there is a huge gap between the needs of local communities and the services offered by the NHS and other government departments. Robert’s charity steps in to help where cases are referred that are not considered serious enough for NHS specialist teams. However the line between what should go to the NHS and what should be referred to an outside charity is sometimes stretched, and Robert knows that organizations like FCT offer a much-needed stopgap where resources are limited.

The charity currently has around twenty therapists and offers its services, as Robert explains: ‘in every part of Dorset, from Lyme Regis through to Bournemouth, up as far as Shaftesbury and down as far as Portland.’  Children are referred to FCT from GPs, health visitors, schools, early intervention services and other organizations. As Robert explains, it is a complex process where, quite often, children are suffering from events well outside their control. ‘We have had them from courts. We’ve had them from guardians ad litem, we’ve had them from the court appointed officer on occasion, CAFCAS, usually where there is a tussle between the parents over custody or over who should be rearing the child. There’s sometimes such a bitter argument between the couple that even the court hasn’t been able to resolve it because the parents concerned continue to defy the court order. And so in desperation sometimes the CAFCAS team might ask for family therapy to try to help resolve that. Sometimes it does, usually, it doesn’t. If one parent is so determined that they will go to prison if necessary to keep their child from the other—for good reason or not good reason—it’s very, very difficult to resolve that.’

The average age of children referred to the charity is about eight or nine but they go up to 18 and Robert explained that they also come down to zero.  ‘Even mothers who are expecting could be referred on the basis that we’re helping them with attachment issues’ says Robert ‘so everything up to 18, every problem that isn’t so serious that it ought to be with the NHS. Even self-harming, mild self-harming we’re taking, because the NHS is busy raising the thresholds all the time.’

Sitting in his office and meeting room in West Dorset, surrounded by sculpture and paintings from his artist wife Marzia Colonna, Robert explains that a referral panel within his organisation looks at each referral to ensure that FCT has both the resources and expertise to help. ‘The referral panel consists of people who are professionally expert in this field’ he says. ‘One is a consultant child psychiatrist, one is a paediatric nurse and the others are therapists who are experienced. They decide if the referral is appropriate. That is to say, if it’s not so serious that it should go to the NHS.’ The family is then sent an offer letter with details of three therapists that they or the child may choose from. By offering a choice of therapists the charity hopes that the client may find someone they are more likely to feel comfortable with and therefore more likely to cooperate with. FCT’s services are not compulsory, so when a client elects to take up the offer of therapy, it is a positive move on their part and they are more likely to benefit. The charity is normally referred about 250 clients a year of which around 100 take up the offer. As the charity is grant assisted and is supported entirely by fundraising and subscriptions from friends, the client is asked to pay as little as only £5 per session.

Inevitably every case is different and every therapist works in their own way. Robert believes in an inclusive approach. ‘We all work in our different ways’ he says. ‘I always see as many of the family members as I can, in the belief that if you want something to change for a child, you have to encourage everyone in the family to accept the change. Otherwise, the child can’t impose change. So it’s pointless talking about how to improve things with the child beyond their own capacity, without involving the others. So I almost always have at least mother, hopefully, father and brothers and sisters, sometimes grandparents. But that’s the way I work, others prefer to work only with the child. And I don’t impose rules about that. As long as they practice safely, and of course they’re all suitably qualified and experienced and so forth, then they should work with whatever combination they have most experience with really and feel they can do best with.’

Complimenting his own experience as a therapist, Robert has also developed a range of cardboard-based game-like accessories to help eke out the source of a child’s problems. He has also been influenced by the work of Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, as well as Michael White and David Epston and their work on Narrative Therapy, a method of therapy that separates the person from the problem and encourages people to rely on their own skill sets to minimize the problems that exist in their everyday lives. However, he also draws on a vast pool of experience that traces back to his own childhood.

A little over a year ago Robert had a book published about his own experiences as an abused child. A Humour of Love, published by Quartet Books, it is a harrowing story detailing his own experiences at the hand of an abusive father. ‘I had a dysfunctional early life so I know a thing or two, as many therapists do, about personal difficulties’ explained Robert. ‘I’ve been on the receiving end, in quite an extreme way, as a child. It was never dealt with. I was sent to a psychoanalyst when I was 14 but only because I was being slightly unpleasant to my mother’s girlfriend. Not for my own personal need but for my mother’s need. Not a very successful series of sessions.’

Having gone through so many years of torment Robert felt the time was right to tell his own story despite the pain it may cause to his own family. ‘So I decided to do a memoire last year and I was very, very nervous of the effect it would have on my family, on my friends, on my patients and the effect on the Trust. But I thought at the end of the day it was time to tell the story and just add to the knowledge about these issues. Paedophilia is something which is very poorly understood still, there’s a lot of work to be done, that needs to be done rapidly to address it.’

Accepting that his own experiences were a motivating factor in his final career choice he says: ‘One of the ways in which you can kind of do honour to all those generations of children, is to be involved in some charitable enterprise that helps kids with emotional troubles.’ Whilst pointing out that cases of child abuse tend to be dealt with by NHS specialists and are usually too serious to be dealt with by charities like FCT, he is not restrained in his opinion on how society should deal with these problems.

When it comes to treatment and how we deal with paedophiles, for example, Robert believes we are hardly scratching the surface of a problem that will only get worse. He has strong views on what might be necessary for repeat offenders. ‘Once we do capture people and imprison them, we don’t treat them’ he says. ‘We are simply not dealing with the problem. And it is really essential that we treat people when they are in prison after a first offence before they commit a second. And I believe that after a second offence involving a child, then we have to consider some form of chemical castration. I don’t think we can continue to tolerate the system that releases prisoners again and again to commit offences.’

His thoughts on how to deal with issues related to sexual abuse may be born from deep-rooted personal pain, but he has also thoroughly thought out the consequences of inaction. ‘I do think one of the things we have to do is that we have to have mandatory reporting of sex crimes within families. We cannot allow, let us say, mothers, to continue to be silent when their male partners rape their children. And there has to be some consequence for that silence. I don’t know what it can be because you can’t deprive the children of a second parent. But it has to be sufficient to deter mothers from keeping silent, because, at the end of the day, you’ve then got a whole new generation of children that are being repeatedly offended against without protection. And the ongoing effect of that in the future is devastating. And we don’t appreciate that. We think it’s more important to stay silent, to protect the family so that the main breadwinner if the man is the main breadwinner, continues to bring home income. But that’s not so important as protecting the children.’

Robert’s concerns and his suggestions may appear to some to be extreme; however, he has done his own calculations and feels strongly that the time to act is now. ‘The fact is that the problem of child abuse, sexual abuse, is getting worse in this country’ he says. ‘It’s probably getting worse in every country because we’re not tackling it properly. It’s probably getting worse to a degree of doubling every generation. It’s quite extraordinary that that should be so if one man commits crime against 20 children, it is very possible from recent statistics that four may go on to abuse in the next generation. That is the devastating consequence.’

The end result is more children with more problems which can range from depression through eating, sleeping or anger issues, as well as difficulties with school and family relationship problems.
With an already overstretched NHS service and charitable organizations also struggling to take on the work, it seems that Robert’s concerns are compelling. This is part of the reason that Family Counselling Trust recently changed its name from the Dorset Child and Family Counselling Trust, so that they can grow and offer their services in other counties. Robert has already opened a new branch of the charity in Wiltshire and hopes that sometime next year he will begin work on opening in Devon, Somerset or Hampshire. However, like any other grant or subscription funded organization doing important community work, they could achieve so much more with secure funding. ‘If only someone would give me a million pounds’ says Robert while explaining about expanding the charity’s work. ‘If a millionaire would come out of the woodwork, I could really tie it nationally quite quickly. It doesn’t take a lot of money in each county.’
David Cameron’s ‘Big Community’ idea was nothing new; it has been a part of government structure for a very long time. But the point that is often lost in political wrangling is the fact that the work of organizations like Family Counselling Trust is saving the taxpayer vast sums – money and resources that would be needed to deal with the collateral damage done by not treating mental and emotional problems suffered by young people. There is no shortage of charities needing support but one that offers treatment and advice for children, whom with the right guidance, can offer a positive rather than negative effect on society’s future needs all the support it can get.