Child sexual abuse has dominated the news agenda since the Jimmy Savile revelations. But the focus on abuse by celebrities and grooming gangs masks the fact that more than 80% of abuse takes place within the home, according to campaigners.
Abuse in the home is rarely reported to police and survivors rarely get justice.
It is a secret history of horrific stories, of children abused by those they loved and trusted or targeted because their home circumstances made them vulnerable to manipulative outsiders.
On a bench in a deserted park in Kent, Chris Tuck is warming up for her exercise routine. Despite the cold wind she stretches her body then jogs on the spot, preparing for her morning workout.
She is a health coach with a successful business and a happy family life.
But Chris Tuck has had to face a traumatic past. She is survivor of abuse. She says her childhood was scarred by neglect, beatings, emotional cruelty and sexual abuse.
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“It makes you feel violated,” she says. “It makes you feel dirty. It makes you feel angry. It just doesn’t feel right. It’s hard to explain. You also don’t want to talk about it. It’s not something you would go up and say: ‘My Daddy has been touching me here, my Daddy has been doing that.’ It’s not something you speak about and unless someone asks you that question, why would you speak about it?”
It was when she had her own child that she felt compelled to speak out.
“That’s when I had my breakdown. And I knew I had to get strong to bring my own children up. I have had to learn to love and to nurture. I have had to learn to bring my children up in the best way I can as I never had that as a child. And that is where abuse in the home can be so destructive.”
Tuck is not alone. The NSPCC estimates one in 20 children are victims of sexual abuse. It says in 90% cases the victim is known to the perpetrator. And one in three children never tell anyone about the abuse.
- An NSPCC study found that around 11% of young adults said that they had experienced sexual abuse in which an abuser makes physical contact with a child during their childhood
- Girls are at a greater risk than boys of being abused by a family member
- Boys are at a higher risk than girls of being abused by a stranger
- The majority of reported abuse is carried out by male abusers but there is some discussion as to whether abuse by female abusers is underreported
For decades many survivors never spoke about their experiences. Many perpetrators went unpunished. But now more and more survivors are coming forward.
In a small office in south London, Dr Jon Bird is on the telephone, listening intently. The caller is a survivor of child abuse who wants to talk.
Bird is working at the helpline for one of the support groups for survivors, the National Association for People Abused in Childhood. Since the revelations about Jimmy Savile, there’s been a surge in people coming forward reporting abuse.
Between 2012 and 2013 the volume of calls to the NAPAC free helpline doubled to between 1,500 and 2,000 per month. At its peak in the autumn of 2012, the helpline was taking 3,500 calls a month. In the last three years it has also received more than 12,000 emails. Many of the survivors contacting the charity have never spoken before about their abuse.
Bird is a good listener. He is a survivor himself. Raped in a park at the age of four and then abused at school, his life spiralled out of control until he was homeless, living on the streets and addicted to heroin.
Through study and perseverance he has now turned his life around and helps others through the painful journey towards recovery that he himself made. Many of those he helps were abused by a relative or somebody they knew.
“Child sexual abuse and all abuse of children rips families apart. I get calls saying I was abused by person x. Then later they tell mum and she cant believe it. She married him. Or trusted him as a brother,” he says.
“It rips families apart. It is much more complicated than a perpetrator and a victim. It is much wider than that and very difficult to talk about in the family, especially in cultures where it is not done to speak ill of your elders.”
He says that with the current focus on celebrity and institutional abuse, the crisis in the home is in danger of being ignored.
“Just 0.06% of abuse was by somebody famous. The vast majority of the problem is in the home.”
In the tranquil Devon seaside town of Torquay, palm trees blow in the sea breeze along the seafront. But here – like so many communities across the UK – there is a hidden problem of abuse.
Not far from the seafront, the Children’s Society runs an outreach project called Checkpoint. Each month it deals with dozens of cases of abuse, child sexual exploitation and missing children.
If you’ve been affected…
- … the following organisations can help:
- The police if you have evidence of having suffered sexual abuse so an investigation can be made
- NSPCC charity specialises in child protection
- National Association for People Abused in Childhood offers support, advice and guidance to adult survivors of any form of childhood abuse
- Childline is a private and confidential service for children and young people up to the age of 19
- The Children’s Society works to support vulnerable children in England and Wales
One of the children its project workers have been helping is “Lisa”, though this is not her real name. From the age of 14 she began going online and soon began meeting men who groomed her.
“Yes I met a lot of people alone. I used to not care. I used to go and meet people at stupid times at night and put myself in danger. It was in exchange for sexual favours and sexual advantage. They were normally aged 19 to 25.”
She explained how she would fall under the spell of internet groomers.
“At first they are so nice. They compliment you. They make you feel like the person you want to be. Then you find out it is all lies they want something out of you. All they do is make you feel worthless.”
Her project workers at the Children’s Society have helped her make changes in her life and she has now found work. But she still struggles with low self-esteem.
“I just feel worthless,” she says. “There are people who die of serious causes. I would prefer to give them my life as I don’t really want mine.”
But there has been a significant cultural change. The shamed silence which surrounded abuse is being challenged. Children are being given explicit warnings about potential dangers – not just those posed by strangers but from those closer to home.
At a school in Fulham in West London children aged 10 and 11 sit attentively waiting for the lesson to begin. They are about to learn about the dangers of abuse.
Instead of teachers, this lesson is conducted by a group of volunteers from Childline, in association with the NSPCC, and all wearing bright green T-shirts bearing the charity’s logo.
The content is remarkably frank and honest. But the tone is calm. There is no sense here that children are being frightened or being taught a general mistrust of adults. They are shown animated videos and told about different forms of abuse – neglect, emotional cruelty, violence and sexual abuse.
Together they chant the ChildLine phone number – 0800 1111 – and its website address.
The children are given tasks to discuss in small groups the different risks a child may face. The discussions are lively and open.
The NSPCC is increasing its work in schools so that by next year it aims to visit every primary school in the UK twice a year, although to do this it needs more volunteers to help.
Last year 18,600 children and young people contacted Childline to discuss child sex abuse. But the culture of shame, the desire to protect parents even if they are abusers, a child’s lack of awareness of their rights – all can act as powerful barriers to breaking the silence.
The NSPCC Area Co-ordinator, Kelly Thorndick, believes it is important that children understand the danger of abuse as early as possible.
“It’s about educating children so they know how to get help at a much earlier stage. But it’s also about giving them the confidence to take action for themselves, as often children don’t understand what is happening to them is abuse,” she says.
If you have been affected, the following organisations can help: The police if you have evidence of having suffered sexual abuse so an investigation can be made. NSPCC charity specialises in child protection. National Association for People Abused in Childhoodoffers support, advice and guidance to adult survivors of any form of childhood abuse. Childline is a private and confidential service for children and young people up to the age of 19. The Children’s Societyworks to support vulnerable children in England and Wales.