Guest post: "We must have the courage to face child sexual abuse"
The latest report from the Office of the Children's Commissioner is heartbreaking - but it must also be our wake-up call, says broadcaster Tazeen Ahmad
Posted on: Wed 02-Dec-15 13:14:57
(23 comments )
The number one question I've been asked since my BBC2 investigation 'The Truth about Child Sex Abuse' aired is this: "How do I talk to my kids about something this dreadful?"
Over the past several months I've been working with the BBC to investigate child sex abuse in the UK, using the findings from the Office of the Children's Commissioner's latest report. I've been reporting on this crime for over five years, but even so, I was shocked by the scale of it. According to the OCC, between 2012 and 2014:
• 425,000 children (equivalent to one in every UK classroom) were sexually abused
• there were fewer than 6,500 convictions
• of those who were abused, only one in eight reported it
• in three out of four cases, no criminal charges were brought
• two-thirds of victims were abused by someone in their family, or someone they knew through their family
The statistics tell a clear story, but it's not one we want to hear. The greatest risk to our children isn't stranger danger. Nor is it gang grooming or high-profile abusers. The biggest risk lies closer to home. We thought that if we kept our kids off the streets and told them not to talk to strangers, we could keep them safe. But how do we protect them from the unknown enemy within, people they may like and trust: neighbours, family friends, the nanny, babysitter or au pair? Or even people we love or trust: their uncle, stepdad, grandfather? Their father?
MOSAC, a remarkable charity that has worked for over 21 years with the parents and carers of sexually abused children, has long known where these crimes take place and by whom they're committed. They say it generally happens in or around the family environment, carried out by someone the child knows. Our own investigations bore this out: we spoke to several young people who'd been abused by a close family member: fathers, stepfathers, family friends; even, in one instance, a mother.
Educating children offers one answer, but it's only half the battle. It's grossly irresponsible to place the burden on a traumatised and terrified child to report abuse.
If anything good came out of the vile crimes of Jimmy Savile et al, and the child sexual exploitation stories that I've often reported myself, it's that tough, unpalatable discussions are now taking place in the public domain. The next step is to find a way to share that discussion, difficult as it is, with our children. The NSPCC's Underwear Rule Campaign offers brilliant tips on teaching children about their privacy and explaining abuse. This discussion needs to extend into schools across the country too.
During an interview to publicise the film, I was asked: "Why don't children report this crime?" The truth is that a child who is scared and has been intensively groomed will be confused, traumatised and unsure of where to turn. They may feel guilty, be afraid their family will split up as a result of their speaking out, or be trying to protect themselves or their non-abusing loved ones. They may have been manipulated into distrusting everyone, or not have found an opportunity to tell. Children also often don't know what's permissible and what isn't, in the way that adults do. The reasons are complex and countless. Abusers know all of this, and they exploit it.
So educating children offers one answer, but it's only half the battle. It's grossly irresponsible to place the burden on a traumatised and terrified child to report abuse. After all, a baby or very young child cannot carry this responsibility. We need to look at what more we adults can do to identify, investigate and prosecute this crime. One thing's clear: our disclosure-based legal system isn't working. "We have to change the system, we have to change our approach," said Anne Longfield, the Children's Commissioner. How a child takes on their adult abuser legally is a pressing matter for our criminal justice system to address.
One sign of hope comes from the internet, which while arguably part of the problem, also offers a solution. The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) told me that child sex abuse images shared on the internet provide vital clues; last year it helped them locate and save a hundred children from further abuse. Those images can also provide much-needed corroboration when someone is arrested on child abuse charges. If police seize technological devices - phones, cameras, laptops - when they make an arrest, it could provide crucial evidence to back up a child's claim. This needs to be mandatory for police forces around the country. Our criminal justice system evidently has a lot of work to do.
For the rest of us, the first step is to educate ourselves and our children. We also need to look out for signs and symptoms of abuse, because children often don't use words. Extreme bedwetting, withdrawal, inexplicable anger, self-harm and behavioural changes are just some of the indicators – though these can, of course, be the symptoms of development stages or other anxieties. One key piece of advice: listen to your gut.
The figures, heartbreaking and horrific, are a wake-up call; we are letting our children down. We can take steps to identify and protect against these terrible crimes, but first we need the courage to face them.
Tazeen's investigation ‘The Truth About Child Sex Abuse” is on the BBC iplayer now.
By Tazeen Ahmad
Speaking from experience some children don't even realise they have been abused, particularly when it's a family member or friend. Sometimes things fall in to place later - in adulthood - by which time it feels too late to report because of the fear of being taken seriously or believed.
In my case I only realised as an adult and only spoke out about it when another adult spoke out about what they remembered. By then I had done my research into the quite high profile family friend and discovered that they had been taken to court years before for historical abuse and no one believed his victims so he was set free then died.
I believe this man will be exposed soon as his name has been mentioned in the press in conjunction with the PIE stuff.
I am a bit concerned about the idea that we are letting our kids down. There was no way that my parents would have known this man was an abuser and no way they could have stopped his abuse. When a parent did go to the police and get a trial he was still not found guilty.
It is not parents who are letting their children down - it's the system which makes people afraid to speak out in case they are not believed, which in general they are not.
I agree with abesaidyes, it's not always clear to the child that what is happening is wrong, it's not always about the child being scared of telling, and it took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that my abuse was just as valid as those who are scared - I started watching your documentary and had to turn it off as I refuse to watch programmes that make me feel as if my abuse was somehow my fault as I was never scared, it happened from such a young age that it was just part of my relationship with my grandfather and it was our secret, he never hurt me but the fact is he did things that I would only now ever do with my husband and I was about 10 when I realised it was not appropriate, but the abuse has stopped when I was 9. In the end, after his death, it turned out he had abused my cousin (who is 20 years older than me) and my sister (7 years older than me), we reported it at that point but the memories of a young child become blurred and confused and nothing came of it.
Abesaidyes- so sorry to hear that. Have you thought about reporting the crime? You could massively help to put this guy behind bars where he belongs.
I am also concerned, put bluntly, that with the admirable objective of teaching children their bodies are their own and that some adults harm children for sexual gratification, some children interpret this very literally without really understanding what we mean.
IME many children do tell, or adults around them do know about what's going on and ignore it. I know quite a few adults who were abused as children and what's common to nearly all of them is a dysfunctional family situation that allowed the abuse to continue. There is rarely, IME, a single abuser working entirely alone, there is usually a whole family brought up with wrongheaded ideas about what's normal, ignoring, covering up, denying, and even facilitating abuse. It is very very rare, from what I've seen, for a child in a genuinely loving, open and caring family to experience sustained abuse - abusers are too wary to target a child of loving parents, they target the children who are neglected and ignored.
I completely agree with cailindana. Sexual abuse doesn't happen in vacuum, it's often just one part of the way in which children are exploited to serve adults needs.
Having said that, I think some parents are distracted and naive rather than deliberately neglectful or abusive. The key difference is that children with supportive parents in non-chaotic homes will be believed. Having someone believe you and fight for you buffers against some of the most damaging effects of abuse.
When I spoke as an adult to my mother about the abuse I suffered at the hands of family friends it was clear she knew about it and she basically said I should just get over it. She never once mentioned it to me before or since and was clearly uninterested in doing anything to help me. That has affected me more than the abuse itself.
Agree it's very easy for those without experience to say 'report' when you consider how sickeningly low conviction rates for adult rape are!
At the time for me the initial grooming was so subtle I thought I was making something outta nothing. Then there were 2 incidents which could not be mistaken but I was so shocked that my own father could do this I didn't take it in properly. I know lots of victims also literally blank out the abuse and remember later.
Even when I finally 'told' as an adult I wasn't believed (mother). Even though I'd classic abuse victim behaviours (gone from being gregarious to introverted, anxious, nightmares, scared to be left alone with him but couldn't verbalise why).
Thankfully everyone else I've disclosed to has believed me and been very supportive.
In addition part of my job at one stage was cp and so training was essential. The trainer (and this was over 20 years ago) said 2 things that totally made sense to me
'Stranger danger' as a campaign and ideology was the worst thing to have ever been created. It led to a lot of children not being believed and people being trusted who shouldn't have been (they're not a stranger how can they be an abuser?)
That familial abusers are really just lazy paedophiles. They stick to the kids in their family as it's easy, they're less likely to report, opportunity and access is huge, the children are usually conditioned that this is normal.
They had come across cases where it was so rife in families that the entire family thought anything else was abnormal! He cited (without breaking confidentiality) one case where the abuse was so ingrained they had verbal evidence of 5 generations of abuse!
As a mother I've taught my dc the underwear rule, that they never have to hug/kiss/touch anyone they don't want to, to tell me if anyone ever does anything they don't feel completely comfortable with even of it's 'mummy's best friend in the whole world'.
There are very few people I trust around my dc and I appreciate that's my issue but tough I'd rather be overprotective than have them go through what I have! And my abuse wasn't even 'that bad'.
Partly through job and partly personal experience (from friends and relatives) I really do believe it's far far more prevalent than people realise. The 'oh you're over reacting as if there's a paedophile on every corner' people really piss me off! These are almost always people who have absolutely no experience of it, not through work, or a friend that's been abused (to their knowledge) or whatever.
Having said that my own experience is that survivors somehow seem able to recognise each other. Whenever I've disclosed or someone's disclosed to me there's been a weird sudden realisation that there's a connection that before we couldn't quite put our finger on.
Fwiw and again I don't care if others think it's 'over reacting' I think when they are convicted they should be jailed for life!
Personal experience and many studies show that they never change and they never stop! Some paedophiles have even had the guts to admit this and agree they don't belong in wider society.
NC for this.
Having been a Samaritan and a foster carer in the past, I am all too aware of the prevelance of child sexual abuse and the terrible and long lasting damage suffered by victims.
In my professional life, I have been shocked at the unwillingness of fellow professionals to recognise and report signs of abuse.
As a Chair of Governors, I received a complaint regarding a member of staff at a primary school grooming young pupils. During the investigation it transpired that there had been several complaints made by both members of staff and parents that had been ignored and covered up by the HT. In addition, the LA were aware of other complaints from other schools but these had not been fully investigated. The teacher concerned was eventually placed on List 99 but the HT who had covered up the offences "retired" on a full pension.
As a reception class teacher I was concerned by the comments and behaviour of a pupil. The behaviour included inappropriate touching of other pupils. I submitted several "concern" sheets to my HT. The family were known to SS. I voiced my concern at a meeting which included the child's mother, a social worker and a health visitor but these concerns were batted away and I was told this was normal behaviour. Subsequently a parent whose child had been sexually assaulted by this pupil complained to the police. The police came to the school and again I voiced my concern, the officer said "the trouble is from what you've said X [the child aged 4!] is the perpetrator". (Wtf). No one investigated why this child was displaying such sexualised behaviour. I kept submitting concern sheets but was made to feel as if I was making a fuss about nothing. Eventually at another meeting with SS, I asked if anyone had actually spoken to the child about the events. Following this meeting, an adult known to the child was arrested and charged. It took 9 months and a great deal of persistence for anyone to take my concerns seriously during that time the child was suffering daily abuse.
IME people (including professionals) don't want to think the unthinkable and want to preserve the status quo.
Cannot express how true this is. I didn't realise as a child either. It carried on from age 7-13. It was only as I started to mature myself I realised what was going on, and by then it was 'too late' in my mind. If my mother had simply had a chat with me about my body parts and boundaries I feel it could all have been prevented.
It really saddens me when I hear of parents who refuse to let their kids play out on the streets but are too embarrassed to talk about sex
I feel the same Lozza. I feel so angry when I hear of parents not talking to children about sexual things to 'preserve their innocence.' All that 'innocence' does is make the child an ideal target for an abuser.
"You could massively help to put this guy behind bars where he belongs."
sadly I can't because he is now dead, and he went to his death knowing he had got away with it. Other people tried to get him convicted but, as is often the case with historical abuse, it was hard to prove.
'She never once mentioned it to me before or since and was clearly uninterested in doing anything to help me. That has affected me more than the abuse itself.'
I'm an emotional abuse survivor and I completely agree that it's the 'sweeping under the carpet' that is the most disturbing thing. Its such an intense betrayal, and the clearest signal possible that you, and your feelings, just do not matter. At all.
cailin, I often think of something you wrote on another thread - that for people who sexually abuse children, its got nothing whatsoever to do with attraction, and everything to do with power and control. In the same way that no man rapes an adult woman because he's overcome with lust - he does it control her, to shut her up, teach her a lesson, humiliate her, put her in her place. It's one of the most clear-headed contributions I've ever read on a thread like this and made so much sense to me.
Totally agree that talk of 'preserving children's innocence' is warped and messed up. Any adult who thinks that sexuality is dirty or shameful has some pretty shocking issues of their own.
Good thank you cailin. I've been in therapy for several years and in a very dark place with grief and depression. In the past few months, I feel like I've turned a huge corner and am through the worst. Haven't felt depressed in months, am so much less tired and drained, can cope much better with everything in life. Its a wonderful feeling when stuff that used to hurt you just doesn't impact in the same way anymore.
Can I ask you, do you feel anger / rage at your mother these days, or do you feel that you have detached from her and accepted that she let you down incredibly badly? I know you are low contact with your family (me too, it's been the only way to sanity for me), just wondering how you feel about them now that they're not a big part of your life in the same way
Really glad to hear you're doing so well Lotta. Well done on doing so much hard work to get to this point.
My feelings about my family are very very complicated. Time and distance are good in one way as they give you space to heal and grow but bad in another as they dull memories and you can start to think 'oh they're not so bad...'
I know I have to keep away from my family for my own sanity and yet I still feel that pull back towards them. It's so hard to go through life basically without parents even though they're still living and every so often I get pangs of regret and I fear what will happen when one of them dies. I suppose the fantasy of everything suddenly being ok is always there. I can sort of fool myself that they have the potential to be good people, but the danger of being fooled is that when one of them dies I'll be consumed with the feeling that I should have given them a chance while they were living. That imagined potential keeps me hanging on to them when I know, deep down, that they're just not capable.
So so complicated.
I hear all of that! Sometimes I feel ok about being in limited contact with them, at times I feel that pull very strongly. And yes - the fear that maybe you've made a mistake, got it wrong somehow, and will live to regret it. It's just a legacy of growing up with abuse I think - when you're told in so many ways that you and your feelings dont' matter, its very difficult to learn to trust yourself and your own judgement.
I remember saying to my DP that I felt like I didnt' have any parents, that there were just two black holes where my parents should be. Its terribly sad and very painful and heartbreaking, but I'm becoming a bit more numb to it all the time. You're right though - self-preservation is the most important thing. Frequent reminders about why you are in low contact with them, all the times they let you down, treated you like crap, brushed dreadful things under the carpet.
I admire you so much for being able to create a successful loving relationship and family of your own, despite the dreadful things you went through. Be proud.
Thank you Lotta. I find it hard sometimes talking to people who have normal/ok relationships with their parents - I think they feel I'm hardhearted or overreacting or some such. It's a relief to talk to people who understand that sometimes detaching from your family can be a matter of survival.
It's impossible to understand unless you have been through it yourself, or seen someone very close to you go through it. The dominant beliefs in our society about parents and family - all parents love their children, mothers in particular are loving selfless people, all parents put their child's needs first etc - don't help either
Looking at this from the other side. I'm the mother of two children who have been sexually abused, by a family member.
It's been a harrowing couple of years for them, for us, but we are slowly seeing blue skies again after some incredibly dark days. My children are having weekly therapy by a specialist service and I will do everything in my power to make this something that has happened to them, not something that they will be defined by.
I definitely agree that people's reactions, society and family's reactions can have an even worse impact on you. It's got to stop being such a 'taboo'. You can only do so much to prevent, it's about what happens after that really makes or breaks you.
If you're anything like me, seeing 'normal' families/parents is what really opened my eyes to how broken mine was in the first place.
Agree with Cailindana, my mother's reaction when I 'disclosed' it as an adult was more damaging than the actual abuse which was perpetrated by an older sibling. I am 99.9% sure she was aware of it and blamed me for it for the sibling was the 'golden child' and I was the 'evil' one.
It is the deep shame and fear which prevents children speaking out, hell I felt that as a adult let alone as a young child. It makes me furious when adults go public and people say 'well, why didn't they make a complaint at the time, why bring it up years later'.
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