John Milton wrote in Paradise Regained that “The childhood shows the man, as morning shows the day”. Eight years ago, when in his late thirties, Peter Saunders viewed his childhood as the dead of night. Abused as a child, his attempts to deal with the past that haunted his future were thwarted by a succession of unsympathetic or unskilled counsellors and therapists (one, on hearing of his Catholic upbringing, asked whether he had considered “going to confession”). And, to his bafflement, the lack of any national organisation for survivors of child abuse.
With nowhere else to turn, he called ChildLine. “I was lucky to get through to someone who listened and told me that what I had gone through as a child would have left very deep scars,” says Saunders. “I was also told that the abuse wasn’t my fault, even though I always thought it was – such is the power of abusers. And that’s what I really needed to hear.”
Inspired by the power of talking to an understanding voice, Saunders decided that, if there was no national organisation to support him, he would start one. Importantly, not least for his own development, he quickly learned that he was not alone. He believes that there are about four million adults in the UK who have survived child abuse.
The result was the formation in 1997 of the National Association for People Abused in Childhood (Napac). Saunders – now Napac development director – clearly never forgot the positive impact a telephone conversation can have, and launched a free national information telephone line (or infoline) on 18 November last year “to empower survivors of abuse by offering them support and a guiding hand on the journey of recovery and healing”.
And its start is promising. Saunders says: “We’ve had 3,500 calls. The gender breakdown is about 80 per cent female callers and 20 per cent male. This is probably because our usual means of giving out the number is in women’s magazines and agony aunt columns – we’ve featured at least half a dozen times in The Sun‘s ‘Dear Deidre’ column, for example.” But he adds that when he does media interviews the number of male callers increases dramatically.
The infoline is the result of a three-way partnership between Napac, BSS (the helpline specialist) and Dabs (Directory And Book Services). The Dabs database includes details of more than 550 local survivor groups and national organisations such as Careline, Rape and Abuse line, Merseyside’s Fire in Ice, Rape Crisis, Samaritans and Women’s Aid.
The six telephone advisers employed by Napac are required to find a balance between information-giving and counselling. Supervisor Doon Jackson says: “I think the hardest aspect of the job is finding the right place to meet the caller, that place where we acknowledge them and yet are not pulled into their story.”
And callers, honest and bogus, have been keeping advisers on their toes. Jackson adds: “Some callers want to test us, check us out, want us to take the pain away, make it better for themselves or make someone they know ‘better’. Others are confused, angry, aggressive, intoxicated, at risk or seeking sexual gratification. Perpetrators call, individuals want information and professionals seek support.”
Saunders is understandably pleased with progress and, as with all charities, is fighting for funding to secure infoline’s future.
“The response has been extraordinary,” he says. “It has proved what we have always known: that adult survivors want to be heard, want to share their stories and want to take responsibility for their recovery and healing.”
Indeed, as one caller said: “I’ve been waiting my whole life for Napac.”
– The infoline number is 0800 085 3330 and is open noon until 8pm Mondays to Fridays, and 9am until noon on Saturdays. For more information call Peter Saunders on 020 8971 5099 or write to him at Napac, 42 Curtain Road, London, EC2A 3NH or visit www.napac.org.uk
Scheme: Napac infoline.
Staffing: Six infoline operators, two supervisors and a co-ordinator.
Inspiration: To set up the first information line for survivors of abuse in childhood.
Cost: £110,000 a year (with £50,000 from Department of Health).