For children who have been raped or sexually abused even the offer of help is likely to be frightening and daunting.
A children’s centre being created by the St Mary’s Sexual Assault Referral Centre in Manchester aims to improve services for this group. It will be launched in two phases. In February an examination suite specifically for treating children will open. And towards the end of the summer its accompanying therapeutic and support services will be launched.
Supported by funding from charities, the Home Office and Greater Manchester Police, the facility costs £313,000 to set up and £263,000 a year to run.
Centre manager Bernie Ryan says the existing centre, which had been intended for adults, was soon treating younger clients. “It was not designed for children so the new one will provide a safe environment where they can be seen and supported,” she says.
The centres will be next to each other on the same site as St Mary’s Hospital. As well as the staff who provide the existing service, the new centre will be staffed by Ryan, a clinical director, a paediatrician, a forensic physician and a play therapist who will be on secondment from the NSPCC. A child advocate will also lend support through to a court hearing, if it goes that far.
Apart from the examination suite, where forensic and paediatric examinations will take place, the centre’s facilities will include a video interview facility which can be used by the police and social services.
Although professionals from those two agencies will usually be the ones to refer children to the centre they may also come from GPs or paediatricians.
The existing facility is available only for children who have been raped – not those who have suffered sexual abuse over a long period. The new centre will treat both sets of children as well as victims of incest and those whose experiences of sexual abuse have just become apparent.
Ryan says: “Any type of abuse or sexual assault is distressing and the impact on children is immeasurable. We are trying to offer a tailor-made service to each child.”
The number of children attending the existing centre rose from 174 in 2000 to 327 in 2004, statistics that informed the decision-making behind the new centre. But there was also a feeling that there was a need for a service other than for children who had been raped.
Ryan believes it is unclear whether the increase reflects an exacerbation of the problem or whether it is simply a result of changes in the way child abuse is managed.
The new centre will be open to children from Greater Manchester and make up for the patchy services that are in place now. “It’s very ad hoc and sporadic,” Ryan says of the current set-up. “It depends on which borough you live in as to whether services are available or accessible. The waiting times can be two years.”
Ryan says the existing centre’s experience in working with children who have been raped has shown that the more specialist support services are put in place the less likely children are to develop difficulties. With evidence such as this the new service cannot open quickly enough.