A place for trust and support

The creation of an environment where children can recognise and
confront the abuse they have experienced is a real achievement.
Which is why the Young Women’s Centre in Dundee won a Community
Care Award last year. Natalie Valios reports.

It took two years of regularly attending the Young Women’s
Centre in Dundee, before a 12-year-old girl finally admitted what
social workers had long believed – she had been sexually abused. It
was social workers who had referred her to the centre in Dundee,
which works with girls who have been sexually abused, in the hope
that she would disclose what they feared had happened.

“During those two years she came in, played games and built up a
relationship with a worker,” says co-ordinator Laurie Matthew. “We
provided the space where she could talk about anything. We
constantly asked her if there was anything else she wanted to talk

The case is now in the hands of the police. The centre does not
have to be convinced that clients have been abused before taking on
the referral, and in fact many referrals are from teachers who
suspect abuse.

In this situation, the centre has several options. If it is not
one of the parents who is suspected of the abuse, then Matthew may
contact them. Otherwise she keeps in contact with the teacher and
school. If it is felt to be appropriate, Matthew will go into the
classroom and carry out an abuse prevention workshop with the whole
class, in the hope that it will trigger the child to talk to

Young girls generally lack the confidence to self-refer and
referrals are more likely to come from social workers, police,
teachers, parents, and other young people. Referrals are not
restricted to Dundee, or even Scotland. As the only service of its
kind in Scotland it receives referrals from all over the country,
as well as occasionally from England.

If they are old enough to travel to the centre from, say,
Aberdeen, then the centre raises the money for their train fare,
otherwise children have to rely on phone contact. Its phone support
extends to girls in north London, Essex and Yorkshire. One girl in
northern England felt so isolated by her experiences and so
desperate for contact with the centre that it has raised money to
buy her a computer so that she can communicate with workers through
e-mail. The centre is raising money for a minicom so that it can
help a deaf girl in England. Recruiting more volunteers living in
areas outside Dundee to work as outreach workers is a priority.

After referral, Matthew meets and assesses the girls and tells
them about the service. They have several options. They may just
want regular phone contact, but if they want one-to-one support
from a volunteer with whom they can talk through their problems,
Matthew matches them with one of the trained volunteers to act as
their key person.

Matthew is justifiably proud of the fact that the centre never
turns anyone away or puts them on a waiting list. At the moment,
workers are carrying out one-to-one work with 30 clients per month.
Its phone work is far higher, last year it supported more than
4,000 girls.

The centre is open six days a week, with a daily drop-in
facility between 10am and 6pm for any young girl in crisis – quite
often it is runaways who turn up on the doorstep. Here they can
“just chill” in the activity room, watch TV, play on the computer,
listen to music, says Matthew. It also gives clients who have been
excluded from school, of which there are between 15 per cent and 20
per cent, somewhere to go.

Its work with young survivors of abuse led the centre to develop
an abuse prevention programme in September 1998. It is this work
that won a Community Care Award last year.

The programme is split into two age groups: the Wee VIPs (very
important persons) for four to six-year- olds and the Teen VIPs
(violence is preventable) for 14 to 18-year-olds.

An abuse prevention programme for girls who have already been
abused may seem the wrong way round, but Matthew disagrees:

“Instead of being reactive, the VIP programme is proactive.
Children who have been abused are more likely to be abused again.
We have an awful lot of children here who have disclosed abuse and
although they may have been believed, nothing has been proved. Then
they are silenced.

“We are trying to turn it around and say that they have a right
to tell and that keeps them safe. It is not too late if something
has happened, it empowers them and teaches them how to say

Packs were developed for both schemes with a mixture of videos,
songs, story books, colouring sheets, games, staff resource packs,
parental packs and trainers’ notes. The VIP programme is used
outside the centre in nurseries and schools across Scotland. It has
led to many young people disclosing abuse, the formation of a
parents’ child protection forum and a group of young people raising
money to form a peer education initiative to tackle violence among
young people.

Clients attend one weekly VIP session at the centre, alternating
with a weekly session of drumming, a symbolic activity. “It was a
young girl who suggested drumming. It is about breaking silences
and making a noise. It is a good confidence and esteem builder,”
says Matthew.

There is a drumming group for under-14s called Drumalong, and a
group for over-14s called Shennanigans.

Other activities on offer include tea, where clients make a
healthy tea once a week and then have a workshop to discuss
physical, sexual and mental health. Staff have also developed a
“Jonny Cool” storybook aimed at seven to 11-year-olds to encourage
them to listen to their feelings and go for help if they feel
unsafe. It is being piloted in schools and at the centre.

Clients can play the centre’s truth, dare and scare game, which
asks six to 18-year-olds what they would do in different
situations. Groups are held at weekends or after school, although
some face-to-face work is carried out during school hours with the
permission of the school, or workers can visit children at

Some young girls come to the centre every day, but more often
than not staff and volunteers see them three or four times a week.
Volunteers far outweigh staff and are the backbone of the project.
Not all carry out the support work. Those who do have to complete a
training programme and adhere to the centre’s child protection
policy. This stipulates complete confidentiality and that no one
can be in a one-to-one situation with a client unless someone else

As a high number of survivors work as volunteers at the centre,
they have to have dealt with their own problems first, says
Matthew. “If we have someone who has been through this stuff they
do have a different understanding of what these girls are going
through. We often get young people who want to talk to other
survivors, whether they are younger or older than them.”

The centre has had several situations where it has been
supporting someone and it has become apparent that abuse is
continuing. It will not report the case to a statutory agency
without the young person’s permission, except on rare occasions.
“If you take it out of their hands they back away. We try to
encourage them to be open about it and speak to the police in their
own time.”

As there has only been one occasion where the young person has
decided not to go to the police, it appears that the centre’s
confidentiality policy, as well as its philosophy, is working.

Five Rivers sponsored the Community Care Awards 2000
child protection category.

Project profile

– Five Rivers sponsored the Community Care Awards 2000 child
protection category

– Project: The Young Women’s Centre.

– History: Set up in April 1994 by the Dundee Rape Crisis Centre
which could not cater for sexually abused young girls who
approached it for help. In 1996 it split from the centre to become
its own charity with separate premises.

– Funding: It costs about £150,000 per year to run the
centre. A three-year grant from the National Lottery Charities
Board runs out in September 2002. The Scottish executive has funded
a millennium volunteer co-ordinator post, whose job it is to
recruit volunteers aged between 16 and 25. The rest comes from
independent fundraising, trusts and donors.

– Staff: Co-ordinator Laurie Matthew, administrator Patricia
Craig, outreach worker in schools Marley Laurie, Anne Brown,
millennium volunteer co-ordinator, and 35 volunteers.

– Clients: Girls aged 18 and under who have been sexually
abused. After a survey of users and volunteers last year, the
centre changed its constitution in December to support boys as
well. Currently it works with 30 girls and four boys.

– Contact: Laurie Matthew, Young Women’s Centre, 1 Victoria
Road, Dundee DD1 1EL. Tel: 01382 206222.

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