Silent no longer

ChildLine knows first-hand that child sexual abuse remains a
common experience for children in the UK. Last year alone the
organisation’s counsellors spoke to more than 8,000 children
about sexual abuse. But new figures reveal that a significant step
in the fight against child abuse has been achieved as children seek
help far earlier than at any previous time in ChildLine’s
16-year history.

In its first year nearly one-third of children who called about
sexual abuse had suffered silently, or had been ignored when they
tried to disclose, for more than five years. These children felt
they had had no one to turn to.

Today, half the children who call ChildLine about sexual abuse
do so within a month of the abuse starting.

And although 28 per cent of callers (855 children) in 1986-7 had
suffered sexual abuse for more than five years before speaking to a
ChildLine counsellor, last year only 5 per cent (237 children) of
callers had been experiencing abuse for more than five years.

Not only do these figures highlight the vital role ChildLine has
played in enabling children to speak out about sexual abuse, but
they also show that children are increasingly aware that they do
not have to tolerate abuse.

Before ChildLine was launched in 1986 there were many agencies
offering help and protection to abused children, but there was no
source of help that children could access easily themselves and
that was designed specifically for them.

Based on the progressive concept that children need a service
which they saw as “theirs”, ChildLine became that service. For the
first time these children could speak about abuse in their own way
and at their own pace, with the power to decide what steps they
wanted to take. ChildLine’s approach to children calling
about abuse remains the same today. We aim to empower them – with
information, with choices and with emotional support.

The issue we must tackle next is the question of how these
children want to be protected. Changes in policy and provision must
be informed by what children themselves say about their experiences
and what might help. There is often fear among children and adults
about the consequences of involving the authorities, particularly
when the alleged abuser is a member of the family. All abused
children say that first and foremost they want the abuse to stop,
but not all of them want their family broken up and the
imprisonment of a parent who may be the sole breadwinner. Those
children and families wishing for help without criminal prosecution
have few options.

Without decriminalising sexual offences against children, we
need to be imaginative and open-minded. For example, a system of
“diversion” programmes to bring offenders and families into
treatment might help minimise the impact on families and children
of the criminal process. Research is urgently needed to establish
the benefits and disadvantages of other approaches.

Now that we know children are speaking out about sexual abuse
earlier, we need to continue to work to establish a child
protection system that starts with the child at the centre and
builds outwards. It would be a system that listens and responds to
what children tell us about their needs and fears and gives back to
the child some of the control which abuse has taken away from

Thousands of children still call ChildLine every year because
they are being sexually abused, and child protection services in
the UK remain woefully under-resourced. But these new figures from
ChildLine show how much progress has been made. If you were a child
being sexually abused in 1986, the outlook was bleak indeed. In a
cultural climate where there was little public discussion of the
existence of sexual abuse, let alone acceptance that it occurred on
a large scale, disclosure must have seemed almost impossible. Many
children told ChildLine in the early days that they did not even
know abuse was wrong – they thought it happened in all families, or
had been convinced by the abuser that it was natural.

Attitudes towards abuse have changed since those days. As a
society, we accept the existence of abuse and that we must have
agencies and systems in place to try to prevent it and to deal with
it when it happens. But, most importantly, mass awareness means
that children experiencing abuse today are far more likely to know
that what is happening to them is wrong and that they have the
right to seek help and be protected.

Carole Easton is chief executive,

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