Treating sexual abuse as a public health issue

The Lucy Faithfull Foundation's Stop It Now ­campaign tackles sexual abuse of children. Judy Cooper spoke to its deputy director, Donald Findlater, about reducing the risk

The Lucy Faithfull Foundation’s Stop It Now ­campaign tackles sexual abuse of children. Judy Cooper spoke to its deputy director, Donald Findlater, about reducing the risk

Preventing sexual abuse should be thought of in the same light as preventing a heart attack, according to Donald Findlater, deputy director of child protection charity the Lucy Faithfull Foundation.

“If you are 40 or older, a bit overweight and perhaps drink and smoke then you’ll be considered at risk of a heart attack and you’ll be targeted for advice about healthy eating and lifestyle,” he says. “If you’ve already had a heart attack you’ll be treated and given support. As a child you will be taught about the dangers of becoming overweight and not exercising. It should be the same for sexual abuse.”

Findlater believes it is the early, universal education element that is currently missing.

“We’re very focused on the tertiary prevention,” he says. “So if someone has committed an offence we arrest them, try to treat them and prevent it happening again. If a child has been a victim, we focus on helping them overcome it. In secondary prevention we focus on the children who might be at risk and try to protect them. But we do little about educating all adults and children in general about what they can do to help prevent sexual abuse.”

He says if every adult felt preventing child sexual abuse was their responsibility and every child was equipped with the knowledge of what was appropriate behaviour and boundaries, the number of incidents could be reduced.

“I’m hoping that with the current economic climate and the emphasis of the government on a big society that this idea will start to take hold,” Findlater says.

The Lucy Faithfull foundation has developed the idea and pushed the model through its Stop it Now helpline and campaign, launched in 2002. The helpline gives advice to potential offenders, victims, members of the public, family members and, increasingly, professionals.

It is the family members, he says, particularly of offenders, who are most often ignored by professionals. Yet they are the ones who can play the most powerful role in prevention.

Findlater gives an example of a woman who called the helpline because she had found inappropriate photos of children that her husband had taken on a recent holiday. She was given help in how to approach the issue with her husband which resulted in the husband calling the helpline himself and confessing his worrying thoughts.

“The risk to his own children was talked about, his parents became involved and, together as a family, they dealt with the situation without involving the police or children’s services,” Findlater says. This course of action was possible, he says, because the family knew what the risks were, how to spot whether it was increasing and whether treatment was not working.

But in another case a mother, worried about her son’s behaviour, called the helpline and agreed that children’s services should be contacted if it would mean her child could be helped. Instead, the police turned up on her doorstep and gave her son a caution. There was no offer of help or support.

Too often families are left feeling ashamed and isolated and they try to cover it up. Findlater gives yet another example of a woman who was told by a social worker that she had to leave her partner who was suspected of sexual abuse.

“She just felt bullied,” he recalls. “Yet, if she had been told about the risks and her options, she could have made her own decision. It would have been a decision she could explain to her children to help prevent them becoming victims of sexual abuse in the future. We need to be empowering these people, because they are our best tool to prevent sexual abuse happening.”

Stop It Now,  Helpline: 0808 1000 900

This article is published in the 15 July 2010 edition of Community Care under the headline “Educating all adults will help to prevent child sex abuse”

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