Mosac is a London-based charity that supports non-abusing parents and carers of children who have been sexually abused. Julia Webb-Harvey provides a case study to illustrate its work Child sexual abuse: The family’s story
According to the NSPCC*, 16% of children experience sexual abuse during their childhood. It is a shocking statistic, with more detailed and sinister ones behind it. Working with the statistics, if you have a classroom of 30 children that means 4.8 of the children in your class could have been sexually abused. However, the real story about child sexual abuse is not buried in research, or quoted in arbitrary numbers. The real story often goes untold, with some (31% according to the NSPCC) not disclosing at all – even in adulthood.
At Mosac, we deal with the stories of those children who are brave enough to have told someone that they have been sexually abused – touched by another in ways that belong in the world of being an adult. Only these are not stories, these are real families devastated and torn apart by the action of the perpetrator. The perpetrator, in our experience, is not the monster that the media would have us all believe. He or she is often charming, supportive, kind, and has woven his/her way into the very fabric of the family. It is nearly always the case that the perpetrator has groomed the whole family, and not only the child. The case that follows is representative of the lives of families that we meet. Names and other details have been changed to protect the identity of those involved.
Anna and Billy’s story
Anna was sexually abused by her stepfather, James, from about the age of eight. He started with Billy when he was about five. Anna can’t really say when the ‘tickling game’ became something that she knew she couldn’t share with anyone else. James made her feel special and adored, and rewarded her for keeping his secret by lavishing gifts on her. Anna’s mum used to chide James for spoiling them, but he’d say that she’d been through a lot, and he wanted to ‘treat her right; special’. Anna’s mum was pleased that she was now with someone who cared for her daughter, and had begun to enjoy the occasional nights out, when James would take care of Anna and Billy. On the outside, Anna, Billy and Mum seem to have had it made. James provided a male role model and father figure, attentive to mother and children. He was caring and supportive. Everything a single mum might want. Alongside the gifts for Anna and Billy, a web of fear was also being woven by James. He told Anna that if she ever told anyone about their games, she would be taken away and never see her mum, Billy or James again. For Billy, he would threaten him with a beating. He told them both they were so lucky to be loved so much by both of them, they had to promise never to tell anyone else. Anna had no way of knowing that what was happening was harmful. In adult terms, she was being sexualised, and her body had learned to orgasm, which she enjoyed. She wanted to be in this seemingly happy bubble. It was only when she grew older, into puberty that she realised that it wasn’t as rosy as she had been led to believe. She was developing a sense of something being wrong through the sex education lessons and her peers. The delightful, compliant little girl withdrew into a fog of confusion. Anna’s mother couldn’t work out what was wrong. Why was there an almost sudden change in her? Concerned, Anna’s mother talked to her teachers at school, who reassured her that this could be a normal stage of development, with huge changes in hormones taking place. Anna’s mother felt reassured, but still remained worried for her daughter. Billy was quite different. He was always in trouble. He was attention seeking and he would pick on the smaller boys. It felt like Mum was always either at the school, or the doctor’s with Billy. He had persistent urinary infections, and he did not sleep well. She was assured that this was not uncommon in little boys.
The family’s story
Anna lived with James’ advances until she was 13, when she blurted it out after a row over whether she could go to the pictures with a boy in her class. Telling her mum was initially a huge relief to Anna. James was clever, as are most perpetrators, and Mum had bought into and celebrated the view of ‘Super Dad’. Mum did, however, believe her daughter. She was very upset and threw James out immediately. For Anna the threats that James had made were beginning to come true. The family was falling apart. On top of all of this Anna and her mum were having to cope with investigations from children’s social care, the police, and the school. They were all acting in the best interests of Anna, but rather than feeling caring and supportive, it felt but cold and clinical. Here, the trauma of the sexual abuse really hit home. Anna was separated from a man she thought loved her. She had brought on the crisis herself. There were lots of tears in the house, where before there was laughter. Anna didn’t want to tell her friends or anyone, so Anna and her mum withdrew together. Anna was worried what they would say, and Mum was terrified of their parents’ reactions to Anna and her. Anna’s performance at school dropped off slowly. None of the professionals seemed to believe that Mum didn’t know what was happening to her only daughter. Mum was wracked with guilt and blame for allowing James to hurt her baby. Both mother and daughter were struggling to come to terms with the fall out of sexual abuse. Billy carried on much as before. He did not say a word about it until he was much older, as a young adult. Mum didn’t really know how to handle him at all, and didn’t like to push him on anything. She grew more distant from him. Mum was intent on justice, and in the legal proceedings that ensued, the restrictions became tighter. If Anna was to prove a credible witness, then they had to navigate the legal minefield. Anna was not allowed counselling, and neither was Mum, for fear of jeopardising the court processes. The statements, counter statements, endless numbers of meetings and conferences were arduous and disruptive to normal life. Both of them were near breaking point, lost from each other.
Anna’s mum came across Mosac after sitting at her computer, trawling the internet, desperate for someone to help her. She dialled the helpline number, and spoke to a warm voice at the other end of the line who listened and did not judge.
Anna’s mum continued to call the helpline when she needed support, and after several weeks, decided to come in for counselling. Counselling provided a space that she could claim as her own, allowing her to examine what had happened, and what was happening now, let alone unravelling the cocktail of feelings that she was experiencing. At her worse, she had felt totally isolated, and to blame. She learned to accept that she was not responsible for the abuse, but James was. It was a turning point in her journey. At Mosac, our philosophy is that if we can support the parent/carer, they are then the ones that can best support their child. Like throwing a pebble in a pond, the healing ripples out. The legal case carried on, but in becoming Gloria and not just Anna’s mum, she found the strength and courage to seek out the justice they both wanted. For other parents/carers, their needs are more practical, and for those in London, Mosac provides an outreach advocacy service, where advocates attend case conferences, meetings, court hearings, as directed by the client. Some cannot manage without this direct level of support. Gloria’s need was for emotional support.
The difference you can make
Mosac is a small charity, seemingly always chasing funding for survival. We are able to support approximately 200 families a year. It is difficult to extrapolate statistics, but this must be few in comparison to the number of families affected (27% of children of the 16% affected do disclose after the event, which equates to about 475,000 children in the UK).
If you are in contact with a child who has been abused, consider the devastation on the family. Anna’s story is not the only one, but it is representative of the fall-out of disclosure. Billy’s story shows another way of how abuse can be buried. Each family will be different. Consider that the family is often groomed alongside the child. ‘How did I not know?’ is a cry that we often hear from parents/carers. Try to accept this as a truth, and not judge them for what is often completely concealed from them. Perhaps you can consider the philosophy that Mosac upholds: Are you able to do more in your contact with parents/carers to listen to them and support them, in as non-judgemental a way as you can, so that they can better support the child that you know? If you are suspicious, listen to your instincts. You know the children you work with. If you notice changes in their behaviour, let them know you’ve noticed. It is unlikely that they will talk about abuse if it is happening, but if you have noticed a change in them, let them know it. In our experience, this really begins to help a child who is being abused tell someone.
Child sexual abuse is a horrific crime, which impacts not only on the children, but the non-abusing parent/carer and their family. Relief on sharing the secret is often short lived for the child, and, in our experience, the true devastation only begins with the weight of the processes that we serve to offer in child protection.
There are few places of sanctuary for the parent/carer, understandably most charities are aimed at supporting the abused child. Mosac is unique in offering support directly to the parent/carer. We know it serves to better help the abused child. We passionately believe in the work we do, and invite you to seek us out, or refer those on who you think can benefit from our support.
|Mosac is waiting to answer your call Mosac trains its volunteers in child sexual abuse, and the impact on families. It provides advocacy, information and advice, befriending, counselling, play therapy and support groups following alleged child sexual abuse. It seeks to enable parents/carers to rebuild confidence, alleviate isolation and to assist both parents/carers and their children to achieve an improved quality of life.
We are quite unique in our field, and are waiting to answer your call. If you want to know more, or know a family that needs support, please go to Mosac's website, or phone 0800 980 1958.
Julia Webb-Harvey is a qualified counsellor and volunteers at Mosac. She is currently working on a book exploring what it is like to parent and support a child who has been sexually abuse
* NSPCC statistics taken from: Cawson et al (2000) Child Maltreatment in the United Kingdom: A Study of the Prevalence of Child Abuse and Neglect. London: NSPCC