What hope this New Year for children who have been abused?

Alison Todd

The panto season is over but through this New Year life for thousands of Scotland’s children is set to become a pantomime without a happy ending.

These children will have been sexually abused by someone who they should have been able to trust. That’s a horror story. But for those that find the courage to tell another adult in hope of help, what happens next often makes them wish they had never told. Our professionals are committed and caring, but the way the system works can leave children feeling that professionals don’t care, or don’t believe them.

Imagine a child. Let’s call her Jenny, aged 14. One day Jenny stays behind after a lesson to ask her teacher a question: “When you said if someone feels uncomfortable about an adult touching them they should tell. What would happen if someone told you?”

Concerned, the teacher asks some general questions. Jenny reveals that she is being abused by her uncle Joe.

Having been told by her teacher that others will need to know, Jenny goes home sick with worry. What will happen next? Will her mum find out? Her teacher is also anxious. She wants to help, but having passed the information on she may not be able to speak to Jenny about the matter until it’s fully investigated.

The next day there’s a case discussion involving the teachers, school nurse, police and social work. A social worker goes to Jenny’s house and speaks to her mum. Jenny is to be interviewed by a police officer and social worker in a few days, but in the meantime should have no contact with Joe. Things get really difficult at home. Mum cries a lot and asks why Jenny hasn’t said anything about this before.

At last Jenny is interviewed, at the police station so it can be video recorded. She’s nervous. Her mum can’t be with her as she could be a witness. Although Jenny is entitled to a support person, she can’t think of anyone suitable so is interviewed alone. Jenny says she doesn’t like being alone with her uncle as he has wandering hands. The interviewer uses open questioning techniques to discover more. This throws Jenny - it’s not how they ask questions at school. Are they trying to catch her out?

Jenny’s story could now follow two alternate paths. On one the police feel there’s no corroboration for Jenny’s story so she’s sent home. Still concerned, the professionals put Jenny on the child protection register and refer her to the Children’s Hearing. Time passes. Jenny occasionally sees her social worker, but isn’t offered support to recover from her experiences. No one can tell her what’s going to happen or when.

Meanwhile the onus is on mum to protect Jenny. But mum thinks Joe is great, having been there for her when Jenny’s dad walked out, and that Jenny is attention seeking. Joe pops over that weekend. Jenny hides in her room – there’s nowhere else to go.

On the alternate path the police decide they have enough evidence to refer the case to the procurator fiscal and Joe is charged. But Jenny’s mum is furious and refuses to stop seeing Joe. So Jenny has to be placed in a children’s unit as no-one else in the family can help. Jenny wonders if it might be better to say that she made it all up, so she can go home and make peace with her mum.

Jenny is fictitious, but we know from research evidence that her story will resonate with many child sexual abuse victims. And that sometimes when the system intervenes to protect a child, it’s the child who ends up feeling punished.

Surely, in 21st century Scotland, we can do better? Better at listening to children; not only where they tell us they’ve been abused, but also to what they want to happen next, how and at what pace.

Better at offering more help to Jenny in the shape of abuse and trauma recovery services to ensure that she gets the right help at the right time, in line with Scotland’s ‘Getting it Right for Every Child’ approach.

Better at supporting family members such as Jenny’s mum, so she can make sense of what’s happening and be more able to be there for her daughter.

Better at avoiding the process delays and information voids that ramp up anxiety levels.

And better at talking about child sexual abuse – with the emphasis less exclusively on celebrity and history, and more on ordinary homes and communities where the evidence shows us most abuse is happening today.

This year will see one positive change. There will be a ‘named person’ for every child in Scotland up to age 18, to whom children and families can turn to for support. For Jenny, it would be her pastoral care teacher. Every child should know that they can speak to their ‘named person’ if they need to or ask someone, such as a class teacher, to do so their behalf.

Yet overall we need a clearer road map for improving how our public and voluntary sectors respond when children reveal abuse. That’s why Children 1st is establishing Stop to Listen, a multi-agency national initiative to address flaws in the system that make it hard for professionals to give children who’ve been abused the right support.

This is just the start of the journey. But, with professionals across the sectors united in their commitment to improvement, there’s hope that 2016 will bring our goal of a system that children deserve and that we can all be proud of closer.