Honour for child abuse survivor and campaigner

A survivor of child abuse who has made it his life’s mission to help other survivors, was recognised at the British Citizen Awards in London last week.

Les Newington (61), from Newtown St Boswells, joined Survivors Unite in 2013, a peer support group of survivors of childhood sexual abuse in the Scottish Borders. The group is supported by Children 1st, Scotland’s national children’s charity.

Les Newington with Amanda Erskine, Children 1st

Les Newington with Amanda Erskine, Children 1st

Les says: “Survivors Unite is just an amazing group, amazing people. The instant connection I felt when I first went through the door – it’s really difficult to explain – it’s something I’d never really felt with others. 

“That mutual support, that understanding, when you don’t even have the words to describe what you’re going through, you’re still understood, people just know.” 

Initially attending the group for his own support and recovery, Les grew in confidence and as his significant strengths and abilities began to shine, he took on a more active role, eventually becoming a co-facilitator in 2016. 

Amanda Erskine, Project Worker with Children 1st in the Borders, facilitates the group along with Les. She explains why she had nominated him for the British Citizen Awards, which honours individuals who do extraordinary things in their local communities: 

“Les was emerging as an inspirational figure for others with very natural leadership qualities. He has a quick mind, a fantastic sense of humour and is well informed. He has a particular ability to articulate his thoughts and feelings and many other survivors find this helpful in understanding their own experiences. 

“It became apparent that Les is also a capable public speaker; enabling him to advocate for the needs of survivors in many different settings.

“I’ve got absolute admiration for Les and it’s humbling to see him achieve what he does.

“He’s had one of the most difficult starting positions in life and somehow or other he’s been able to overcome those experiences – though he’s still challenged by them. Nevertheless, he continues to be there for people and meets the world with positivity and compassion.” 

Despite having lived through organised sexual abuse from his early childhood to his late teens, Les describes himself as “one of the lucky survivors” because he had a positive experience when he eventually came to disclose the abuse he suffered. However, he soon realised that many other survivors are not heard and fail to get the right support when they need it.

He explains: “I heard a lot of horror stories [about disclosing abuse] and once I realised it was very different for other people, I thought ‘that’s not good enough’ because I know how my life had been affected by it, so I felt really strongly that things should be improved.”

Since then, Les has dedicated his life to supporting adults in the Scottish Borders who experienced sexual abuse as a child. On their behalf, he’s campaigned for a dedicated pathway of support to be put in place for survivors of childhood sexual abuse, and played a key role in raising the profile of survivors and their need for bespoke services and recognition in the planning of mental health services.

Of the lasting impact of child abuse, Les says: “I was never ‘right’. A lot of my abuse had been shut away but I was affected by the trauma of it – what I later understood to be flashbacks, images, nightmares, bad dreams, unable to mix with other people – I always felt that need to stay back, to hold back.

“You just feel different, you don’t fit in, you don’t trust anyone.” 

In her letter of support for Les’ nomination, Andrea Beavon, Violence Against Women Coordinator at Scottish Borders Council, wrote: “Les…represents the best qualities of someone who speaks for the ‘unheard’. 

“He is an advocate, a survivor peer, a champion, a voice and a respected colleague. He is worthy of the recognition as someone who has experienced abuse and trauma in his life but has seen that his experience can help others despite the great personal cost to himself.”

On his initial reaction to hearing of his award, Les said: “I was shocked, I was quite stunned. It’s taken me a few weeks to get used to the idea. 

“It’s unreal. I’ve read the supporting statements from group members and I did cry a bit – to know that’s what they think of me, that’s what they feel.

“While this award is great for the recognition of what I’m trying to do for survivors, the greatest gift for me is having my fellow group members’ trust. Without all their support, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing. This award is for survivors. I want to use it to encourage other survivors to come forward.

“Five years ago, I would never have dreamt how far I would come. So this award shows that, with the right kind of support, there is a life to live, and you can move forward and start to put the dark stuff behind you.”