It is rare to be allowed inside a children’s home to talk to sexual abuse victims. They have been let down by adults they trust, so why should they trust anyone else? Cordelia Lynch reports.
We had been granted a rare privilege, the chance to see inside a children’s home and hear first hand from the young girls inside. They are living in a residential treatment centre for children who have been sexually exploited which is also registered as an independent special school. The girls have had torturous journeys here, bounced from home to home, sometimes having to move after just a few days. Some have been groomed for sex by gangs, others by family members.
On the drive up, we are anxious about how the girls will react to us. They are incredibly vulnerable teenagers exposed to the very worst the world has to offer. They have been let down by adults they trust, so why should they trust adults they don’t know? We know, in the wake of the Rotherham abuse scandal and many other cases, it can take years, sometimes decades, for victims to recognise they have been abused. Many of these girls were abused only recently and are still considered to be at risk. Yet amazingly, they had bravely agreed to speak to us.
Most come from cities, but the first thing that strikes us is how rural and isolated the home is. The surroundings are about as far removed from urban living as you can get and when we enter through the secure reception, it becomes clear it is a long way from traditional family life, too. The team that run it are friendly, dynamic and open about the challenges they face.
They have been let down by adults they trust, so why should they trust adults they don’t know?
They acknowledge it is a place of last resort, but they genuinely seem to want to do something progressive. It’s nothing like the Victorian homes we are used to seeing.
We first meet them sitting in a circle alongside teachers and staff – there is an impressive team of psychiatrists, doctors and therapists. The home caters for children, from 10 to 18 year olds. It’s big compared to other homes. The girls live in small houses, three to each. It looks like the type of independent living some people enjoy at university, but these girls are restricted. They can’t leave unaccompanied and they have to learn to live with strangers of all ages, who have their own complex needs.
Back in the meeting, the girls have just finished lessons and they are restless. They want lunch, but they have to take part in a daily exercise first, where each girl says what has gone well for them that day and what could have gone better. They are a sparky bunch, funny and intelligent. Across the room is 15 year old “Laura”. We’ve changed her name to protect her identity. She is loud, perhaps even bolshy. But we’re soon reminded just how young and vulnerable she is when she goes to pick up her teddy bear. Later, she is polite, patient and keen to share her story. She was abused at 11 years old, but tragically, she says: “I blame myself. I took the beer, I took the takeaways and stuff. ”
What children say about life in care
I'm a child living in this facility, however, it doesn't mean I'm a horrible person. It means horrible things have happened to me and I need help.The stereotype that comes with children in care is corrupt, violent, criminals, unlawful, rebels, aggressive, nasty, unpleasant, vicious and malicious.
However, in actual fact most people I have lived with have been the complete opposite. Including myself! I once moved to a care home and there were people petitioning against my arrival. All I want is a home and to hear that people were standing outside with billboards requesting that the care home wasn't there was hard. Living at the care home I was at before this placement, I had people from the village asking me questions like, 'Are you that kid from the care home?', 'Do you have a criminal record','Did your mum not want you?', 'Did you steal from us?'The answer to all those questions are no! I'm not just a kid in a care home. I'm a person. I deserve to be treated like a person, not a criminal, because I'm not!
This is my fifth children's home and I like some bits about all of them. I don't like the staff because they tell me what to do all the time when I don't want to and they moan a lot. I like getting loads of attention and the best thing is I have got a TV just for me in my bedroom and it helps me settle at night.
Many of the girls look older than their years. One is strikingly articulate. She tells me how much she hates the stereotypes of girls in care, the suggestion that they’re aggressive, unpleasant, rebels. Most of the girls she’s met, she says, don’t fit any of these descriptions. She is clearly extremely intelligent. You can imagine she would be in the top set at school and she’s desperate to get her GCSEs. But she’s constantly moving homes and that makes conventional routines and gaining qualifications, incredibly difficult. Another 15 year old, who we’re calling “Rachel”, says something that will stay with me for ever (watch video above).
It is a depressing and distressing thing to hear. Her knees are constantly moving as she speaks. She’s nervous and unconfident, yet finds the strength to talk to me, a stranger and a journalist at that. She, like many of the girls, shows signs of self-harm. “Laura”, who I met at the beginning, tells me she’s handed her blades to a member of staff she trusts. “I want to stop for my mum’s sake,” she tells me. The authorities have decided it’s not safe for her to be at home. But like many of the girls, that’s exactly where she wants to be.
The fact we have been allowed in to speak to these girls is, in part, due to the openness of the local authority, as well as the home. Neither is suggesting what they do is perfect, but a few years ago, the local police force acknowledged it had a problem with young exploited girls being placed in the area. Care homes were not informing the relevant authorities, so the police had no real sense of who was at risk in the county. The police started to visit the homes, reminding the owners of their responsibilities and why it was important for everyone to know when vulnerable girls are moved to the area. The threat from abusers is often still very present and the girls can be pulled back to their past lives all too easily.
I meet one detective who has been working with exploited children for more than two decades. She tells me that, finally, she feels she’s making a real difference. She has regular meetings with the girls and care home manager. Both women are compassionate, but also realistic. The children can be challenging and understandably defensive. They often don’t want to talk to each other about their abuse. I’m told one minute they can be enemies, the next, the best of friends. Of course they are also strangers, united by one thing: sexual abuse. In a year’s time, they may have to adjust to new people, in another town or city.
Grooming cases in Rochdale, Oxford and Peterborough have made us all think a little more about the many children let down by society. In Rotherham, I met a 29 year-old woman still living with the legacy of her abuse. I felt there was little difference between us, other than fortune. Spending time with the girls at this care home, I learnt something else, that words like “chaotic” and “troubled” tell you very little about victims. Sitting in that meeting with the girls felt like being in any other classroom, anywhere in the country, full of teenage angst, but also creativity, ideas and intelligence. “Rachel” told me: “All we want is to be listened to, even if it doesn’t seem that way.”
Our time in the centre wasn’t a bleak experience, even if it does make you angry some people have such a hard start to life. What it actually made me realise is that if children can survive time in care, after being abused by people they trusted, they will have endured and achieved more than most of us do in a life time. And they are all on a road to recovery.