Being raped or sexually assaulted is something with which most adult victims would struggle to come to terms.
So, imagine what a little child thinks, sexually brutalised, perhaps by a stranger or by someone in their own family. How could a child of seven or eight come to terms with an attack of this nature when they may not even understand what sex is?
Three years ago the county’s Sexual Assault Referral Centre, known as Serenity, was set up at the Highfield Clinical Care Centre, in Cliftonville Road, Northampton.
It was established to serve as a “one-stop shop” for adults and children who had been sexually abused or assaulted; a place they could go to make a statement to police, undergo medical examinations and receive support.
The centre now deals with about 600 cases a year, some recent and some historic cases, for example when someone seeks help years after an attack.
Of these 600, more than 50 per cent involve victims aged under 18 and a quarter under 13. The youngest person referred to Serenity was only 10-months-old.
Serenity manager, Glynis Bliss, said: “When we first started there wasn’t enough data to give us informed projections. We used the police data they had, but it has been a voyage of discovery in terms of self-reporting.
“In terms of children and young people, the figures are quite shocking. It is hard for people to understand the scale of sexual violence against young people. It is not a subject we want to think about, but if we look at national reports, the percentage of children who say they have experienced sexual abuse or violence is high.
“Most of the children come to us through the police or social services; we don’t deal with self-referrals under the age of 15.”
When attending the centre, children and young people can record their evidence for a DVD to be used in court. They can have their medical examination with a paediatrician and receive other forms of support, but it is now recognised that more is needed.
The demand for more counselling support for children and young people was evident and so Northamptonshire County Council and the NHS commissioned Serenity to provide a new therapeutic service for survivors of sexual abuse and violence, aged 18 or under.
This has been contracted out to a counselling team at Service Six, a youth charity based in Wellingborough, who have received about eight referrals from Serenity since the project’s launch last month.
It is expected that this contract will last until April 2014, when the work looks set to be covered by the County Council’s strategy for safeguarding children and adults.
Catherine Sharp, counselling manager at Service Six, said that different types of counselling and therapies were used as appropriate with different age groups.
The youngest children offered the counselling service are eight years old and sessions can be held in different locations, for example at Service Six, in schools or at Children’s Centres. There is also support for parents and carers who can be left at a loss as to how to support a child.
When this type of trauma goes untreated, worrying behaviour can soon emerge.
Catherine said: “People can become withdrawn, quiet or completely the opposite, very destructive. Younger children perhaps don’t have the vocabulary to express what is going on for them.
“People could end up self-harming or have anger issues; it can come out further down the line.”
Just one of the different methods used for the younger clients is play therapy.
I interviewed Catherine in a room rather poignantly filled with the play-things of many an innocent and happy childhood; a doll’s house, a tiny sand-pit, toy cars and a table filled with colouring-in sheets.
But sadly, the children who play with these particular toys as part of the therapy sessions will often be doing so to help deal with the trauma of sexual abuse.
The counsellor’s role is to watch them play and keep an eye out for warning signals. Catherine gives the example of a child putting the daddy doll in bed with the child doll in a doll’s house, and talks about how this can lead to certain difficult subjects being discussed.
Catherine said: “For children who don’t have the words or who are very destructive, play therapy is the best intervention so they can express themselves using different media, perhaps clay or the sandpit.
“The therapist can then say ‘what have you done there?’ and you can get the conversation going that way.
“They might feel very scared or very angry and not know how to express that. As a child comes to terms with what has happened they may feel more confident that they can trust again and that it won’t recur and that they can integrate back into the world around them.”
She continued: “We don’t encourage them to say or do anything at all. Perhaps if the child was very lost and did not know what to do at all, the therapist could work with that and say ‘you seem unsure, why don’t we draw something together’.”
With older children and teenagers, there may be more understanding of what has happened, but counselling strategies can be used to help them work through negative emotions like guilt and anger.
Catherine explained: “Confusion is perhaps one of the most common emotions or there might be a lot of anger towards the perpetrator. Sometimes there is guilt, especially if a family has been broken up; it takes a long time to separate out what was and wasn’t their part in it.
“Counselling would be about separating these things out, for example, this happened but this wasn’t your intention.”
Glynis explained that the new service will help bridge a very important gap when it comes to the support of young sexual abuse victims.
She said: “It has been recognised that there has been a gap in providing support for young people who need more than the level of generic support – which we don’t find from youth services of something like Victim Support or our own support workers – but who haven’t been diagnosed with a mental health condition that will require help from mental health services.
“It was important we found the right level of support for that middle group.”