Anne Houston: Savile case has taught us we must listen to children

THIS week in Edinburgh, a special seminar will take place to discuss the implications of the recent Jimmy Savile abuse case and what it means for the future protection of children and young people.

Organised by the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships (CRFR), the seminar will bring together charities like Children 1st, academics and child ­protection professionals to consider how we improve child protection while promoting a more supportive atmosphere for adults to report cases of abuse.

It will also feature invaluable input from Sarah Nelson at CRFR around what we can learn from the experience of adult survivors of abuse.

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Clearly, this is timely. The Savile case showed just how easy it can be for ­children to go unprotected for long periods while an abuser goes undetected or unchallenged. Savile, as we know, hid in plain sight, his celebrity ­seemingly ­protecting him from detection and ­prosecution.

From the outset, Children 1st’s long ­history of supporting and helping ­children recover from sexual abuse led us to conclude that more victims of Savile would come forward.

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But even we were shocked at the scale of his abuse. Victims had kept silent for decades and the few who had come forward were not believed. It’s an all too familiar pattern in child sexual abuse where the power of the abuser combines with other issues – family ties, shame and adults, including some professionals, being unsure how to react – to ensure silence.

Through our seminar, we hope to ­begin exploring how we change this. The guidelines announced for England and Wales last week making it clear how to support potential victims who ­seemingly lack “credibility” are a welcome step ­forward and we need a similar approach in ­Scotland.

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While high-profile cases like Savile can forge the perception that abuse is something largely executed by strangers (or, in this case, celebrities), difficult as it might be to accept, children are more likely to be abused sexually by someone they know – a family member or family friend. Right now, there are children in communities and homes across Scotland suffering sexual abuse, too afraid to speak out, scared that no-one will listen or take them seriously.

However, official statistics don’t back this up: police record at least twice as many sexual offences against children as there are children on the child protection register – sexual abuse forming 8 per cent of all children on the register.

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Yet, at Children 1st, 11 per cent of the children we work with are affected ­directly or indirectly by sexual abuse. We need to work out the reasons why these figures appear not to match up and ­ensure all professionals working with ­vulnerable children feel confident to ­address concerns they might have about a child being sexually abused.

The Savile case has shown it’s essential we listen to any child or young person presenting allegations of abuse. For years, no-one did with Savile’s victims, allowing him to continue offending ­unabated.

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If anything positive is to come from this horrific case – and its fallout – it is that those who are or have been sexually abused now know they will be listened to and, moreover, taken seriously. However, in a time when social work caseloads are increasing while resources shrink, we must continue to do all we can to ensure our vulnerable children and young people are protected.

We must use the lessons from Savile and go back to basics, engage with communities and people to make them feel confident (and competent) in their ability to do their bit to protect children.

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Currently some of our child protection processes and procedures don’t encourage everyone to work together to protect children – nor do they sufficiently value relationships or enable communities. This must change if we’re ever to effectively combat the evil of child sexual abuse.

At Children 1st, we believe it’s everybody’s responsibility to protect children, this being at the core of our current See. Hear. Speak. Act on sexual abuse ­campaign.

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We need to open our eyes, listen to children and help them speak up when things are wrong. We need to act if we think a child is in danger and contact the police or social work or our ParentLine Scotland confidential advice service. The lessons of Savile must be used to help us make such an approach an everyday ­reality.

• Anne Houston is chief executive of Children 1st