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August-September 2021 | Features

A dark secret hidden behind closed doors

A dark secret hidden behind closed doors

Lady Philippa Dannatt is the Lord Lieutenant of Norfolk and a trained counsellor. Here she describes first-hand the scale of child abuse which is going on behind closed doors.

To her teachers at school, Amy was the troublesome child. She had started promisingly but then her marks in class went into a tail-spin.

Amy dressed dowdy. Her appearance was unkempt. Her attitude was quiet and sullen. She loathed swimming classes and would get into a tantrum with the teachers about getting undressed in front of the other girls.

An estimated 3.1 million adults were victims of sexual abuse before the age of 16

But then Amy had a secret. A dark secret. 

Amy was being raped regularly by her father and had been since she was just eight-years-old. What made it worse was that her mother knew, but was turning a blind eye.

Calmly telling the story about Amy is Lady Philippa Dannatt, the Lord Lieutenant of Norfolk, who is a trained counsellor with the Sue Lambert Trust.


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With centres in Norwich and Great Yarmouth, the charity has been working for more than 20 years supporting the victims of child sexual abuse which, according to the NSPCC, is on the increase – especially after Covid.

Theirs is work dealing with horrendous cases of sexual abuse, which is being replicated in the length and breadth of the British Isles.

“Amy came to me at the Sue Lambert Trust when she was 21,” explained Philippa. “It was hard that her mother was turning a blind eye. Ironically, the mother worked as a carer in a care home.

“Amy couldn’t tell the teachers what was happening but would give every kind of indication that she was being abused. 

“She loathed swimming classes because it meant getting undressed. 

“When it was non-uniform days, she would wear big, black, bulky clothes to hide her figure. She made herself as deliberately unattractive and as deliberately morose as she could in the hope that somebody would ask her what was wrong.

Amy couldn’t tell the teachers what was happening but would give every kind of indication that she was being abused.”

“All the school did was to telephone Amy’s mother to tell her that she was not working. The school got it so wrong.”

Amy left school with few qualifications. It was a few years later, while attending evening class where she formed a good relationship with her teacher, that she unloaded about the abuse.

The police were called, and her father was later sentenced to 25 years in prison. He was jailed not just for the years of sexual assault, but police found worst grade paedophilia on a laptop which Amy said he had forced her to watch with him.

“When Amy came to see me at the Sue Lambert Trust, she was an absolute joy to work with,” reflected Philippa. 

The wife of retired General, Richard Dannatt, the former Chief of the General Staff, Philippa first worked with the counselling service Relate while living in Germany.

 


Fact file:

  • One in five adults experienced at least one form of child abuse – emotional, physical, sexual or witnessing domestic violence – before the age of 16. That’s 8.5 million people.
  • An estimated 3.1 million adults were victims of sexual abuse before the age of 16.
  • Prevalence was higher for females than males.
  • Many cases of child abuse remain hidden. One in three children sexually abused by an adult did not tell anyone.
  • Over 90% of sexually abused children were abused by someone they knew.
  • It is estimated only one in eight victims of sexual abuse come to the attention of statutory authorities.
  • Traumatic life experiences can have a significant impact on people’s lives, increasing the risk of poor physical and mental health, and poorer social, educational and criminal justice outcomes.

Source: National Association for People Abused in Childhood


 

“Amy is very artistic, so we did a lot of expression stuff through poetry and drawings, sometimes quite dark, sometimes funny.

“Counselling is about creating change. When someone comes to you, they are at their lowest ebb, sometimes suicidal, so the only way is up.

“It is about changing, and with Amy she really managed to change and move forward after years of working together.”

Now, Amy is at university after completing an access course. She has changed her life around. “This is a case of a young person who came to me, who has broken all sound barriers, and is just amazing. I am very proud of her,” added Philippa.

“It is a long journey, two to three years. Some people think counselling is just smiling and nodding and saying ‘yes, yes’. But it really isn’t. 

“I am a pro-active counsellor. With Amy, she was so angry at the way the school had not picked up on what she was going through. They should have known, she said.

Counselling is about creating change. When someone comes to you, they are at their lowest ebb, sometimes suicidal, so the only way is up.

“It is said that in every class of 18, there is one child who is being sexually abused. It is very much out there.

“I persuaded Amy to write to the headmaster so she could have a chat with him about this whole business, to advise the school how they could intervene successfully in future. 

“Instead, we took a furious phone call from the headmaster who said ‘how dare this girl come and stir up trouble’. He complained it was nothing to do with him since the incident had happened under a previous regime.

“So I did something I’ve not done before. I wrote to him on Sue Lambert paper, using my name and my title, and said I was very disappointed was their approach.

“It had the desired effect. Amy was invited back and the headmaster was charming to her. 

“He invited all the senior staff into his office who showed her the system they now have in place to identify young people to give them a safe place to be in. This is exactly what Amy needed. 

Over 90% of sexually abused children were abused by someone they knew

“Amy was able to talk to the staff about the kind of things they should be looking for. Things like the young person who doesn’t want to get dressed in their gym kit, someone whose work suddenly goes off the rails, and then ask: why is this happening?

“I think the most telling thing Amy said was ‘please never ring home’. Don’t ring the parents, because the chances are that they could well be the perpetrators. That was something the school learned that day.”

Philippa admitted that she is not easily shocked, but there are times when she is deeply saddened by the depravity. Sadly, the Covid lockdown has provided a fertile ground for these crimes to thrive.

Philippa explained: “Someone once said to me ‘We don’t have that kind of thing happening in Norfolk’. It is hard to believe. There is still an awful amount of denial and disbelief. 

“Child sexual abuse is so deeply shocking. It cuts across every level of society. 

“Regrettably, there will be a need for agencies like Sue Lambert. Awareness is so important and for the victims to be believed. 

“It is awful how many people have no idea that child sex abuse happens, and far less who actually believe it when people try to tell them.

“I would say please keep your ears and eyes open. Please believe people, of whatever age, if they try to tell you something. 

“However horrendous or unlikely the story sounds, please don’t shut them up. Let them tell their story, because it is only when we get these stories out there, that we create an awareness of what is happening.

“I give presentations and tell audiences of stories like Amy. 

“Sometimes it frightens people. But I am also aware that there will be people in a respectable crowd of people, listening to my presentation, who will be abusers themselves, and equally, there could well be someone in that room who has been abused.” 

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