I recently joined the Marie Collins Foundation as a Victim and Survivor Advocate. My role involves working alongside those with lived experience of technology-assisted child sexual abuse, to champion and amplify their voice and embed it into policy, practice, and academia.
As a survivor myself part of my position includes speaking about my lived experience at conferences and events. So, when the Lucy Faithfull Foundation reached out to ask if I wanted to give the opening address at the Preventing Child Sexual Abuse Conference organised jointly with NOTA, I felt honoured.
Prior to the conference I had little to no knowledge about prevention methods and believed most prevention work was done through PHSE lessons in schools and charity led awareness campaigns. Joining the conference, I felt intrigued to learn in order to identify any cross over that may help with my role. But I also felt apprehensive about attending as I knew the conference would heavily focus on perpetrators, rather than the voice of survivors.
During my presentation I spoke about the importance of prevention from a survivor’s perspective, referencing my own experience and embedding key messages from MCF’s Lived Experience Group. During my address I quoted one of our Lived Experience Group Members who said, “survivors get a lifelong sentence”. I also emphasised that whilst child sexual abuse can take place over many years it can also happen in as little as a few hours and yet the impact is the same, it fundamentally changes who you are as a person. My hope was for my address to encourage attendees to anchor their thoughts on the children, victims and survivors they work to protect. I wanted attendees to challenge their thinking and reflect on how they could apply learning from the conference to their work and day-to-day life.
My apprehensions about the content of the conference quickly dissipated as I listened to the presentations that followed my own. It was heartening to see each speaker cover a point I had made during my address, which ensured the voice of survivors was visible throughout the day. Some key points which I was particularly happy to see focused on included challenging stereotypes of victims and offenders and highlighting that schools cannot be the only place where conversations about child sexual abuse take place. MCF’s Lived Experience Group told us they want to ‘blow the lid off’ child sexual abuse and the silence that surrounds it. Victims and survivors regularly tell MCF that sexual abuse is still rarely spoken about and that makes it difficult for children to identify abuse or find the words to explain what is happening to them. So it was encouraging to hear practitioners with similar views who were committed to raising awareness and involving wider society in conversations about child sexual abuse.
The impact of child sexual abuse can be profound and devastating and that impact does not stop with the victim or survivor, it can ripple through ‘secondary victims’ such as family, friends and the communities that surround the child. So, it was excellent to see each presentation looking at prevention through a multi-agency public health lens. The presentations were informative and easy to digest and covered a range of different aspects to prevention. I particularly enjoyed learning about the three levels of prevention – primary, secondary and tertiary - and how these would fit into a public health model. I also appreciated the level of detail given so that I could begin to understand the thinking and evidence base which supports compassionate and restorative intervention work.
The conference really challenged my own way of thinking in a positive way. One personal learning point was the realisation that tertiary prevention work is not about justification, excuses or minimising the harm caused to victims, it’s about preventing reoffending and protecting children. I found it encouraging to hear about the success rates of these types of interventions.
The conference definitely inspired people to learn and improve but also celebrated how far prevention work has come in such a short space of time. Seeing people so passionate about their work, recognising the challenges that they face and striving to improve their services gave the conference a real undertone of hope.
As a survivor myself, the concept of prevention rarely crossed my mind. I could lose years of my life thinking about ways my abuse could have been prevented but wasn’t. As many other victims and survivors will know, we often feel blame and accountability for our abuse, and it can make it seem as though it was inevitable. But this conference allowed me to consider how prevention strategies and services work, how they can improve and enabled me to reflect on how we can better evaluate outcomes.
Leaving the conference, I felt passionate about the messaging in primary prevention, and how difficult it is to assess and measure outcomes for this type of intervention. In early prevention work we often see too much responsibility placed on children to ‘keep themselves safe’ particularly online. Through MCF’s direct work with children and their families affected by technology-assisted child sexual abuse, we know this e-safety messaging can silence victims from disclosing as they expect blame and shame. Instead, we must focus on creating an environment where children and young people and adults feel empowered to talk about these issues without threat or fear of victim-blaming.
In addition, we see widespread societal blame on parents, who often do all they can to safeguard their children. I believe actively engaging and listening to those with lived experience, including parents whose children have lived experience, could offer an insight into what primary prevention messages do and don’t work, and more importantly why. The incredible group of brave victims and survivors in MCF’s Lived Experience Group are testament that consultation with lived experience can, and does positively improve services, practice and policy. What we learn through our direct work can feed into prevention work, and MCF values partnership working. We know partnerships and collaboration improves outcomes for children, victims, and survivors and this conference has further cemented the long-standing working relationship with LFF, NOTA and MCF. I am excited to see how we work in partnership in the future.