Campaigner Rachel* talks to Children First editor Clare Jerrom about her experience of Child Sexual Exploitation and why she is campaigning to prevent other young people experiencing abuse.
*We are not publishing Rachel’s surname to protect her identity and that of her children.
“One night I was drinking in the flat surrounded by a group of older people, some were taking drugs including heroin, some drinking. My drink was spiked and I blacked out. I woke up naked and there was a family friend lying next to me. I was disgusted, I went home and got a razor blade and cut my arms, my legs, my chest and stomach to try and get the feeling of dirtiness away. A few days later, I walked in from school and the family friend who raped me sat at my mum’s kitchen table having a cup of tea. He looked at me as if to say ‘I can ruin your life just like that’. It was a threat. I felt a panic attack washing over me and ran upstairs where I continued to self-harm.”
Everyone thinks that there is a stereotypical version of a paedophile – a dirty old man, wearing a mac, living alone in a seedy flat preying on children – says campaigner Rachel, although she says the truth is nothing of the sort. Sex abusers may be very well turned out, with money, a nice car, a job. “Girls think it’s cool to have a 19-year-old boyfriend when they are 13. I talk to them and explain, it’s not cool, that 19-year-old wanting to have sex with a 13-year-old is a sex offender,” says Rachel, who is now 34. Sadly, she knows only too well having been abused and in abusive relationships since she was 13-years-old.
Rachel’s transition from primary school to comprehensive school was difficult. She lost her grandfather to cancer and taking time off to grieve she missed out on the beginning of school and by the time she started, friendship groups had been formed. “I became a loner, I was bullied for quite a while and ended up taking overdoses,” she says.
‘Three people laid in the bathroom with needles hanging out of them’
At 13, one of the popular boys who was 16-years-old became interested in her and it meant Rachel started to gain friends through her relationship. However, he soon became controlling. When he left school, he would walk Rachel to and from school so he was with her at all times and it cut her off from the friends she had made. She felt pressurised into having sex with him and he wanted to start trying for a baby even though she was just 13 herself. Six or seven months into the relationship, they went to a party and Rachel’s boyfriend hit her, knocking her to the floor where he then stamped on her.
“An older guy who was 19 chased him off and he became my hero,” she explains. Rachel began dating the 19-year-old and would meet him at a flat where there was a group of people aged between 19 and 30 ish hanging out. Some were taking drugs – she walked into the bathroom and found three people laid in there with needles hanging out of their arms while they were out of it – one of whom was her boyfriend. The heroin interfered in her relationship which soon fizzled out but she kept going to the flat and it was there that her drinks were spiked one evening and she woke up naked. Rachel began taking amphetamines to try and block out the misery of what happened, she was smoking and was very angry. She was raped for a second time at the flats.
“I was vile. I was a bitch and my teacher once said to me ‘you’ll be on Trisha with six different children by six different fathers,’ which completely confirmed my self-worth. I thought my teacher was right, that will be me. For a year I was going to the flats and drinking and taking drugs. The police would come, we’d hide in cupboards and they wouldn’t bother searching the place,” she explains.
He punched me in the face and knocked me to the floor
Up until that point, Rachel’s family had been naïve, unaware of who she was spending time with and where. However, living in a small village near Rotherham, it was only a matter of time until it got back to her dad that she was spending time with people older than her. He was completely unhappy about the situation and for a time, Rachel went back to hanging around with people her own age and even got a boyfriend her own age. She had always been a tomboy, particularly since she was bullied when she started comprehensive school, and she enjoyed playing football, however, her boyfriend was unhappy about her spending time with other boys and turned violent.
It was Christmas 1999, they had been out to their local pub and were walking home. He took her shoes from her and smashed her new mobile phone then beat her up in a bus stop. Rachel was due home at 10pm but it was fast approaching midnight and her mother who was worried, asked a neighbour to drive round to see if there was any sign of Rachel. They saw the beating and took her to safety.
“He had been lovely at first – he was popular and I was an angry bitch – but it soon changed. I’d endured a year of violence by this point but I’d always hidden it from my mum as I was ashamed. The police came out but they couldn’t do anything because at age 16 he was considered a minor so they could not treat it as domestic violence,” explains Rachel.
Rachel knew an older boy who her boyfriend was scared of and soon got with him for protection. However, he turned out to be the biggest abuser of all her relationships. She is quick to point out that all the perpetrators of violence and sexual coercion she has known are White in contrast to the stereotype that most men involved in these crimes are always from non-White backgrounds.
After getting into the new relationship, she fell pregnant fairly quickly. Again, her partner was very controlling and Rachel was not allowed to talk to boys but there was no violence until five days before her due date with her baby. It was Christmas and there was a party. A boy said she looked well as she was heavily pregnant and her partner was so angry he shoved a burger into her face, marked her arms and smashed a window. The next day, he was contrite and apologetic, saying it would never happen again, a pattern she knew only too well.
‘My children hid in a wardrobe while he beat and raped me’
However, her boyfriend soon started hanging around with a different set of friends and he ended up drinking, taking drugs and even dealing cocaine. Rachel tried to get away but soon found she was pregnant again. One evening after going out for a meal with her friend, she was dropped off by a taxi and some firemen on the street whistled at her. Her boyfriend saw what had happened and when she got in, he punched her in the face and knocked her to the floor and stamped on her which caused tissue damage which she still has to this day. He abused her for the next hour until a neighbour came round to intervene.
Rachel knew she had to break away and tried, spending more time with her mum. Her mother tragically died and she was so determined for her father not to be ashamed of her that she hid the violence from him. “The beatings came bad. He tried forcing me to drink bleach and tried to ruin a jumper of my mum’s that I’d kept to remind me of her. By that point I couldn’t go on. I called my dad and told him. He was in the fortunate position to buy me a house in the area to prevent my children having to move school if I’d gone in a hostel. But the house was near my ex’s local pub and so he would go to the pub, drink and then break into my house and rape me. My five year old daughter used to take my 18 month old son into a wardrobe to hide while he beat and raped me.”
Rachel turned to drink and drugs herself to try and blank out the misery. She was no longer in a relationship with her ex but he would turn up at the house of break in and insist she was hiding a mobile phone in her vagina and would strip search her.
“One night he smashed my face with a can of beer until I was unconscious. My face swelled up and he kept me locked in the bathroom all night and most of the next day. It was only when he went to the shop that I ran out of the house and then collapsed. Someone took me to hospital where they did an MRI scan to see if he had fractured my skull,” she explains.
‘Daddy is going to kill mummy’
Yet throughout this ongoing cycle of violence, drink and drugs, which she describes as ‘completely chaotic,’ Rachel had very little involvement with any services. Police were involved but only referred to social workers once. They visited the house and spoke to the children, asking them if they were happy. They said they were happy and loved mummy. She never heard from them again. The safeguarding officer at the children’s school lived four houses away from Rachel and must have seen/heard the violence yet never intervened. She was sending the children to school in scruffy clothes when they made it to school. Because of her drinking and taking drugs often she wouldn’t get the children to school and she’d be hauled in for meetings which she would turn up to with black eyes yet no one offered help.
The police were involved and although her ex had been to prison for a couple of short sentences, when she suspected he was going to receive a longer sentence for mortgage fraud she disclosed the rape to police officers. Rachel claims the police officer dismissed the allegations saying ‘well we have the pictures of the black eyes so that should do for now’.
She tried hanging herself, over-dosing, throwing herself in front of vehicles to try and kill herself but she only saw a mental health professional once.
“The beatings and abuse were daily. My dad knew what was happening but I lied to cover it up saying I had fallen over or got caught up in a fight,” says Rachel. At one point her ex was saying he wanted to smash her head through a window and her daughter was shouting ‘daddy is going to kill mummy’. Someone called the police and her ex ran away but shortly afterwards he was convicted for mortgage fraud and sentenced to 9 months having fraudulently obtained £186,000.
'I always thought it was normal'
At that point Rachel was still drinking, taking drugs and self-harming and took herself away for two weeks to break contact with everyone, focus on the children and sort herself out. “If services had intervened earlier and supported me to get help, maybe my children would not be suffering panic attacks and flashbacks now,” says Rachel. Her daughter is 16 now and has flashbacks about things she can remember and things she saw ad she can’t understand why it all happened. She is also receiving counselling.
“I still have to go to bed with her now. I should have got out sooner – but I couldn’t see a way out.
Rachel is now in a relationship with a supportive partner and they are getting married this Spring. He has been very supportive of the flashbacks Rachel has to when she was raped and beaten.
When Professor Alexis Jay’s report into Child Sexual Exploitation was published in August 2014 and revealed that 1,400 children had suffered Child Sexual Exploitation, it was a huge awakening for Rachel. She had always thought the way she was treated was ‘the norm’ but then the report confirmed that it wasn’t ‘normal’ and was abuse. It also highlighted the extent to which it was happening in Rotherham alone. Rachel explains that everyone’s experience of CSE is different.
‘I am so pleased Coronation Street is covering a grooming storyline’
For example, some young people are groomed either online or in reality, either for sex or crime. Often vulnerable young people are preyed on such as children in care.
The new government definition of CSE is as follows:
Child sexual exploitation is a form of child sexual abuse. It occurs where an individual or group takes advantage of an imbalance of power to coerce, manipulate or deceive a child or young person under the age of 18 into sexual activity (a) in exchange for something the victim needs or wants, and/or (b) for the financial advantage or increased status of the perpetrator or facilitator. The victim may have been sexually exploited even if the sexual activity appears consensual. Child sexual exploitation does not always involve physical contact; it can also occur through the use of technology.
“I thought it was normal and it happened to everyone and they just kept it a secret,” says Rachel. “In the area, the police didn’t do anything, nobody thought it was abuse for 13 year old girls to be with 19 year old boys.”
Rachel and other survivors of Child Sexual Exploitation have formed the Rotherham Steering Group to campaign about the issue, raise awareness, call for better education and try and protect vulnerable young girls from CSE.
“The police come to us as a steering group and ask our opinions on a case. We can spot if it is CSE a mile off, we can see when girls are hanging around in hot spots or at high risk,” explains Rachel. “South Yorkshire Police have a lot of work to do but we are working with them closely and we’ve got a lot planned over the next few months,” she added.
There is a real need for education and better awareness in the area. After the extent of CSE in Rotherham came to the fore, the school that Rachel’s son attends asked parents to come in to learn about CSE. One out of 100 parents attended. “I am so pleased that Coronation Street are currently running the storyline about grooming,” says Rachel, hoping the story will help to educate parents.
‘Having a boyfriend aged 19 when you are 13 is not cool, it’s sex abuse’
Rotherham Steering Group are campaigning for:
- Better education in schools
- Improved safety for young people
- Heightened awareness about CSE
- A change in attitude from services
The government recently announced that SRE would be taught in all secondary schools and PSHE would be taught in all primary schools and this is something Rachel welcomes. “There was some reaction to the announcement but we are not talking about teaching a four year old how to have sex, but we do want to see them taught about a safe and healthy relationship. The earlier they can recognise if something is amiss at home, the better.”
Rachel also wants to see secondary school children hear from a survivor’s perspective and has been doing some work along these lines. “You sit a group of teenagers in front of a teacher to talk about sex and they take the mickey and mess about. I went into a school and spoke from my perspective and you could hear a pin drop. I told the girls who thought it was cool to have a 19-year-old boyfriend – no it’s not, he’s a paedophile.”
Another member of the steering group Jessica carried out some work with some foster carers in Rotherham. She asked the foster carers to draw a picture of a parent of a child who had been sexually exploited and a child who had been sexually exploited. The foster carers drew the parent in a dirty house with cans all around the house and needles hanging out of the parents’ arms. The children were walking round in bra tops and short skirts. “That child is me,” said Jessica.
‘I tried to kill myself so my children didn’t have to experience it anymore’
As well as public speaking, the steering group have been working with authorities in Rotherham so that every taxi has to have CCTV and audio in order to get a license in Rotherham in a bid to improve safety for young people. This is something the steering group would like to see mandatory across the UK.
They also want to see the government cuts to funding for police and social services stopped immediately because as Rachel explains “the only people who will be at a disadvantage because of the cuts are the children who are victims of these crimes”.
Rachel also wants to see better multi-agency working and improved attitudes from services. “I was angry and I was a bitch – that is one thing I always say to services, treat victim as victims, look at why these kids are angry.”
“But services weren’t there for me then, police only referred it to social services once. Maybe if they had come out sooner, the abuse wouldn’t have gone on as long,” she says.
“I failed my children massively. That is why I tried killing myself with overdoses, hanging myself, jumping in front of vehicles – I thought if I wasn’t here my children wouldn’t have to see it all. My ex knew that, after he had attacked me he took my phone off me so I couldn’t call an ambulance and said ‘Die you bitch’,” says Rachel.
She concludes: “I always say to social workers keep going, build a relationship with that victim, if they are angry or quiet, keep going as they are like that for a reason. Treat them as a victim, not a criminal. Just imagine it’s your child.”