Dial A for abuse

NS January 15th, 2009

I just had a call from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), a charity I donate to each month. They were informing donors that they’d merged with another charity, ChildLine, in an effort to provide more funds for abuse hotlines. At the moment they can only answer about half of the thousands of calls that children make each day. As the fundraiser on the phone pointed out, an abused child will often only have the opportunity or courage to call ChildLine once. If they don’t get through, will they try again? Will they know that someone out there does care what happens to them? Before she could even finish asking me to increase my donation, the words “Absolutely, yes” were spilling out of my mouth and, to my surprise, tears springing to my eyes. A memory from the darkest corners of my mind emerged suddenly, the details of which were suddenly fresh and vibrant.

Me, age 11, gripping a white phone in a purple room, whispering down the receiver while watching for the shadows of footsteps outside the door. Nervous fingers attached to sweaty palms picked at the frayed ends of a worn rug. Three pairs of expectant eyes looked at me with astonishment, relief and fear. I turned away from them, threading the spiral cord between my knuckles, and swallowed against the lump of uncertainty in my throat. After I finished telling their story to the stranger on the other end of the line, I realised that I had been holding my breath and breathing too quickly all at once, my heart racing yet steady. Adrenaline coursed through my veins and formed a knot in my stomach. I listened the advice I was given, nodded, and gently returned the phone to its cradle. I turned and faced the six eyes again, the eyes of my sixth grade best friends, who had joined hands in silent camraderie.

“They said we should tell a trusted adult,” I said in a low voice. “Who do you think that should be?” At their insistence, that person was to be my mother and the person breaking the news to her would be me.

The next day, I headed home from the surreal sleepover to make my confession. With a heavier heart and conscience than any 11-year-old should have, I found my mother in her bedroom and told her we needed to talk. She was folding laundry and busily tidying the room but said ‘sure’ and glanced at me but carried on with her chores, obviously thinking that by talk I meant ask a fleeting question or beg for something I know I shouldn’t or couldn’t have. I told her that she needed to stop and sit down because it was serious, or words to that effect. When she saw the look on my face she stopped in her tracks, her mother’s intuition on high alert, and asked what was wrong. She dropped heavily onto the bed, mid-fold, looking very concerned, and there, amongst the piles of clothes, it all came spilling out — how the sleepover had gone from popcorn and games and pop stars to shared secrets to admissions of abuse by my friends that horrified me down to my core. Admissions of molestation and rape, perpetrated by the stepfather of the friend whose house we were at. He had been molesting and raping her for years in that bedroom and now had moved onto her friends. My two best friends. They’d all been threatened into silence and felt they had no one to turn to. For some reason, they told me that night.

Weeks later, after the dust of arrests, police interviews, child therapists and doctors had settled, I asked them why they’d chosen me. They told me they thought I’d know what to do, how they could get someone to make it stop. They said I was the only person they knew of who’d been through something scary, something very adult, before. The long illness and subsequent death of my sister two years before that had made me stronger, certainly, but strong enough to turn in a criminal? I’m still astouned to this day that they trusted me with something so huge, so life-altering. I’m just glad that they allowed me to help them, and that there are people and organisations like ChildLine out there, on the other end of the phone line, ready to do whatever it takes to end children’s suffering at the hands of monsters.

If you’d like to make a donation to the NSPCC to help them take more calls from abused children, click here. If you’re not in the UK, consider making a contribution to a children’s charity that provides a similar service. It really can make a difference.

17 Responses to “Dial A for abuse”

  1. Ruth Moss says:

    Oh, you’ve just brought a tear to my eye. When I start my new job, I will set up a standing order.

  2. Anji says:

    Wow. Teary-eyed here too. That was very moving. I’m glad your friends had you. I’m glad you were able to make that call.

  3. bluestreak says:

    Thanks for sharing this.

  4. jen says:

    such an important service.

  5. Lyn says:

    I was very proud of you for speaking up for your friends that day in spite of what was to follow. Though it caused the breakup of a marriage and prison for the stepdad, it was the right thing to do. I remember that the reason your friend didn’t want to tell was because she was afraid her dad would kill her stepdad and go to jail. All parents should discuss this issue with their children and let them know that they must come to them, or someone they trust, in spite of the threats from the perpetrator or fear of parents’ reactions.

  6. the bad aunt says:

    Thankfully you had the courage to make the call, and had a mother who listened to you.
    Parents – listen to your children and watch for subtle signs-because it can be happening right under your own roof. And ALL family members and friends should also keep their ears and eyes open for this and other types of problems that kids may be going through. Just last week, a little girl caught her PJs on fire from a space heater. The father couldn’t read or write, the mother I do not know her problem was, -But 4 other family members remained silent in this incident-leary to say anything. The parents tried to treat the girls burns with OTC burn ointment.
    She was so burned and got so infected, that now she may lose her limbs. Speak up, ask questions, get involved. Someone’s life will depend on it.

  7. Simon says:

    The power of friendship.

    Many of ChildLine’s callers originate from discussions with friends.

    What is it about us wrinklies that makes it difficult for young people to approach us?

  8. Amy says:

    Wow…amazing story and beautifully told. An incredibly important service for people like you and other children who need help when they don’t know who else to turn to since so many adults are letting them down in horrific ways.

  9. Charlotte says:

    What an immensely brave 11-year-old you were. You are right of course, these amazing services do need our support.

  10. Tabitha says:

    I’m speechless with awe.

  11. Erin says:

    Congrats on being so strong to make that call and tell your mom. I hope your friends were able to move on with their lives.

    I personally don’t support the NSPCC, but donating to an organization to help abused children is commendable.

  12. I was totally verklempt after reading that, particularly as you know what’s been going on with our friend recently. Amazing response from the 11-year-old you in an incredibly difficult situation.

  13. NS says:

    Thanks everyone. I’m just glad that my friends trusted me enough that night to let me help them. It’s hit me in a different way, though, now that I’m a mother myself. I can’t imagine what I’d do it that happened to my child. It’s good to know that there are organisations out there promoting children’s rights and safety.

  14. [...] Dial A for abuse – “Me, age 11, gripping a white phone in a purple room … Three pairs of expectant eyes looked at me with astonishment, relief and fear. I turned away from them, threading the spiral cord between my knuckles, and swallowed against the lump of uncertainty in my throat. After I finished telling their story to the stranger on the other end of the line, I realised that I had been holding my breath and breathing too quickly all at once, my heart racing yet steady. Adrenaline coursed through my veins and formed a knot in my stomach. I listened the advice I was given, nodded, and gently returned the phone to its cradle. I turned and faced the six eyes again, the eyes of my sixth grade best friends, who had joined hands in silent camraderie.“They said we should tell a trusted adult,” I said in a low voice. “Who do you think that should be?” At their insistence, that person was to be my mother and the person breaking the news to her would be me.” [...]

  15. [...] in place (or at least try) to protect vulnerable, abused or neglected children, as evidenced in my previous post and if a child is being hurt or neglected in some way then that absolutely must stop and if the law [...]

  16. Julie says:

    I found your story really interesting to read. It would be great to have a chat with you. My email address is julie.pengelly@nspcc.org.uk