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My first case came along in 1994 from a former criminal client (I had been a Duty Solicitor then for 12 years) who told me that he was a victim of abuse in a care home called Greystone Heath in Warrington. The police had told him he ought to seek legal advice, but wouldn't tell him why. I soon became the lead solicitor of a group of 300 Claimants at 5 children's homes in the North West.

Thus over the years I must have read the accounts of over 1,000 survivors of emotional, physical and sexual abuse. I quickly realised that although all cases are different, the sort of symptoms my clients suffered from were remarkably similar. This article is written in order to provide those readers who are victims of abuse with the comfort of knowing that there are thousands of other survivors who feel exactly the same.

Lack of Trust

Commonly, my clients suffered poor family backgrounds, including lack of parental love and affection, mental illness, alcoholism and neglect. Thus when admitted to the care home, they were desperate for attention. Often behavioural problems and attention seeking acts resulted. Soon a sympathetic 'father figure' would appear, promising special treatment, protection, support and 'treats' such as sweets, cigarettes or football kit. So starved of affection was the boy or girl that they leapt at the chance of attention from someone they thought they could trust. Soon the spoiling took on a more sinister form and turned into grooming for abuse. By then they were hooked and under the spell.

The child would be told there was nothing wrong with the touching of private parts. It would also become "our little secret". Sometimes the abuse was accompanied by violence in a "Mr Nice, Mr Nasty" psychological game. The child, now hooked on the affection and utterly dependent upon it, would do almost anything they were asked, including giving sex to visiting strangers, other children, and becoming "junior soldiers" in charge of other children. In the large dormitories, these children would often deal out bullying and abuse of other children by passing on what they had been taught by their abusive care workers. The care workers would thus delegate discipline and control to senior former abused children, and have an easier life, particularly at night.

Generally the abusers had a voracious sexual appetite. No relationship with a child lasted very long and it was common for several relationships to be going on at once. Inevitably the abuser would move on. Sometimes the child would be relieved, but on other occasions the child would feel let down, angry and deprived of the affection they had previously enjoyed and craved. This is when the betrayal of trust set in.

The extent to which the victim has insight into how wrong the abuse was depends on the circumstances and previous experiences. A child who has been abused at home from a very young age may not consider it as wrong as someone who has never experienced the like before.

Certain sexual acts with such a young child were physically painful and upsetting. Other less invasive forms of abuse might have actually been enjoyed in all innocence at the time. A feeling of betrayal soon set in when the child realised how wrong and harmful their experiences were. Inner anger soon eats away at the soul. Guilt is felt because the victim thinks they should have stopped the abuse happening. They think they should have reported the abuser to the authorities. Ironically, they often complained but were told that 'all children in care were liars'. When the realisation dawns that the abuser went on to abuse countless other innocent children, the adult survivor feels even worse.

Obviously the innocent child could have done nothing to stop the abuse happening. The intuitive adult, however, through older eyes, is racked with guilt and the thought …"if only I had done more at the time". This guilt turns into inward anger and severe mental illness is usually the result. At the very least the victim tries to anaesthetise with excessive drinking or drugs.

The child can never again place trust in any adult, particularly those in authority, because the first person they put their trust in abused them. Thus they become anti-authoritarian, frequently have arguments with employers, often turning to violence, and are often dismissed. They suffer damage because of their inability to hold down a job, which is something we usually claim as compensation. Because the survivor often spends much of his / her time at Her Majesty's pleasure, such claims are difficult to sustain. The lack of trust in authority often extends to ourselves as professionals, our experts (particularly psychiatrists we instruct), our opponents and their experts.

Undoubtedly the damage is lifelong and enduring, particularly when the abuse takes place during puberty, because at that time the personality is forming. The mistrust and effects of the abuse thus become part of the child's personality. The whole story is very sad. I started to wonder how many of the inmates of our prisons were the victims of abuse in childhood, and how many crimes owe their cause to something that happened many years ago. Survivors often tell no one and take their story to the grave.

* Peter Garsden is a partner in Abney Garsden McDonald, solicitors of Cheadle Hulme, Cheshire.

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