Information for Professionals Supporting Adults Recovering from Childhood Sexual Abuse

When I started my PhD I wanted my research primarily to be aimed at people who had experienced childhood sexual abuse. This was because so much previous research was created for professionals. However, the data I gathered does have implications for all sorts of professionals; people working in the law, health, social work, community and voluntary sectors. I have created a handout that you can download here.

The main messages are:

1) Be kind. Participants talked about important interactions with professionals that really changed their lives for the better. It is an opportunity for you to positively impact someone’s life.

2) Be trauma and chronic post traumatic stress disorder (cPTSD) aware. Research suggests that up to 85% of adults who experienced childhood sexual abuse suffer from cPTSD. So it makes sense to assume that people have it, rather than that they do not.

3) Be aware of damaging discourses and don’t perpetuate them. People who have been abused are infantalised and viewed as incapable. They can also be affected by stigma, created by theories such as the ‘cycle of abuse.’

4) In many ways recovering is the opposite of being abused. It is about reclaiming rights, voice, choices and bodily autonomy. Employ the abused person’s personal strengths and those in the networks around them to assist in their recovering.

References:

Cunnington, C. (2020) Adults recovering from Childhood Sexual Abuse: A Salutogenic Approach. PhD Thesis. University of Sheffield, Sheffield.

Johnson, D. M., Pike, J. L. and Chard, K. M. (2001) ‘Factors predicting PTSD, depression, and dissociative severity in female treatment-seeking childhood sexual abuse survivors’, Child Abuse and Neglect, 25(1), pp. 179–198.

Herman, J. L. (1992) Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic Books.

Rodriguez, N. et al. (1996) ‘Posttraumatic stress disorder in a clinical sample of adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse’, Child Abuse and Neglect, 20(10), pp. 943–952.

Artwork: The Touch of Comfort by Carmel Couchi. Photo credit: George Eliot Hospital Chapel. Art.uk.

Four Key Questions

Woman thinking.

My research has identified four key questions for people recovering from childhood sexual abuse to consider. Some of the answers will be individual to you and it is vital that you make your own choices. After thinking of your answers to these questions you might feel that you want to take action yourself or you might want to find help and support from others to help you.

It’s not easy and everyone stumbles, but when we put more time into ourselves, and access the help we need, it’s easier to move from more negative ways of coping to more positive ones.

Recovering is a life-long process. We can’t forget, but we can keep trying to live the life we deserve. I hope these ideas help.

1. Am I safe?

Safety is vital for recovering, not just in the therapist’s room but in your life and many participants referred to it. Some told me about negative experiences in adulthood, such as abusive relationships or bullying at work, that had traumatised them further. Being safe is the bedrock of recovering. It is hard to focus on recovering when you don’t feel safe.

2. Am I heard?

Many people reported that, in general, people didn’t want them to talk about what happened to them. Friends and partners who listened without judgement were appreciated so much. A quarter of people who took part said that relationships were the most important factor in recovering.

For professionals, a warm, understanding, caring approach was really valued. Participants talked about important interactions that really changed their lives for the better. Counselling and therapy were valued by three quarters of survey respondents.

3. What do I like to do?

Abuse involves denying the child the right to choose. Recovering works best when the individual makes their own choices. Nearly three quarters found creative activities helped, such as art, reading, writing, gardening, design, poetry and gaming. It does not matter what it is as long as you love it, it is challenging but achievable, absorbing and fun. This creates a mental state called flow. During flow you feel less anxious, more in control and safer. These benefits can carry over into everyday life.

4. How can I improve my relationship with my body?

The body is an important area where recovering is created and expressed. Abuse creates a mental severance between your body and your mind. Recovering involves making friends with your body again. Nearly half of the people who filled in my survey said they found touch and movement helped, such as sport, yoga, massage, walking and dance. These activities bring many benefits, including creating flow, releasing emotions, helping you feel safer because you are stronger and faster.

If you want to read more about my research visit the resources page.

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Image details: Alma-Tadema, Lawrence; Reverie: Far Away Thoughts; Doncaster Museum Service; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/reverie-far-away-thoughts-69130

Read my Research

Painting of a rainbow over a farm house

My thesis has finally been published online. It’s free for anyone to read. You can read it here:

http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/26956/

It doesn’t go into any graphic detail about abuse as it is focused on recovering but it may well be triggering for people with cPTSD. Certainly parts of it were for me but I still think it’s worth writing and, hopefully, reading. It’s written in academic language so I’m working on a two page summary that I’ll post as soon as I can.

I also want to publish a book on it that is jargon free and that’s my next task. Work has been tricky lately as I have my children at home so it’s taking much longer to do anything. I get about an hour’s quiet time a day to do anything that requires thinking so it will take me longer to do.

I was really enjoying teaching undergraduates but it looks like that won’t be available next year as Covid19 has affected the university’s finances. This is a real shame because teaching about inequalities feels like you are contributing, even if only in a small way, to ending them. Hopefully opportunities will pick up again soon.

If you want to ask me anything about the research please use the contact form on the website and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.

*Harold Speed; The Rainbow; Museums Sheffield

Dr Cunnington I presume?

My PhD was awarded today. I feel…vindicated and so proud that I’ve turned the most horrible thing that ever happened to me into one of the best. It means SO much to me. Hopefully, it shows that we are not just victims of circumstance, tossed this way and that by fate, we can have some impact upon the future. I’m not sure yet what I’m going to be doing next but I have a few irons in the fire so we’ll see what works out. Whatever I do I will continue fighting for a better world.

Ethics and Research

In my research I’ve found a surprising number of academics that minimise the harm caused or even defend child abuse. Oh look here’s one where his research reflects his interests….

Peter King

You can read about that here. There are many that argue that research should be approached in a scientific manner, without any bias. Personally I don’t think anyone should be scientifically detached when researching such abuse. You can approach your research in a systematic way but you should have an opinion about it. This is why I think we should be honest about our relationship to our research and consider the ethics of it.

Paedophile websites quote favourable academics. This matters because it enables abusers to minimise the harm they will cause. It is not an intellectual exercise – it’s research with real life consequences. We need more researchers, like me, who are honest about experiencing abuse. I am honest because then you know I have an opinion – it’s a blight on humanity – I wish all academics thought the same.

 

 

Third APPG report: Survivors’ experience of court and applying for compensation

I’m not sure how I missed this – drowning in thesis writing I’d guess – but there was a third APPG report published in October. This included data that I submitted from my research. The APPG recommendations were:

1. All court staff should undergo mandatory training that gives them a basic
knowledge of trauma and its impact on witnesses.

2. The Government should legislate so that witnesses attending a criminal trial under
a court summons or police warning have a statutory right to paid leave and
witnesses without a court summons or police warning have a right to unpaid leave.

3. All survivors of sexual violence and abuse should have an automatic right to
special measures such as video links to give evidence; it should not be at the
judge’s discretion.

4. The Government should urgently make an assessment of the number of
Independent Sexual Violence Advisers (ISVAs), their geographical spread, their
average caseload and the variability in quality of service.

5. The Government should ensure justice is commensurate with the crime by:
• Consulting with survivors of childhood sexual abuse on the appropriate
length of sentences for offenders, taking into consideration the lifelong
impact of abuse
• Extending the Unduly Lenient Scheme to include all child sexual abuse
offences in order that survivors can appeal lenient sentences
• Legislating so that Parole Board always whether offenders seeking
parole have fully disclosed information about their victims

6. Government should publish a revised Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme
without delay and ensure it consults thoroughly with specialist sexual violence and
abuse services (SSVSS) so that the needs of survivors are reflected in the new
Scheme. The Scheme should include measures to:
• Abolish the unspent convictions rule for survivors of child sexual abuse.
• Abolish the time limit for application for compensation for crimes of
sexual violence and abuse.
• Extend the definition of violent crime, and thereby eligibility for the
Scheme, to include non-contact forms of child sexual abuse including
online.
• Recognise children can’t consent to their own sexual abuse.

The last one is so fundamental. You can read the full report here.

World Mental Health Day

For #WorldMentalHealthDay2019 I’d like to see a recognition of how society affects mental health. For example, for people who have experienced trauma stigma and stereotyping can make them feel worse and stop them asking for help. We all need to change.

Plus we need properly funded and appropriate services. This would mean trauma informed treatment where people are asked about their life experiences. Also no one should be left in the position of not being able to afford the treatment they need.

Finally anyone reporting trauma should be tested for PTSD. It’s very common after trauma and as a diagnosis helps people understand why they struggle with life sometimes. It’s definitely helped me.

APPG report on the experience of the Police and Crown Prosecution Service

The second All Party Parliamentary Group Report (APPG) has been published. You can read it here. This one looks at people’s experience of the Police and Crown Prosecution Service. As before I submitted my research evidence to this. The recommendations are:

  • Introduce a victims law with a code of practice, complaints procedure and properly resourced Victims Commissioner
  • Amend the Policing and Crime Act 2017 to create a presumption that suspects under investigation for sexual offences against children and adults only be released from policy custody on bail.
  • A national cross-government strategy on addressing childhood trauma and adverse experiences. This should include training and support for police officers in how to recognise and respond to abuse in a trauma-informed way and in particular how to communicate investigation outcomes sensitively.
  • A national, standardised leaflet for officers to provide survivors with the information they need when they report the crime.
  • Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS)
    should undertake a national thematic review of non-recent ‘child sexual abuse’ which focuses on the experiences of adult survivors.

Thank you to everyone who contributed. I’m currently writing my thesis so I’m a bit quiet online. However, once it is done I’ll be able to feed back what the results were.