A self-help project for mothers of sexually abused children opened in east London yesterday. The group will try to ease the 'personal trauma many women suffer after they discover their child has been abused by a male relative.

Until now their welfare has been overshadowed by concerns for the abused child, said Mary Clear, of NCH Action For Children, the charity responsible for the project. But children stand a better chance of full recovery if their mothers receive support, say NCH counsellors. 'There is no point in counselling an abused 10-year-old for one hour a week if she is going to go home to a mother who is suicidal, depressed or on medication, Ms Clear said.

The scheme, Women Surviving Together, is the first of its kind in London. It has been set up as a five-year project by NCH Action in partnership with the Child Health Department at St Bartholomew's hospital and is run from a health centre in Hackney.

Counsellors will try to build up the confidence and strength of the mother so she can provide better support for her child.

'We have to help them get over this idea that child sex abuse only happens to dirty, poor people without a steady partner, said Ms Clear, who has been running a Hull-based support group for mothers of abused children for more than two years.

'The women are told that it is important for them to talk to the child about their experience. The child must not be brought up thinking they must deny half their life - that it didn't happen. We also help the mother understand why the abuse happened and how to detect it. Otherwise she might enter a relationship with an equally unsuitable partner again.

Guidance is given about practical, as well as emotional decisions: how to find a new home; where to get an independent income. Many must decide whether to go to court - with the risk of the child being put into care.

For some, counselling is almost too painful. But until a mother faces up to the practical and emotional implications of the abuse, her ability to provide a safe, stable home for her child is questionable.

'We've had women coming to us who are suicidal, on tranquillisers, or on the verge of a breakdown. They have seen relationships spanning 10, 20 years just collapse.

'Sometimes the women react in a more aggressive way. They blame their own child for what happened. 'Dad only left because of you' or 'He didn't love me, he only loved you'.

'A natural reaction is to destroy every family photograph. We say to them: 'Think again. Your child might want to see a picture of her father one day. She might want to be reminded that there were happy times too.'

Ms Clear has seen 40 to 50 women pass through her project. Most start with one-to-one sessions and move on to group sessions when appropriate. Many volunteer to act as counsellors once they feel 'together enough. It is hoped that the project in Hackney will be staffed by volunteers eventually.

Success, she says, is when the mother is confident enough to create a safe, open atmosphere at home. Success, too, is when the child feels that therapy is no longer necessary, or when the child feels confident enough to go to school knowing that the mother will not suddenly disappear, break down, or be taken away.

The children get together at the project as well as the mothers, Ms Clear said.

They learn to speak the same language ('vagina rather than 'bunny or 'mary) and are taught that it is perfectly acceptable to speak about sex freely and openly. It reassures them when they see lots of normal, happy children and know that they share a common experience.

It also gives mothers an excuse to bring up the subject: 'I heard about

another girl who felt like X when she was abused, she might say to her child. 'Did you feel like that too?

'MUM. . . DAD MADE ME HAVE SEX'

Liz, 32, works part-time as a controller at a cab office in Hackney. Last year her husband was sentenced to six years in jail for raping their daughter.

She has been having one-to-one counselling with a project leader since February and will be among the first 10 women to undergo group therapy with NCH Action For Children at the end of this month.

'We'd been married 13 years. One night he dropped me off home. He was going to come back later. I went upstairs to check on my daughter. I found a note by her bedside. It said: 'Mum I love you. Dad made me have sex. PS: I love my brothers too.' I was angry. My daughter knows she shouldn't use the word sex.

'I woke her up. I wanted to know what she was playing at. She denied she had written it. But I recognised her handwriting. 'If Dad has done something to you, tell me. I won't let him come back to the house,' I said.

'So she did. He'd raped her twice - once on her 13th birthday. He had touched her, too, and forced her to perform oral sex. I called the police. We both hugged each other and cried.

'The police came quickly. They arrested my husband within an hour.

'For a long time I felt like I was dreaming. My husband had been a womaniser. I knew he slept with prostitutes. But I loved him a lot. I put up with it. But when I found out about this it was the end. I'm a grown woman. I can look after

myself. She wasn't.

'I couldn't excuse what he'd done. I felt so lonely. It was as if he had died. I couldn't do anything. I was torn up inside.

'For the first three weeks I wouldn't leave my daughter for a moment. But after that first night she wouldn't talk to me. She wanted to pretend it had never happened.

'I was short tempered with everybody - shouting at the children, taking it out on them. 'Come on]' I told her. 'You must talk] You don't want to end up like Gwen (an adult friend who had been abused as a child). You don't want to end up not trusting people.'

'But she wouldn't. Not to me. Not to the social worker. She kept herself to herself and went back to school. But she'd changed - bunking school, bad attitude, talking down to me.

'I tried to say 'it wasn't your fault'. She wouldn't listen.

'I was seeing a social worker at the time. It wasn't helping. Then he suggested I went to see Siobhan (a project leader at NCH Action for Children). She was brilliant.

'At first I could hardly talk. I had so much anger. She just sat and waited. After a bit I could talk. It came out. Now she comes round to see me. She knows my kids.

'My daughter has always said she doesn't want help. But Siobhan has won her round. This new group will have other children who have been abused there. 'You'll have something in common,' I told my daughter. 'You can sit together.'

'A year later she finally said, 'Okay - I'll go'.

Names have been changed

(Photograph omitted)

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