Testaments of childhood tell of shame and despair

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The protracted nature of much child abuse, with some children enduring years of torment, is revealed by an extensive collection of victims' letters published today.

The National Commission of Inquiry into the Prevention of Child Abuse received letters from more than 1,100 people describing what they had suffered, what helped or hindered them from telling anyone and how they feel abuse could be prevented.

Since the commission was set up in 1994 it has heard from 1,121 victims, nearly nine out of 10 of whom are female. For the majority their abuse started before they turned 11; for some, it lasted 18 years.

More than 60 per cent of writers said they had experienced abuse from members of their family, mostly from fathers. Common contributing factors were relationship problems, parents' ill-health, fear, blackmail and alcohol misuse in the abuser.

One writer said: "My stepfather used blackmail to make me touch him intimately ... He had caught me using money my mother had given me for the toilets on the seafront one evening to play the slot machines, so of course he told me he would shop me to my mother. Unfortunately it seems I was more terrified of looking a thief to my mother than being felt up by my stepfather."

Many were pushed into leaving home, getting married or becoming homeless. Only one in four said that the abuse had stopped because they had told someone.

"I was so distressed on one particular incident I was crying," said one writer. "He was attempting to dress me before my mother came, only this time he had no chance to unlock the door. He was at last caught. My mother's frantic yelling and blasphemy still rings in my ears."

The commission is calling for a national body for adult survivors to be set up to provide support and a 24-hour telephone helpline. Otherwise the experience of one writer may remain common: "I never got any help because no one knows. One day, I wonder, will it ever come out? Why do I feel so bad, like it was my fault?"

This year, The Independent's Victims of Abuse Christmas appeal is in support of work by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, including its helpline, giving direct support to victims, and projects to help prevent future abuse.

Britain's leading charity in the field, it runs more than 120 projects, offering counselling and therapy to abused children as well as carrying out its own investigations.The charity relies on public donations for 85 per cent of its income and we would like you to contribute.

Your money will go to help projects such as the NSPCC's freephone helpline which takes on average 1,200 calls a week, the London Investigation Team, which works with police and social services to investigate paedophiles, and the Kaleidoscope project in Newcastle, which treats children who have abused other children.

n `Childhood Matters' Volume 2 is available from the Stationery Office, price pounds 35.