Susan [not her real name] is one of hundreds of people that the NSPCC Therapeutic Centre for the Child at Warrington, Cheshire, has helped by using art therapy. As well as victims of sexual abuse, they have also reached out to those affected by the IRA bomb in Warrington in March 1993 and the bereaved.
Since May 1993, the project has treated more than 300 people, of whom around 15 per cent have been adults. Over a period of three to six months, it has been "highly effective" for nearly eight out of 10 people. The children, between the ages of eight and 14, attend six sessions, after which there is a review.
Using art has been seen as a powerful way to help such young children. "Children are often abused in the pre-verbal stage," said Jim Walters, the co-ordinator. "Nearly all survivors of sexual abuse are abused before the age of eight - prior to the development of logical thinking and rationality, so image-making is very important for them."
Susan was abused from an early age by a close relative and was gang-raped at the age of 14. When she first came to the project years later, she was "a quivering wreck".
"She had been blaming herself for the abuse and turning to self-harm," said Betty Edwards, a team member.
Susan's paintings show her feelings about this - one showing the bluebell wood where she was repeat- edly raped, the other her bedroom where she would lie and gaze at the stars and birds in the tree while the abuse went on. "They represented a means of escape," said Mr Walters. "It was a way of disassociating herself from what was going on."
But by letting go of her feelings through art, Susan changed dramati- cally. "By finishing a piece of work they can let go of their victimisation," said Mr Walters. "It is an empowering aspect of the art. It shows the possibility of telling their story."
It is not just victims of sexual abuse who are helped. It has also worked with bereaved children and was used after the Warrington bomb which left Tim Parry and Johnathan Ball dead. Children who were close to the families felt terrific grief.
"One child hadn't gone into town that day and someone he knew was seriously injured. He felt that `it should have been me', said Mr Walters. "We had to work with image-making as part of the process, to allow him to let go of the shame."
As well as individual therapy, the project also runs three-day intensive courses for groups, where various exercises are undertaken. In one case, survivors are asked to visualise a room with their name on and draw what is inside. The group - usually seven or eight people - will then explain the drawings, often a very emotional experience. "It is like coming out of hiding" said Mr Walters. "Art is a great mediator."
David Alton, Liberal Democrat MP for Mossley Hill, Liverpool, yesterday called for a national inquiry into abuse in children's homes after police in Merseyside launched a third big inquiry into abuse. It follows inquiries by officials in Cheshire and North Wales. All relate to allegations of abuse in the Seventies and Eighties. Mr Alton will chair a meeting between MPs and the families of abused children next week.