Independent Appeal: 'He would always want to do sexual things'

A project to teach children about online safety has helped Martha come to terms with the abuse she suffered, says Jonathan Brown

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Chuck said he was 16. Both his parents were dead, he claimed, and he was living in New York with his younger sister.

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For 12-year-old Martha, who was finding it difficult to make friends at home in a quiet Northern commuter town, this exciting teenage boy from a glamorous city offered a sympathetic voice in a lonely adolescent world she was already struggling to make sense of.

But he was flattering to deceive.

The two "met" online in the chat rooms of a popular multi-player questing game and later exchanged instant messages.

"He was really nice to me. He was always complimentary and I started really liking him," explains Martha now aged 14, a bright girl from a high-achieving middle-class family.

They were in touch several times every day and spent literally hundreds of hours together online.

"We talked about everything – what was going on with me. But he didn't like talking about himself much. He asked me to go on the webcam and would then ask me to lift up my top.

After that he would be a bit more demanding," she recalls.

Sitting in the offices of the Street Safe programme in Preston, Lancashire, a project run by the Children's Society – one of three charities in this year's Independent appeal – the impressively articulate teenager suddenly struggles to find the right words.

"There was role playing," she adds hesitantly, looking to her key worker for support.

"He would always want to do sexual stuff. It was always quite aggressive and it was always the same thing.

"If it had been in the real world I would be covered in bruises and bumps. There were a lot of walls involved," she says.

"I was getting quite uncomfortable about it but I didn't want him to leave and I didn't want to say no to him because that would make him go."

Astonishingly, Chuck was not the only paedophile exploiting Martha.

Around the same time 10 others were in touch making similar if less extreme demands either via the computer or mobile phone.

"I didn't know any better. I trusted them," she admits.

But in March 2010 one of the contacts became persistently aggressive, threatening to send webcam screen grabs of Martha to her mother.

She tried to block him but he kept getting back in touch. Eventually she rang the Samaritans who advised her to contact the police.

When the teenager broke the news to her family they were horrified and completely unaware of what had been going on.

"I was crying. I remember mum coming into my room and sitting on my bed and saying she was sorry," says Martha.

The following day detectives came and took away her computers and began the long process of transcribing the thousands of messages.

Police are certain that Chuck was no teenager but most likely a much older man. Nor was he living in New York. The computer he was using was traced although Chuck himself has never been found.

Of the other 10, at least one is believed to have been in Britain, but again no one has been arrested to date. So convincing was Chuck's deception that when police told Martha he was a paedophile, she simply refused to believe them.

Sadly, explains Hazel Lynch of the Children's Society sexual exploitation team, Martha's story is becoming all too common and the internet features in most if not all cases she is called to deal with. And the effect on a child – some as young as nine – can be deeply traumatic. "When we first met, all Martha's friends were online and she didn't really socialise with anyone in the real world. She was very confused, very vulnerable and very mixed up," she explains.

Too often parents do not understand what their children are doing and there can be little or no education on cyber safety in schools.

Yet the threat is all too real.

"You feel much safer when you are in your own home. Your guard is down and you don't feel at all threatened. You make these friendships online and [are] really easy lulled into a false sense of security," says Hazel.

"But these people know exactly what to say and what they are doing and they have had a lot of practice. Some of the blackmail is really sophisticated. An adult would struggle to cope," she adds.

Martha and Hazel have spent more than a year working together each week to come to terms with the abuse she endured. They have been learning about online safety and confidence building. Martha has come to understand that in a real friendship people do not hurt or humiliate each other.

She has also been given strategies to cope with people when she becomes suspicious. More importantly she has built a life away from the internet and now enjoys dance and taking her dog for a walk.

But some wounds might never heal, admits Martha. "I feel extremely embarrassed. I still feel that way – I always will do. It will always be in a place in my head. I just feel I let myself down."

Some of the names have been changed

Charities we are supporting

Save the Children

Save the Children works in 120 countries, including the UK. It saves children's lives, fights for their rights and helps them fulfil their potential. Save the Children's vital work reaches more than 8 million children each year – keeping them alive, getting them into school and protecting them from harm.

www.savethechildren.org.uk

The Children's Society

The Children's Society provides crucial support to vulnerable children in England, including those who have run away from home. Many have experienced neglect, isolation or abuse, and all they want is a safe and happy home. Its project staff provide essential support to desperate children who have nowhere else to turn.

www.childrenssociety.org.uk

Rainbow Trust Children's Charity

Rainbow Trust Children's Charity provides emotional and practical support for families who have a child with a life-threatening or terminal illness. For families living with a child who is going to die, Rainbow Trust is the support they wished they never had to turn to, but would struggle to cope without.

www.rainbowtrust.org.uk

At The Independent, we believe these organisations can make a big difference in many children's lives.

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