Published: 10:56, 22 November 2019
| Updated: 13:07, 22 November 2019
The suspicions of reception class teachers led to a little girl revealing the tragic reasons behind her concerning behaviour at school.
Here, her mum tells how her world was turned upside down when she learned her daughter was being abused by the man she was supposed to trust most - her own father.
Angela was sat in the car park of a shopping centre when her phone rang, an unknown number flashing up on the screen.
It was social services, saying they were concerned her daughter - then aged seven - was possibly being sexually abused.
They had been alerted by her primary school, where teachers were worried about her “sexualised behaviour”.
But for Angela, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, the thought of her daughter being an abuse victim was incomprehensible.
“I told them ‘that’s ridiculous - I never leave her with anyone’,” she recalls. “I said ‘you’re talking rubbish. I would know. I know my child. There’s absolutely no way that could happen’.”
Angela’s daughter had displayed erratic behaviour since she started school.
Teachers told Angela, who lives in east Kent, how she was caught in the school toilets, asking other girls to look at their private parts.
"I said 'nobody should be asking to look at anybody's private parts'. And she just said 'daddy did..."
She told Ava - whose name has also been changed - that the behaviour was inappropriate, but six months later it happened again.
It was initially put down to childhood curiosity, but when it continued into Year Two the school alerted social services and Angela received that fateful call.
No investigation was launched, but when a few months later Ava was caught in the bathroom with another girl, Angela knew she had to speak with her daughter once more.
That evening they sat down together.
“I said ‘nobody should be asking to look at anybody’s private parts - you shouldn’t be asking and nobody should be asking you’,” Angela remembers.
“And she just said ‘daddy did’.
"She realised she could just get it out and that I believed her..."
“She started crying, and said ‘but I didn’t let him, he made me, I couldn’t stop him’. I was so shell-shocked.
“I said ‘you haven’t done anything wrong, and this isn’t going to happen again’.
“Once she started telling me she couldn’t stop. She realised she could just get it out and that I believed her.”
Angela called the police and a specialist officer was sent round the following day to interview Ava.
Gradually, over the coming weeks, she revealed more about the abuse she had suffered at the hands of her father, who was in an on-off relationship with her mum but lived elsewhere.
Angela was appalled to learn the majority of the abuse took place in her own home.
“In the evenings she’d have a bath then I’d have a bath, and he would sit and watch television with her,” she explained.
“That was generally when the abuse happened, or sometimes when she was in the bath and I was preparing dinner.
“There were a couple of occasions when I did go out and left him with her.
“Her dad would tell her it’s OK, it’s perfectly normal, and not to tell anyone.
“Obviously a child’s not going to understand that that’s not right. Particularly from someone they trust.”
"I now can't bear to see men with children. I hate it. I just think everybody's being abused..."
Angela first met Ava’s dad at a local nightclub and had been in an on-and-off relationship with him for the seven years since.
“He wasn’t a very reliable person, was always in and out of jobs, drank too much, and wasn’t somebody I particularly wanted to be with,” she said.
“Ava was always pleased to see him. I always felt that she loved him and she wanted to see him and was happy when he was coming around.”
Angela says she constantly reflects on those years.
“I think how did I not see that?” she says. “How did I not understand her behaviour? Why did I let him anywhere near us? Why didn’t she tell me?
“I now can’t bear to see men with children. I can’t see a dad cuddling his child, holding hands with a child; I hate it. I just think everybody’s being abused.
“It’s an awful thing to have going around your head all the time.”
A couple of days after Ava told her mum of the abuse, her dad was arrested and released on bail for what would turn out to be six months.
Angela says Ava was so terrified he was going to come and get her, school caretakers had to show the frightened little girl the gates were locked.
“She’s slept in my bed ever since,” said Angela.
"I feel like she's been robbed of a normal childhood. It's not even a childhood - this is going to be her whole life"
“She is still convinced he’s going to break out of prison and get her, or that people he knows will come and get her.”
Ava’s father was charged but denied everything, forcing his daughter to bravely give evidence against him in court.
He was found guilty and handed a lengthy prison sentence.
“When Ava found out, her first words were: ‘is that my fault?’,” Angela recalls.
“She was relieved but felt guilty. In her mind she’d put her father in prison, which is an awful thing for a child to have to think.”
Ava is now 11, and is still profoundly affected by the trauma, which has left her deeply afraid and anxious.
“It’s completely devastated her life,” Angela says. “It’s taken over everything. I don’t know what child she would be now if this hadn’t happened.
“She doesn’t like going out when it’s dark, she’s scared in the house. She will follow me from room to room, won’t go to the toilet on her own, won’t let me go to the toilet on my own.
“She’s not slept in her bed now for years. She used to go to my bed and I’d be able to go up later, but it’s got worse. I actually have to go to bed with her now.
“She literally can’t bear to be apart from me when we’re here.”
Angela says she believes the psychological effects of Ava’s abuse will stay with her for a lifetime.
“I feel like she’s been robbed of a normal childhood,” she says. “It’s not even a childhood - this is going to be her whole life.
“Hopefully as she gets older the trauma will become a smaller and smaller part of her life. But it is never going to go away.
“And that’s horrible. That’s an awful thing to live with.
“I will never know the person she would have been without this.”
Help is at hand
After her father was jailed Ava’s behaviour quickly deteriorated but she was not signposted towards any sources of support.
It was only when her mum began scouring the internet for help that she stumbled across the NSPCC’s Letting the Future In programme.
The organisation soon sent someone out to meet Ava, before inviting her in for a course of weekly sessions.
Each Wednesday, they would drive from east Kent to the nearest NSPCC centre in Gillingham, where they received invaluable support.
“Ava didn’t want to talk about what had happened at all,” Angela explained. “She just wanted to play.
“It was making her deal with feelings she didn’t want to deal with - she’d much rather put them in a box at the back of her head and lock them away.
“But I knew it was really important for her to get help as early on as possible. She still needs support and will for a long time to come. I had sessions as well.
"You see it on the news, in the papers, and you think 'that won't happen to me''
“I haven’t confided in a lot of friends, and I don’t like to worry my parents about it. It’s not something you can chat in the playground to other mums about. I felt really isolated.
“So it was nice to have someone I could sit with and be
completely honest with, and say ‘you know what, things are awful, I’m really struggling with her’.
“You just have to pretend the rest of the time, and Ava must feel exactly the same.
“But to have that one hour a week where we didn’t have to pretend was really helpful.
“In an ideal world, there would be these amazing NSPCC centres in every town, because there will be a lot of parents who aren’t able to take that journey.
“It’s not easily accessible to everybody, and it should be.”
Angela says she feels more parents should be aware of the realities of child abuse.
“You see it on the news, in the papers, and you think ‘that won’t happen to me’. ‘I would know, I know my child, and it’s going to be some dirty old man in the park’.
“That’s rubbish. They’re nearly always a family member - someone you trust.”
"It has devastated Ava's life"
Angela also urges other parents of abuse survivors to try the Letting the Future In programme.
“Just get that help,” she said.
“People always say children are resilient, children bounce back.
“That’s total rubbish - children are sponges and they soak up everything. They can be so easily damaged and need every bit of support you can find them.
“It’s heartbreaking to think there are children who’ve been through what Ava has and nobody helps them afterwards.
"Because it’s the worst thing in the world, and it has devastated Ava’s life, and I wish I could stop it happening ever again.”
Letting the Future In
Reports of sexual abuse have increased by 144% in Kent in the last four years, with 3,257 offences recorded in 2018/19.
The NSPCC’s Letting the Future In programme is aimed at victims aged between four and 17 whose abuse has been investigated by either the police or by social workers.
Over the course of 20 to 30 sessions, children start to come to terms with their emotions. Therapy rooms are filled with dolls houses, sensory toys, puppets, a sandpit, and arts and craft materials, which are all used as tools to get children talking.
The programme is delivered at the NSPCC’s centre in Gillingham, which is the only one in the county.
One of its advanced practitioners said: “They are not asked to talk about the abuse directly, so it’s working on the things that impacted on them.
“Overall, the things that we see are a decrease in anger, anxiety and depression, better sleep patterns, a reduction in self-harming.”
Call the NSPCC helpline on 0808 8005000 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are under 18, call 0800 1111.
More by this authorLydia Chantler-Hicks