Acting Up

* this feature was commissioned by the Independent as a cover story a few years ago, unfortunately got spiked and never published. I used the research for an item on Woman’s Hour instead. 

‘Acting Up’ by Lulu Le Vay‘

18 year-old Alex sits quietly in a pink-walled counselling room at Surrey County Council funded young person’s therapy service A.C.T (Assessment Consultation Therapy) in Dorking. He stares down at his Nike-clad feet which are twitching nervously under a low-standing pine coffee table which bears a plate of biscuits, a pot of earl grey tea and a glass of orange juice which is on the verge of spilling over. At almost 6ft, Alex boasts the frame of a man five years his senior. Clothed in a boyish attire of ripped jeans and blue t-shirt, Alex fits snugly into his chair, his unruly mop of red hair and explosion of acne across his forehead indicating that he is, in fact, still in his teens.

Alex has been coming here once a week for the last two years – his course of therapy having been completed last month. A.C.T, which also has a therapy department based in Woking, is unlike many youth-centric services that exist across the UK, here the six-strong counselling team provide a unique service – through art, play, drama and cognitive-based therapy, they work with children and young people who have sexually offended or have displayed various levels of sexually problematic behaviour.

Alex, who currently lives with his mother, spent several years in care after it was discovered by the local authority that he was being sexually and physically abused by his father, since he was five. He was referred to A.C.T by the police after he was charged, at 15, for the sexual assault of a local council street cleaner. “I was doing my paper round and suddenly I found myself touching a man’s bottom who was clearing rubbish from the street” whispers Alex under his breath as he fidgets in his chair, bottom lip trembling. “I was so confused and scared I just cycled off. He got in his van and cornered me into a hedge down the road – he was so angry.” The man in question reported the incident to the police and Alex was arrested at his home a few hours later. “I dreaded my mum finding out… I thought she would think I was just like my father. I was terrified.” Alex was given a reprimand and referred to A.C.T to ‘sort himself out’.

Alex is no unusual case, since A.C.T was founded in ‘95, over 100 children aged between 3-20 from within the Surrey area have been referred per year, by teachers, parents, social workers, foster carers, health visitors, as well as the police – a continually increasing number which merely skims the surface of a problem that is shrouded in taboo and has, until now, been confined primarily to the adult domain alone. Children and sex – more specifically children displaying sexually problematic and offensive behaviour – exudes an uncomfortable aroma that is unpalatable for both Government bodies and the public sphere alike. One only has to recall the widespread media hysteria surrounding the Jamie Bulger case in 1993. It had been insinuated that ten-year-old perpetrators Robert Thompson and Jon Venables had sexually assaulted 3-year-old Jamie before mutilating his body with bricks and an iron bar. These children were portrayed as vicious animal-like murderers akin to Sadam Hussein, despite the evidence surrounding their own sexual and physical abusive family histories – the media and public eye finding the monster/angel dichotomy of children a far easier concept to digest.

According to studies conducted by A.C.T and Government lobbying body NOTA (National Association for the Treatment of Abusers), young people account for 30% of all sexual offences and up to 50% of sexual abuse perpetrated against children. Statistics that are hard to ignore. The main focus behind the work A.C.T – alongside NOTA and similar organisations G-Map and AIM in Manchester, and the Chilston Project in Kent – is to provide a preventative service that aims to discourage these children from offending into adulthood, working with not only the perpetrators themselves, but their surrounding local network of families, carers, and teachers. “We endeavour to reduce the risk, but we can’t provide certainty” explains A.C.T director Richard Swann. “There is always that possibility that some of the children we are working with will go on to sexually offend in their adulthood, but it’s the approach in the earlier stage which is vital. With children therapy has to be developmental rather than rigid, fixed, as with adult offenders. We work with what that child, and the child’s family, brings into therapy, then hopefully we can give them a new start in life, with a brighter future.”

The therapy A.C.T provides for young sexual offenders is in continual development and is innovative in its field. Based on cognitive, one-on-one adult treatment, which focusses on how thought processes spark actions, the treatment has been stretched, plied and reshaped to provide a more creative and responsive link for children who are unable to communicate on an adult level. Alongside the cognitive-based therapy for family work and older children, such as Alex, the team at A.C.T specialise more in the creative therapies of art, drama and play.

The A.C.T building in Dorking has two rooms specially constructed for this type of work. Both rooms, which are intimately sized of a simplistic design, host a variety of objects which would not look amiss in any school playroom, but which in this context act as the tools of the therapeutic trade. Plastic dinosaurs, miniature people, crayons, paints, pebbles, shells, stones, fantasy figures and animals perch peacefully around the sand tray which dominates the room. A couple of bright red and blue plumped up bean bags sit under the far window, which looks out onto the sleepy local library car park. “Play is primarily a non-verbal form of therapy. Here they can play out stories, create scenes and enactments” explains A.C.T play therapist, David Le Vay “Sandplay is a symbolic form of therapy that activates the unconscious. Younger children can get so anxious they are unable to talk about what has happened to them, and about their own problematic behaviour. By using this form of non-directive therapy it is not about them, but about their play. They can create images of abuse through the symbolic and creative nature of the play therapy process. It provides emotional distance from the real issues, so they feel safe.”

The children directed to A.C.T come from a variety of different backgrounds whose behaviour is the result of a variety of different causes. Many, like Alex, have been sexually abused by a family member, but the notion that the sexually abused become the abuser is not, as has been previously conceived, the common link. Research from sociology-based academic circles in the USA, North America and the UK has shown that children who show signs of sexually problematic behaviour come from a history of physical and violent abuse, either abused themselves or having witnessed violence within the home, as well as children who have suffered trauma due to a messy family break up, such as separation or divorce. At A.C.T, 80% of the referred children are adolescent males from a background of physical abuse, who, according to Swann “engage a sense of power by acting out sexualised behaviour towards others younger and weaker than themselves.”  “Adolescence has always been a recognised time of upheaval in the process of personal development” says Gregory Elliot, associate professor of sociology at Brown University, Providence, Rhodes Island, USA. “Violence can send a message that there are no sanctions against any type of behaviours and no boundaries to protect oneself from others. Teenagers internalise violence and believe it to be their fault, in a similar way that they believe they ‘caused’ a divorce.”

Accountant Simon Davies approached A.C.T after he stumbled upon his 13-year-old son Graham sexually assaulting Sally, his 3 year-old daughter from his second marriage, in his loft two years ago. Graham was five when his father left him and his younger brother to marry the woman he’d been having an affair with. “The arrangement was that the boys would visit us at weekends, which I’d always thought was fine” reflects Simon, sitting in his office in Guildford. “Graham had always been difficult, but throughout the years following the divorce his behaviour got worse, getting into trouble at school, causing his mother hell – usual teenage stuff. I started to notice that he would disappear with Sally, but I never thought anything of it… Then one day it occurred to me something was wrong. The next time he disappeared with her I decided to check up on him. I walked in the room and she was naked from the waist down, as was he. He had an erection and was kissing her and touching her vagina, asking her to ride on top of him.” After dealing with the shock, “everything just closed in around us” – it took Simon a month of solid angst-ridden searching to find a service that could help his family. “It was a nightmare. I started looking through the Yellow Pages, NSPCC, Childline – even spoke to my GP. Although they did their best to help, no-one really knew where to direct me.” Eventually a friend who worked for the Social Services gave Simon the number for A.C.T. “As soon as I put in the call I knew I had come to the right place, the relief was immense. As a family we are now back on track, thanks to their intervention.”

“It saddens me greatly to hear about a parent scrabbling around for help” sighs Jon Brown, Chairman of NOTA. “If we had more resources, NOTA could do more. We need to develop public communication and a public health approach for sexual abuse preventative services. We need more leaflets distributed in a range of outlets such as health clinics and public libraries –  information on local authority websites. But right now, the funding just isn’t there.”

NOTA is a registered charity founded in ‘91. A multi-disciplined organisation boasting 1200 members on an annual subscription basis from a variety of fields – social work, prison service, psychology – who are developing practice within the field of sexual aggression, working with abusers and their families. They are currently lobbying the Department of Health for more funding for the research, treatment, training and public awareness strategies in the area of young people who sexually offend. “The Department of Health is not investing enough money, period“ says Brown. “It’s a huge expense and more funding is remote when stacked up against other public needs, such as hospital beds and heart disease – that’s what always wins out. There are a number of initiatives around the country, such as A.C.T, G-Map and AIM – which the Government should look at – but it will be a long time before we will get to where we ought to be.”

“Before I got help I used to think I might do something like that again” admits Alex, who, having now completed his A-levels, is about to embark on a career with the police. “But now I feel confident that I won’t. Treatment at A.C.T has changed me a lot. There was a lot of anger in me before, but now I feel calmer, more confident – I am a lot more open and I can express my feelings a lot easier. Being able to talk to somebody was a real relief.”

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