Three years ago, I was giving my five-year-old daughter a bath, and she was acting weird. Weird – that’s the only word I can think of to describe how she’d become awkward and closed towards me. It’s something you think only happens to other people. You think. Statistically speaking, there’s officially a one in 10 chance it happened to you as a child. Some say the true figures could be twice that. “Every parent’s nightmare” is the clichéd label…

Aged 5, Milly had recently joined a new school as our conversation unfolded in the bathroom that day. She was behaving strangely when I suggested she wash her “doodah” – our silly name for her vagina. And somehow I just knew. Calmly, I asked, “Has something happened?” She looked downwards, and didn’t reply. I asked again. Still no answer, and still a firm look downwards. “Has someone done something weird?”

I maintained calm outwardly, but inside, my heart was beating so hard I thought I was going to faint. “Did someone touch you?” I asked softly “…and make you feel weird?” At last, she responded. “Yes.” With that small word my head started spinning; it felt like the bottom had fallen out of my world. In fact, as I was to discover over the next couple of years, life would never quite be the same again.

“Who was it?” I asked gently, almost too terrified to hear the answer. As we know, 90 per cent of the time, the abuser is a person known well to the child but I was in no way expecting her answer

Having been a Samaritan volunteer in the past, I knew instinctively she was telling the truth, and that she felt ashamed. I knew to stay calm and not betray my own emotions and risk scaring her into freezing up, unlikely then to give any more details. “Who was it?” I asked gently. I was almost too terrified to hear the answer, expecting to hear the name of a boy or a teacher at her school. As we all know, 90 per cent of the time, the abuser is a person known well to the child…

“Alice’s Daddy,” she whispered. This was no way the answer I was expecting. Alice was the four-year-old daughter of Jane, my best friend since the age of 14. Her partner, John, was now a close friend of ours. “When?” I asked, knowing the answer. “When Alice came for a sleepover.” She was referring to New Year’s Eve almost six months previously. We’d all stayed up really late together that night. Jane’s partner, John, had offered to look after the kids in the morning.

My mind was suddenly crowded with so many thoughts; perhaps there’d been a misunderstanding. What exactly had he done? I phoned Milly’s Dad who was at football. “You need to come home right now,” I insisted. He could tell it was something serious. “What’s happened?” he asked. “John did something to Milly when he stayed at ours,” I told him. I may as well have told him the Beatles had showed up to play a surprise gig in the kitchen. “What are you talking about – don’t be crazy.”

I made the split-second decision to record her covertly with my iPhone, and softly asked her again to tell me exactly what had happened with John on the morning that he babysat her. It’s as though I knew then that no-one would believe it unless they too could hear Milly say what she said

I propped up Milly on the bed and waited for her Dad to come home. I stayed calm and tried not to make a big deal. In case she got freaked out by having told me what had happened, and in case she didn’t ever want to talk about it again, I made the split-second decision to record her covertly with my iPhone, and softly asked her again to tell me exactly what had happened with John on the morning that he babysat her. It’s as though I knew then that no-one would believe it unless they too could hear Milly say what she said, her face so sad and her voice steeped with shame. Yet there was no mistake she was recounting exactly what had happened. It was incredibly clear in her mind still.

She told me matter-of-factly he’d laid her down on the kitchen table, lifted up her nightdress and then she demonstrated how he’d firmly stuck his fingers in her vagina, and opened her up to have a good look. I tried not to throw up. Then said that he’d leant forward and whispered in her ear. “Don’t tell your Mummy.” And so she’d been scared ever since.

When Milly’s father came home, he only needed to look at her for a moment to know what she’d told me had been true. His pupils expanded so that his whole eyes turned black, a look I’ve never seen before or since in anyone; yet he kept the anger contained. Possible options of what to do raced past. Should we confront John? What if he was doing this to his own daughter? Or her friends? After putting Milly down to bed that night, we phoned the NSPCC and talked them through what had happened. It was only when I heard the person on the phone use the word ‘abuse’ that it fully dawned on me what had happened, and it was only then that I collapsed.

It came out that at a wedding a month earlier children had complained about John trying to get them to go into a toilet cubicle with him

To this day I am proud of how we handled things. It’s by no means been resolved, but I’m a silver-lining person, and there have been good things (I have had to stay positive or I would have gone crazy). At the time, in those following days and weeks, we did things by the book. We phoned social services who were beyond useless. Their recommendation was that we contacted the police, which seemed so dramatic. Our main concern was that John had a problem. We were especially concerned for our other friends who’d also stayed over on NYE with their daughter.

In the end, David drove out to see our friends whose child had also been under John’s care that morning and played them the recording of Milly relaying what had happened. As Pierre watched, his face dropped. “Oh my God, it is true.” What the hell did he mean? It came out that at a wedding a month earlier various children had complained about John trying to get them to go into a toilet cubicle with them, and making lewd remarks and motions. Parents had challenged John about it and Pierre had passionately defended him – it was preposterous to think our close friend would do that. Then when it came to asking their own daughter Lucy, yes, she told them, he’d also touched her that morning at our house.

I won’t go into the gory details from here; I will try and keep it brief and clear and tell you what happened next – legally. The police encouraged us to press charges. They fully believed our daughter and the other little girl, Lucy. We weren’t allowed to contact Jane or John in the meantime. In the end, they stopped waiting for us to decide – remember this is my oldest school friend’s partner – and the Crown Prosecution Service was adamant they had a case and had enough evidence to arrest John for sexual assault.

My own coping process involved me being open and vocal about what had happened and what we were going through. But many friends and family didn’t want me talking about it all

The parents from the wedding – people we didn’t even know – were by now ready to press charges; they felt strongly this man was a menace and a danger to children. The police arrested John. I felt sorry for my friend Jane, imagining this happening around her, so I phoned her and told her what had happened to our daughter. I felt compassion for her knowing that her world would never be the same again. That was the last time I spoke to her, more than three years ago.

Within a week I was signing forms at our local police station to confirm that our daughter used the word “doodah” for her vagina. My own coping process involved me being open and vocal about what had happened and what we were going through to many people. It was at a time Operation Yewtree was constantly being talked about in the news; I felt that if people had been more vocal decades ago then so many children could have been protected. But many friends and family didn’t want me talking about it all. They told me in no uncertain terms to pipe down; they criticised me for speaking about it so openly. At the same time an incredible amount of people, when I did tell them what had happened confided in me that, in fact, this had happened to them as a child – brothers, grandfathers, teachers, family friends – but they’d never told anyone, or worse, they had and no-one had – or no-one had wanted to – believe them.

Yes, it went to court. Almost a year later. That was a crazy week. I’d never been in court before. I was shaking uncontrollably having to take the oath about the whole truth. It’s just like how it is on TV – the defence twists your words, trips you up, portrays you to be an unreliable person. (Especially when you’d been up “partying” until 6am.) They tried to imply my daughter had said all of this because of some disagreement over an ice-cream months before on a day out – an event none of us could even recall.

Old school friends still avoid us as they didn’t want to be seen to be taking sides, or worse, their lack of insight or experience means they think our no-longer-innocent children must have made it up

The first time I’d seen John was then, sat behind the glass. He was glaring at me. I can’t believe I’d genuinely, naively thought that when he was arrested he’d admit he had a problem, agree to get help and somehow we could forgive him and all move on. Instead, it tore our lives apart and ruined life-long friendships. Old school friends still avoid us as they didn’t want to be seen to be taking sides, or worse, their lack of insight or experience means they think our no-longer-innocent children must have made it up.

As any mother of a four or five-year-old girl, they wouldn’t even have known how to make up a situation like that let alone recount consistently with the same exact details over the course of a year. One friend of 30 years who’s a headmaster of a posh private school justifies his distancing and lack of support as being concerned his name and his position might have to be referenced in court. What? Why? Of all the people who should want to understand this kind of situation in full surely, it’s a teacher?

I’ll fast forward. The first trial ended with a hung jury. That means if one more person had thought he was guilty he’d have gone straight to jail on that day the verdict was read out. We were disappointed but not surprised – even to get this far had been a triumph according to the police and statistics. Even seeing a charge like this make it as far as court is a victory:  two tiny little girls’ words against an adult with no prior record, especially when the judge and the legal system withheld all the crucial evidence. No-one was allowed to mention the other events at the wedding which would “prove” he had a problem and this claim was nothing personal on our part and they couldn’t show the recording I made of her talking about what happened. To expect 12 strangers to find him guilty “beyond reasonable doubt” is a tall order. We agreed to take part in another trial in three months’ time.

He got off. We still haven’t explained this to Milly. She’s never talked about it. We just insisted throughout she must always tell the truth and for that we were proud of her

This time round it was a different jury and a different judge. John forked out tens of thousands for the same excellent defence lawyer. And again the trial meant our daughter had to go to court and talk about how a man had touched her vagina to a room full of people she didn’t know via a video broadcast. She still can’t even talk about what happened to her to anyone but us as she is so ashamed and embarrassed. It’s not something she wants to remember let alone talk about. For this trial the defence wheeled out numerous character witnesses who had never met us or known our friendship, attesting to what a good guy John was. Just over a year earlier, we’d have done just the same for him.

He got off. We still haven’t explained this to Milly. She’s never talked about it. We just insisted throughout she must always tell the truth and for that we were proud of her. I tried to tell myself that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and no matter, Milly will always know we believed her and that he was a very bad person. As a result, the other family whose children he behaved inappropriately to at the wedding dropped charges as they didn’t want to go through what we had for such a disappointing outcome. My friend stood by her man. I don’t even know if they are still together. That’s how much our tight-knit social circle has been napalmed. I do know he works in London and might be the same guy you just met in the pub who was really funny, and who seems really, well, normal.

What’s the moral of the story? Always have an open and honest relationship with your child. If you sense something “weird” has happened – it might have done. Ensure from a young age that your child knows that no-one, absolutely no-one, is allowed to touch their body or make them feel scared or weird. And anyone telling them “Don’t tell your mum or dad” is code for TELL YOUR MUM OR DAD. I am grateful we found out before it happened again, and Milly will always know that no matter what, we will always believe her and we support her, whatever anyone else does or says.

For further advice contact help@nspcc.org.uk; 0808 800 5000

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