The abuse that went unnoticed

23rd March 2012 at 00:00
Dana Fowley was sexually abused from the age of 5 by a family paedophile ring. Teachers failed to spot the warning signs and she never raised the alarm. She says schools need to recognise young victims and address abuse directly. Sarah Nelson reports

When Dana Fowley wrote How Could She?, she relinquished her anonymity to reveal herself as a childhood victim of the most horrific abuse.

The story of how she had been trapped, for 10 years, in a circle of sexual abuse by her mother and others in a family paedophile ring became a best-seller. Yet the question that went unasked in the resulting media furore was why, throughout all those desperate years, no one detected any sign of her torment or made a move to protect Dana and her sister Heather.

Dana moved primary school four times - a clue, she says, that things were not right at home and that her family had something to hide. But it appears that none of the primaries and secondaries, or the special school Heather attended, ever suspected anything was wrong.

A campaign to prevent teenage rape was launched on 5 March, just as fresh Home Office figures revealed that a third of girls aged 13 to 17 have been the victim of some form of violence from a partner. The government has also recently launched a national plan to tackle child sexual exploitation by paedophile rings and other abusers. Barnardo's, which last year launched the Cut Them Free campaign to stop child sexual exploitation, has issued guidance leaflets for teachers and other professionals. And, of course, many local authorities have protocols and services in place.

Yet the voices of the victims are rarely heard. Dana, now 31, is in a long-term relationship and has two little boys of her own. But she is still battling illness and the physical legacy of childhood brutality - and says a system that waits for children to speak up is condemned to fail most of them.

Now she has offered to go into schools to help young people lose the overwhelming shame, stigma and fear that so effectively silence them. Speaking for the first time about what she sees as an unresolved issue in the education system, she says: "I was very quiet at school. Maybe too quiet. You feel dirty, ashamed, that you must have been part of it because you allowed it happen.

"Teachers need to ask kids who are quiet if there's anything wrong. Parents who keep changing their child's school for no apparent reason should also raise concerns.

"And schools should check why some children keep asking to be excused from PE, as I did. I often had bruises, though my parents tried to keep the marks hidden."

Dana, from north Edinburgh, was raped from the age of 5 by her stepfather, from age 7 by a grandfather, then by other members of the ring. Dana's stepfather's elderly parents subjected her and Heather to hundreds of rapes and sadistic beatings, whippings, choking and throttling.

Once she was covered in bruises from beatings with a poker: she took a note to school saying she had fallen off the school roof while playing on it.

At 10, Dana was blindfolded and raped by a gang of men in a caravan. She later tried to kill herself by slashing her arms.

Extreme suffering

How could such extreme suffering pass unnoticed by adults, especially in a school setting, where children spend so much of their time?

Dana's grandparents died when she was 12, her stepfather three years later. Only then did the assaults end. Years later, in 2007, her mother Caroline Dunsmore was jailed for 12 years for her role in the paedophile ring, a judge roundly condemning her for standing by and allowing her daughters' torture. Two male abusers received long prison terms.

But in 2009, prosecutions against two further men accused of the caravan abuse collapsed when her mother withdrew her evidence. Dana, who used to go and see her mother in prison, no longer visits.

Despite the horror of her domestic life, Dana admits that at school there was little in her behaviour to hint at such dreadful abuse at home. Indeed, she appeared to be a model pupil. "I loved school," she says. "It was a safe place where nobody knew about my home life."

Nor were her parents perceived by the school as a "problem family". "They gave me money for school outings; they 'acted normal'," she says. "They even went to parents' nights.

"But my mum was constantly moving house, all the time. This was strange, unusual. I suspect this was to avoid anyone noticing anything or asking questions."

It is often assumed that secondary school is the best place to encourage exposure of sexual abuse. And, as if to support this, critics of explicit sexual education or discussion about abuse warn of "spoiling young children's innocence" with detailed information at any earlier stage of the education process - despite the fact that research has consistently found that at least 25 per cent of abuse cases begin before the victim is 6.

But Dana is clear that the biggest effort to encourage children to speak out needs to be made in primary school, when the child has fewer barriers to telling.

"If someone like a kind teacher had asked me then, straight out, if this was happening, I might have said yes," she says. "Because in primary you're not so embarrassed and ashamed as when you're, say, 13. And if you had someone coming in to talk to the kids (age-appropriately, of course), who kept giving the message over and over that they weren't to blame if this happened - then maybe, if they left leaflets or pens with phone numbers, the children might feel able to get in touch if it was confidential."

Primary pupils should be told very basic things, like what is "normal" and what is not, Dana says. "It took me a while even to realise this didn't go on in other families. At primary, I didn't know any became my reality.

"I was also threatened to keep quiet by the abusers, told I would be put into care and wouldn't get out - that people would think it was my fault."

Dana has nothing but praise for her Edinburgh secondary school, another "safe haven" where teachers were caring and committed. But the fact that this quiet, shy pupil couldn't even confide in the teachers she trusted most is a powerful message to child-protection systems that waiting and hoping for disclosures is often a lost cause.

"When you get older, you actually become more determined not to say anything," Dana says. "I was determined to keep the truth from nice teachers. I was too embarrassed."

Like many other victims, Dana presumed that, had she told a guidance teacher, they would think her dirty and blame her. Despite being at the school for four years and taking field trips with teachers, when there were opportunities to speak she simply couldn't.

When her stepfather died, teachers comforted her and she pretended to be upset. In fact it was "one of the happiest days of my life".

Some young survivors do confide in a friend. But Dana never did - not even the girl with whom she often stayed and her kindly parents. "I started to develop an act that I would perfect over the years: pretending that I came from a good, loving family," Dana says. "I would rather have had that fairy-tale life than the life I was leading, the life I made up and told my friends about."

Nor did sex education classes present the right opportunity to raise a subject so taboo. "I don't remember the teacher talking about things that were wrong and shouldn't happen," she says. "I just remember being embarrassed about the whole subject. A lot of people were just laughing and carrying on."

A need to listen

Dana's silence echoed that of other young survivors interviewed for the schools booklet See Us - Hear Us! They urged schools to adopt measures such as: putting up stickers and posters in lockers or toilets advertising services that deal with sexual abuse; providing publicity for confidential helplines; offering safe places where children can go to talk to someone; using art or other means of self-expression in schools and youth projects; and teachers asking sensitively but more directly about abuse.

They believe that there should also be confidence-building exercises for teachers and support for any friends in whom abused children might confide. If they are told a dreadful secret, they need to know what to do next.

But most importantly, schools should learn to address abuse directly, throughout the school years, and openly challenge the stigma and shame that young survivors feel so that neither they nor their peers would attach any blame to the victims.

"It would be good if people like me could go into schools and talk about sexual abuse. It needs to be said: 'It's not your shame and you should not be embarrassed'," says Dana.

Many primary and secondary schools already invite organisations in to talk about child safety andor work with at-risk children. Last month, the #163;1 million Prevention and Recovery Programme, backed by London councils and the Metropolitan Police, and run by Barnardo's, evaluated a year-long study in schools across 25 boroughs.

The study found that 96.3 per cent of professionals claimed they had gained knowledge, and more than half the 4,723 children involved said they now had a better understanding of sexual exploitation risks.

But a recent study by the University of Bedfordshire revealed that only a third of Local Safeguarding Children Boards are implementing recent government aims to act against child sexual exploitation. Children as young as 10 are being groomed, sexually exploited and passed around organised networks of older men in the UK. In 2011, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre reported more than 2,000 cases of young people being internally trafficked and exploited sexually.

In Sheffield, Darren Bristow has set up Eyes Open Creative, a newly established community interest company that has developed an educational resource pack. The pack includes lesson plans, group activities and hard-hitting digital media to help young people develop the knowledge and skills they need to make safe and healthy relationship choices.

"The rise in street grooming has prompted much in the way of government guidance. But little is being done on the ground to start actively raising awareness of this problem," Bristow, a father of three, says. "We aim to have this pack in every UK school by the end of the year."

It takes courage for former victims such as Dana to speak about what happened to them in a bid to safeguard others. But perhaps it is time for education authorities to show equal fortitude and accept their offer.

Further reading

How Could She? by Dana Fowley, Arrow Books

Help cut children and young people free from sexual exploitation. Visit

For more information about Eyes Open Creative, email

See Us - Hear Us! Schools working with sexually abused young people, edited by Sarah Nelson, VIP Publication http:bit.lyweXNr7.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today