How could such extreme suffering pass unnoticed?

20th January 2012 at 00:00
Child abuse victim Dana Fowley talks for the first time about what schools need to do to recognise young victims of sexual and physical violence, and alert others to protect them

When Dana Fowley waived anonymity in 2009 to become Scotland's most- publicised victim of a decade of horrific violence and sexual assaults - by her relatives, her mother and others in an Edinburgh paedophile ring - public and media interest was huge. Publishers scrambled for her life story, now a bestseller, How Could She?. Yet nobody asked in print why, throughout all those years, no one had noticed, protected or rescued her and her sister. Not even at any school they attended: the primaries, the secondary, or her sister Heather's special school.

The UK government launched a national plan in November to tackle child sexual exploitation by rings and other abusers, and Barnardo's Scotland - which has issued guidance leaflets for teachers and other professionals - is calling on the Scottish government to implement its promise to research the full scale of the problem, and to ensure local authorities have protocols and services in place. The profile has again been raised about issues of child abuse and exploitation - yet victims' own voices are rarely heard.

Dana, a quietly courageous and dignified young woman who is still battling against illness and the physical legacy of brutality, is 31 now. But her experience suggests why a system that waits for children to tell is bound to fail most of them. She believes changes are needed and even offers to go into Scottish schools herself to help young people lose the overwhelming shame, stigma and fear which silence them.

Dana, from north Edinburgh, was raped from the age of five by her stepfather, from age seven by a grandfather, then by other members of the ring. Her 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 a poker: she took a note to school saying she had fallen off the school roof while playing on it. At 10, she was blindfolded and raped by a gang of men in a caravan, and tried to kill herself, by cutting.

How could such extreme suffering pass unnoticed by adults, especially in school settings, where children spent much of their time outside the home?

The sadistic grandparents died when Dana was 12, her stepfather three years later. Only then did the assaults end. In 2007 her mother was jailed for 12 years while two male abusers received long prison terms. In 2009, prosecutions against two men accused of the caravan abuse collapsed when her mother withdrew evidence.

Children like Dana, in not giving clues through disturbed behaviour, can challenge a school's child-protection system - because school was a safe haven that she loved. Nor were her parents perceived as a "problem family". "They gave me money for school outings; they `acted normal'; they even went to parents' nights."

But there were at least three signs that someone might have picked up. First, as Dana puts it: "I don't remember any teachers asking me if anything was wrong. But I was very quiet - maybe too quiet. They should ask kids who are too quiet if there's anything wrong."

Second, parents who keep changing their child's school for no apparent reason should surely raise concerns. Dana was enrolled in four different north Edinburgh primaries, all in the same area: "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."

Third, Dana believes schools should thoroughly check the reasons if children keep asking to be excused from PE, as she did. She often had bruises, especially on her legs and back, though her parents tried their best to keep the marks hidden.

People often assume secondary school is the best place to encourage exposure of sexual abuse. Many are also coy about "spoiling young children's innocence" with the facts, despite the fact that research has consistently found that at least 25 per cent of abuse cases begin before the age of six. Dana believes it is in primaries that the main effort to help children talk should be - when there are fewer barriers to telling.

"If someone like a kind teacher had asked me straight out if this was happening, I might have said yes. 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 etc with phone numbers on . they might feel able to get in touch, if it was confidential."

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

They can be warned, too, of lies told by abusers: "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 little but praise for her Edinburgh secondary school, another safe haven whose teachers were caring and committed. The fact that this quiet, shy student couldn't even tell the teachers she trusted most is a powerful message to child-protection systems that waiting and hoping for disclosures is often a lost cause and that the sheer scale of self-blame and self-disgust young people feel must be addressed.

Dana's silencing echoes that of young survivors I interviewed for the schools booklet See Us Hear Us, who came up with a startling 14 different reasons why they felt they could not tell - including horror at what adults and other young people might think of them.

"When you get older, you actually become more determined not to say anything," Dana recalls. "I was determined to keep the truth from nice teachers. You feel dirty, ashamed, that you must have been part of it because you allowed it to happen . I was also too embarrassed."

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 even going away on trips with teachers, when there were opportunities to talk during long walks and school camp, she still could not speak. On her stepfather's death, teachers comforted her and she pretended to be upset - on what was actually one of the happiest days of her life.

While some young survivors do manage to tell a friend - who may also have no easy access to support - Dana could not do that, not even the friend with whose kindly family she often stayed. "You imagine they'd think you were disgusting. The worst thing at that age is being different. The shame as a teenager is overwhelming . I would rather have had the fairytale life I was leading: the life I made up and told my friends about."

But surely sex education classes should present opportunities for issues of abuse to be raised? "Yes, but I don't remember the teacher talking about things that were wrong and shouldn't happen. I just remember being embarrassed about the whole subject. A lot of people were just laughing and carrying on."

So are connections still not being made in personal, social and health education? And does all this mean teachers and schools can do little or nothing? Not at all. In the See Us Hear Us report, among the things young survivors most valued and urged schools to adopt were stickers and posters, in places such as lockers or toilets, advertising sexual abuse services; publicity for confidential helplines; safe places to go and talk to someone, provision of art work or other self-expression in schools and youth projects; and teachers asking sensitively but more directly about abuse if oblique questions haven't worked.

Young survivors also wanted confidence-building for teachers, not just rigid rules and guidelines, and support for the friends whom they might tell. Schools which were open and respectful to pupils, which had strong policies against things like racism or bullying, helped children talk about other sources of shame, too.

Most important was the need for schools to address abuse directly right through the school years, to challenge stigma and shame openly so that neither young survivors nor their peers blame victims for such serious crimes, but are helped to be supportive instead.

Dana says she wants to contribute to that sense of openness: "People want to brush the whole thing under the carpet, and they mustn't. I think that if people like me could go into schools, I'd be prepared to do it (with staff or pupils or both), and talk about sexual abuse happening. It needs to be said: `It's not your shame; and you should not be embarrassed.'"

Her offer, and similar offers from other adults who have experienced childhood sexual abuse, presents an interesting challenge to an often rigid and bureaucratic child-protection system. And who can get through to young people better than those with direct experience?

Many primary and secondary schools already invite organisations in, to encourage child safety andor to work with at-risk children, such as 18 and Under's VIP projects, the Moira Anderson Foundation's Safe Hands training and workshops, or Open Secret's work with schools in Falkirk and Stirling.

Given that the survivors themselves need strong support back-up, such experienced voluntary organisations could be the safest "umbrella" for any survivors visiting schools. Is it time for education authorities and headteachers to open their minds further and negotiate as a tribute to Dana's own courage?

`How Could She?' by Dana Fowley, Arrow Books

`Do you work with young people? Help cut children and young people free from sexual exploitation', Barnardo's leaflet: see

`See Us Hear Us: schools working with sexually abused young people', edited by Sarah Nelson, VIP Publication, 18 amp; Under, Dundee.


Dana appeared to be a "model pupil" at a high school where many other pupils were inattentive.

"I loved school. It was a safe place, where nobody knew about my home life. I was the reverse of most kids: I loved walking through the gates first thing in the morning, and I hated it when lessons were over and we all headed for home," she says.

"I remember one teacher I really liked . that only made me even more determined to keep the truth about my home life to myself. I knew it was shameful, dirty and at all costs to be kept secret. I started to develop an act that I would perfect over the years: pretending that I came from a good, loving family.

"We had (school) concerts twice a year, and sometimes I played the guitar. I remember Mum would come to them, usually bringing Heather with her. As always, she played the doting mother well.

"The high school was a wonderful relief from the rest of my life, and I was really grateful for my time there. (But) I felt that if anyone there ever found out, they would blame me, think I was part of it; I would be contaminated, and nobody would want anything to do with me."

From `How Could She? By Dana Fowley (Arrow Books).

Original headline: How could such extreme sufferings pass unnoticed in school settings?

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