Counsellors Code of silence

Counsellors may have to tell the police about child-abuse cases under a proposed law. But, argues Liz Duvent, whose daughter was sexually assaulted by her grandfather, this will deter victims from seeking help

Six months ago my 16-year-old daughter told me she had been sexually abused by my father. She had been bottling up this appalling news for two years, and once she revealed it she fell apart.

Very slowly now, with vital help from a counsellor at a famous London clinic and a tutor at her state school, she is dragging her life back to normal. Results day next month will certainly show that her GCSE grades have suffered, but despite this her school has already agreed to let her do A levels.

Yet the help she is getting was almost denied her by a combination of the existing guidelines about dealing with abuse and the statutory obligation that proposed new child protection legislation may place on professionals. Institutions are tightening their guidelines to reflect what is expected to be included in a green paper from the minister for children, Margaret Hodge, this autumn. The indications are that it will become an offence for professionals told of abuse not to report it to their area's child-protection teams, which include police, social workers and other agencies. The Home Office is looking at the effects of similarlegislation in other countries.

The crucial professional flexibility from which our daughter is benefiting could be legislated out of existence. In their proper desire to ensure that perpetrators are stopped, our legislators are running a serious risk.

The devastating assaults on our daughter came at two separate times and several years apart. The first, when she was about nine, was at my parents' home. She has a hazy memory of her grandfather fondling her developing breasts. The second time was in our home, when we were out and my parents were looking after her. Her brother, three years older, was on a school journey. She was ill in bed and lonely.

My father went into the room, probably, initially, to check how she was. She asked him to stay, thinking they might play cards. He sat on the bed and put his hand into her top. He fondled her for a while. He does not appear - she has no memory of it, anyway, even in the nightmares she now suffers - to have exposed himself or attempted anything penetrative. Next day, when she came down to breakfast, he smiled at her. She turned on her heel, went upstairs, stripped all her bedding off, remade her bed and stayed in her bedroom.

That is the story as she told it to me the day she first revealed it, and she has not changed it since. When I went back through my diaries in search of anything that would put a time frame on it, I found a weekend that absolutely matched what she remembered.

For weeks afterwards, she had suddenly become volatile. She insisted her bedroom was redecorated. I wrote that she was behaving like a proper teenager. Her schoolwork deteriorated afterwards, recovered, then deteriorated again when she told us. The trigger for her telling was a hideous TV advert warning of the dangers of internet chatrooms, which began with a false young voice then panned to the speaker, a seedy middle-aged man.

She told one friend a week before she told me, someone who had been abused and who recognised her upset. The friend asked: "Have you been abused?" That broke my daughter down. The friend urged her to tell us.

She told me when I was nagging about coursework. We were devastated. Our son - whom she insisted had to know - is shattered too.

We thought, I as a journalist, my husband as a former teacher, that we had a good working knowledge of such problems. But we are out of our depth.

Our daughter says she expected, once she told me, that the problem would vanish. When she saw my face, she knew that it would get worse.

She had already considered possible scenarios. She is an avid fan of The Bill and knew that, if the police were involved, she would face intrusive questioning, however sensitive they were. She also recognised that, if my father was questioned, her grandmother would know, and she wants to protect her. Whether she can, long term, is yet to be determined.

Our immediate concerns were to get her help and to work out if my father had other victims. At present his frailty makes that unlikely. My husband and I visited our GP. He heard our story, including how I confronted my father and got a blank denial. The doctor said he would write to our local council's adolescent service. He predicted a wait of six weeks for an appointment. Then he said: "I do not believe I need to refer this to the police." Until then, it had not hit me that there might be no option. Next day, feeling my daughter needed help more urgently, I phoned around the NCH, the Children's Society, Mind and the Rape Crisis Centre. All asked if I had thought through how damaging police involvement could be. Rape Crisis said they advised people to use false names, so there was no accurate information to pass on.

I knew the reputation of the clinic where our daughter is now being treated, so I phoned. They said that if I wrote in she would be seen. When they replied to my letter they said their guidelines meant that the local child protection team had to be told before they saw her.

It was the time when Michael Barrymore was being dragged through the papers, so the effects of going public were painfully obvious. My father is well enough known in his local community for gossip from the police station to be inevitable.

The letter caused our daughter to go cold and start to shake. She developed a violent headache and refused to go to the clinic. She started to have nightmares in which the devil was coming into her bedroom and she was trying to cut his hand off. She also cut her arms badly enough to scare us. She broke glass to get a sharp edge.

I wrote to the clinic saying she needed help to be able to talk to the police. They agreed to see her confidentially but only if I also saw them. They spent two hours with me and agreed to see my daughter on the understanding that they would come back to me if necessary. As a protection for them, I decided to write saying I would speak to the police.

Meanwhile my daughter was given an appointment by the borough's adolescent service. The GP had written a guarded letter, saying she was depressed. She kept the first appointment and was offered a second, but once she revealed the abuse she was told the police must be informed. She did not go back. They wrote later offering a confidential service but by then she was settled into the clinic.

After she told me, she told her school tutor, who had asked why her work was deteriorating. I asked the tutor about police involvement. Since the Victoria Climbie case and in anticipation of new statutory requirements, she said, there was a strict policy of passing the information on to child protection. She had exercised her personal discretion, deciding that since I knew about the abuse and the perpetrator was not my husband she could risk confidentiality.

The tutor said the guidelines had been altered to anticipate the proposed criminal offence. Like me - and, indeed, everyone I have spoken to since, including the clinic - she feels that a person of her training and experience ought to be allowed to exercise discretion.

My husband and I - knowing that families do protect perpetrators - believe it is right that there should be a full investigation. But we also know that an obligation for an instant referral will mean that some victims will suffer in silence.

We have been lucky. Our daughter is being helped by skilled people who have professional expertise that lets them bend their own rules.

What I fear is that those now in training will never be allowed to develop that maturity. If it becomes obligatory for the police to be involved, then new counsellors will be trained to operate on that basis. They will never develop the flexibility that may allow our daughter to outgrow this appalling violation by her once beloved grandfather.

Liz Duvent is a pseudonym.