Sex abuse charity busier than ever

The deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, pictured during a meeting with Helena Bracken, Nexus Institute. (0304Sl14) Photo: Stephen Latimer
The deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, pictured during a meeting with Helena Bracken, Nexus Institute. (0304Sl14) Photo: Stephen Latimer

When it comes to Nexus, the organisation’s reputation precedes it. In the North West, countless lives have been changed by the Clarendon Street based organisation which helps support victims and survivors of sexual abuse.

The organisation has more outreach than ever now across the North, and within the Western Trust area, counselling is available in areas from Omagh to Limavady and beyond. Thanks to funding from the Health Trust, the Big Lottery and Comic Relief, the short term future looks secure for Nexus in terms of financial backup. That, says manager, Helena Bracken is good news, although she’s quick to point out that the funding is there to support a huge need, which is growing every single day.

Much of this need, has come to light in recent years with damning revelations of the abuse suffered by young people in care homes. The Nexus ‘Vulnerable Youth’ project, specially trained NEXUS counsellors are working with and educating young people who have been abused or who may, in the future be at risk of exploitation.

Those young people - according to Helena - are often reluctant to come forward but are desperately in need of help.

“The sad thing is that young people in this position have grown up believing there’s no one they can trust, and it takes a lot of hard work before they feel content enough to open up. That’s one of our most important projects and we are breaking down barriers all the time with it.”

While some young people, namely those who have experienced institutional abuse, are particularly vulnerable, one of the main education projects being delivered by NEXUS in Derry and the surrounding areas is aimed at a younger population in schools and youth clubs who are being exploited as a direct result of the technology they’re using.

For Helena and her team, the main message being sent out is to parents locally to be aware of images that their children and young people may be accessing via text and social networking. ‘Sexting’ a craze which has developed in recent years among teenagers involves the sharing of explicit images, some of which Helena says are ‘horrific.’

In some cases, we’ve had to pass images on to the police because they constitute gross indecency. We have incidents where young boys are sending out images of their girlfriends who may be under age and again, that’s a huge legal issue. This is a minefield. We’re aware of cases where parents are letting their four and five year olds have Facebook accounts. We have children as young as six and seven with mobile phones and access to the internet. This opens them up to exploitation in terms of what they might be seeing but it also opens them up to internet predators.

“We always encourage parents to be vigilant and to use age appropriate language to explain to their children what’s acceptable and what isn’t and to let their children know that they can talk to them if something isn’t right.”

Alongside their educational outreach, NEXUS continue to offer life changing counselling services to those who have suffered sexual abuse.

That service, Helena says, is not only vital for the individual, but is making a huge difference to the government’s health purse across the North,

“As many as 76 per cent of our clients experience freedom from depression and that has a knock on effect in terms of their dependancy on GP care and medication. Those are real people, and very real figures when it comes to health trusts saving money.”

While content with the targets they’re already smashing when it comes to counselling, education and outreach, Helena says there are areas which desperately need the charity’s attention.

“Something we’re hoping to do in the coming months, is open our work up to dealing with the families of people who have been sexually abused. When these revelations come out and family members discover that a child or sibling has been abused, the news comes like a bomb into the middle of that family unit. We’ve always worked with the victim but we’ve never actually worked with family members and we feel that’s an area where there’s great need, also of course because in the majority of cases, abuse happens within the family circle.”

Helena and her team are also working with young people with learning disabilites and educating them about sexual boundaries. The Nexus Regional Manager also revealed that plans are being finalised to send counsellors and education specialists into prisons, where they’ll deal with a variety of topics around sexual abuse for the first time.

“We’re working with people from every walk of life. Our education officers are dealing with hundreds of people in local schools. Our counselling services are as busy as ever with people of all ages but we’re very aware that the people who have actually come forward for help are just the tip of the iceberg and as an organisation we’re constantly adapting to be able to deal with issues as they arise and to help as many individuals as we can.”