Helping yesterday’s children be parents today

Children 1st local manager Johnny Costello explains how we’re making a difference for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse, and their families, in Scottish Borders.

“Working with you has been a benefit. I have been able to make sense of things. I have learned to take control of difficult situations. More than anything I have learned how to talk and stay safe. I can trust you with things I have told you. I am not judged.’’

These words, from an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse, capture the difference being supported by our team in the Borders can make. What happened to Andy* as a child has had a devastating impact. He has been diagnosed as having a borderline personality disorder. His experiences in childhood also affected his ability to be the dad his son needs.

We see Andy once a fortnight. He’s attends these meetings without fail, and says our time together is helping him more than any psychiatric or psychological sessions ever did. We talk, and use techniques such a bad memory container which Andy’s created to aid his recovery. There’s been great progress. Andy’s not attempted suicide for many months. His son is no longer on the child protection register, and is now doing really well at school. Andy’s also started volunteering at the school, which he loves.

Children 1st’s support for adult survivors of abuse in Scottish Borders might seem anomalous for a children’s charity. But, as Andy’s story shows it’s a perfect fit, as many adult survivors are parents and carers too. We’re proud to facilitate Survivors Unite, a peer support group of survivors of childhood sexual abuse in Borders. We’re also helping them to develop and increase their autonomy, including some group members becoming trained as peer supporters.

And of course, we also support children in Scottish Borders to recover from abuse, working closely with Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services.
* Names and some details have been changed

A problem needn’t become a crisis

Children 1st supports families across Edinburgh through difficult times. Local manager Gary Dewar explains.

Edinburgh skyline

Edinburgh image courtesy of Wikipedia

Our job is to make sure parents and carers in Edinburgh who are struggling to cope get the support they need. Giving help early – before problems become crises – maximises children’s chances in life. And their earliest years are often when family stresses start to build. That’s why we now focus on families with children from birth to age five.

Of course every age and stage is important. But by concentrating on children’s early years we build specialist expertise and avoid duplicating what others are doing to support families in the city.

Here’s an example. A mum, Dawn*, was experiencing mental health difficulties that made it hard for her to care for her four year old James*. There had been lots of upheaval and James had become unsettled and anxious. He would lash out and spit at others.

Dawn agreed to be supported by Children 1st. She found it hard to do things that other parents find easy: getting down on the floor and playing with James, being curious about his world. Our worker helped Dawn do that; by modelling how to play, by talking through her relationship with James, by being there to listen.

We also helped Dawn to benefit from mental health services. It’s common for parents with mental health issues to be unable to make best use of these: they might have had a bad experience with health professionals in the past, lack self confidence, worry about being stigmatised, or get put off by barriers around transport, cost and opening hours.

There’s been a huge improvement. Dawn is now getting consistent mental health support. James says he feels safe and secure at home. The school has told us he’s thriving and proving a very able pupil. And James and Dawn’s relationship is much better. Our work with the family is complete.

There’s just one exception to our early-years focus, and that is where families that are under stress because of housing problems. There, thanks to our partnership with Shelter, we can work with families up until children reach age 11.

A sound investment in families’ futures

Children 1st local team leader Theresa Marsili explains how we’re making a difference to children and families in Glasgow.

The terms Early Intervention and Prevention are public policy buzzwords. They refer to investment in activities aimed at addressing need at the earliest possible opportunity. The thinking behind it is that, by doing so, children and young people and families are supported before their difficulties become overwhelming.

A huge amount of Children 1st’s work in Glasgow is about prevention. We support families before their difficulties becoming overwhelming and focus on helping during their children’s earliest years. We do this because we believe it’s the best way to ensure children grow up happy, healthy, safe and secure. But an external analysis this year has shown that, even if a policy maker cared only about saving money, the case for investing in our work is inarguable.

Inspiring Scotland found that, on average, it costs £3,000 for us to support a family in Glasgow through difficult times. But without such support at an early stage, the cost to public services if the family’s situation became overwhelming could be as much as £38,000 on average.

Mum and daughter

The value for money we offer is best illustrated by real life stories such as this one. We host a parenting group at a Glasgow nursery, at which parents set the agenda and share skills and experiences. One of mums there, Ellie*, asked us for a bit more support. She felt that she was unable to comfort her daughter, Daisy, when she became upset or angry, and was worried that Daisy’s “temper tantrums” would affect their relationship. But as we got to know the family, we realised that Daisy had witnessed her dad’s violence towards mum and was struggling to deal with her emotions.


One of the ways we’re supporting Ellie and Daisy is through use of video interaction guidance. We film them interacting. We play the clips back to Ellie, saying what we saw working well that she could build on. This technique can only be used by someone who’s completed three years of closely scrutinised training. We offer it as part of our general family support – and at a much lower cost than if Daisy’s anxiety had not been addressed at an early stage.

While we know our work represents great value for money, that knowledge isn’t what gets us fired up. It’s the feedback our workers receive from families they’ve helped.

One said: “You’ve been a massive support not only for my kids but also for me.”

And another that: “You’ve changed our life in total. You’re the only person in almost 11 years who lifted our spirits and helped us to feel better and better.”

* Names and some details have been changed

Opening doors for families in Dundee

Children 1st local manager Anita Roweth explains how our work in Dundee is making a difference to children and families.

With a £1 billion redevelopment of its waterfront underway, Dundee will soon be visually transformed. But there’s another side the city, one few visitors ever see. Many children and families live in poverty and deprivation. Rates of drug and alcohol misuse are the second highest for Scotland. Too many Dundee children fail to reach their potential at school.


Children 1st has a long track-record of successfully supporting Dundee families through such difficulties. But we wondered: are we doing enough to reach families that are off-the-radar of children’s welfare professionals? That question prompted us to join forces with Dundee’s Alcohol and Drug Partnership – to go out to where vulnerable families are, rather than wait for them to be referred to us.

Each week you’ll find us at a community centre and at a Boots pharmacy. Let’s say that today we’re in Boots with our Children 1st display. A mum comes in to collect a methadone prescription and we get chatting. She’s a single parent with two pre-school children. She’s not in work and money is tight. She’s finding it hard to manage her young family and her drug misuse. But she’s scared that if she asks for help, it might trigger a process that leads to her children being taken away.

We tell her about the various ways we could make a difference – from home visits to help her have more fun and less stress with the children, to help accessing a local food bank. Being part of the Dundee Early Intervention Team (DEIT) alongside other children’s charities we’re well placed to make sure she’s supported before her family’s problems become crises.

We spend one day a week at each of our community hubs. But on other days our partner organisations are there, and they put us in contact with families they speak to who could benefit from our support. That works both ways, so if parents or carers we talk to need specialist advice on topics such as benefits and housing, we can ensure they get it.

So far the feedback has been great – from the Boots branch and the community centre, from our partners and, critically, from the families we’ve reached. Before, they might have had to knock on half a dozen doors to get the package of support they need. Now it’s just one door, and they find it open with a friendly welcome at a place they were going to anyway.

Stop to Listen


Ruth Sills

‘Stop to Listen’ is a new national partnership project led by Children 1st. It aims to drive improvement in how our child protection system responds when instances of child sexual abuse or exploitation come to light.  Project manager Ruth Sills explains.


Welcome to the Barnehus, or ‘children’s house,’ in Oslo. The décor is designed to put children at ease, and there toys and soft furnishings to slouch into. It’s a far cry from a courtroom, or a doctor’s surgery, but it has more in common with these settings than appearances would suggest. Because the purpose of the Barnehus is to provide a better service for child victims of abuse: by putting medical examinations, judicial interviews and support to recover from trauma offered to them under one roof.

Professionals working in the Barnehus come from across the disciplines. There’s the police officer, who has been specially trained in interviewing children. The judge, who from a separate room observes interviews with children, over real-time video. The psychologist, who monitors children’s mental health during interviews and ensures they have only to tell their story once. The doctors and nurses, who in a specially equipped room assess children’s medical needs and – if necessary – document injuries for evidence.  And the specialists who support children’s recovery from the trauma that abuse causes, and whose services are offered to every child as a matter of course.

It’s part of my job to gather and share learning from places such as the Barnehus with colleagues in our four Stop to Listen pathfinder areas: Perth and Kinross, Renfrewshire, Glasgow and North Ayrshire. They are professionals from across the statutory services; police, social work, education and health, and from the third sector. They’ve signed up to the pathfinder projects because they know that there’s room for improvement in how we in Scotland respond when child sexual abuse or exploitation comes to light. They know, because survivors of abuse have told us that when professionals learned of their abuse what happened next wasn’t always ideal: they felt they’d lost control, that things moved too quickly, that they weren’t given the support they needed, that they were left too much in the dark. And because of evidence that often children live with abuse for many years before they feel able to tell.

In each pathfinder area I’ve found professionals to be really open to reassessing their working practices and culture. It’s hugely encouraging. The next stage will be for our pathfinders to identify what needs to change, and how. My role is to facilitate that process, and ensure they have the information they need to decide what actions to take.

The changes might initially be small – little tweaks to ways of working, but with a cumulative big impact. And just maybe this could lead to a Scottish Barnehus, although as Scotland has a different structures and legal system to Norway we can’t assume it will be right for us.   Also what will work in a large predominantly rural area such as Perth and Kinross may well differ from what will succeed in densely populated urban Glasgow. Whatever solutions our pathfinders decide to test I’ll work with them to ensure we can properly measure and evaluate their effectiveness.

As ‘Stop to Listen’ is about exploration and shared commitment it is a first step towards transforming how professionals and agencies respond to child sexual abuse and exploitation. The learning from  the pathfinder areas will be an invaluable aid to that process.

Why we’re asking Scotland to #createasmile

Alison Todd

Alison Todd

On September 5, International Day of Charity, we launched our #createasmile campaign: asking Scotland’s people to show children that they deserve a life free from abuse and neglect. So far, over 2,000 of you have done just that and we thank you for showing Scotland’s children you care in this way.

We hope that with your help we can create 5,123 smiles – as that is the number of children we know experienced acts of sexual abuse and cruelty in Scotland last year.

2136 smiles created for Children 1st's #createasmile campaign

I thought I’d tell you why I think this campaign is so important and why I want your support to raise awareness of the work we do in Scotland.

We know that thousands of children in Scotland experience abuse and neglect. The reasons are wide and varied and can include: witnessing domestic abuse, experiencing loss and bereavement, living in poverty or directly being physically, sexually or emotionally abused. For many of us this is hard to imagine, but at Children 1st our staff see first-hand the impact on children and their families of childhood trauma caused by such events.

For children this can manifest itself in them showing signs of distress as they try to manage their emotions and they find it difficult to express how they feel. For parents, the long-term impacts of poor childhood attachment relationships and unresolved childhood trauma can lead to anxiety, depression, alcohol and substance misuse and further isolation as they continue to struggle with their feelings.

Children 1st has been working for over 130 years in Scotland to make sure that we do all we can to protect children and prevent abuse and neglect from happening. We do this by influencing people like you and government to stand up for children’s rights and protection. And when the worst happens, we know that with our help and support, children can recover and go on to have happy healthy lives.

Our staff work with children and their families to create a safe and secure environment so that they can express and understand their feelings. Many children find it hard to say what is wrong, but through a variety of play, drama and art work, we do our best to let them talk through their fears and their anger, and in doing so, give them back their childhood.

For the families we work with, relationships built on trust and respect are essential in giving them support. Our staff make sure that they carefully listen to families, understand their lives and what they see as important. This careful individualised work enables families to recognise and build on the strengths and assets that lie within them – so they can be the best they can be and respond to their children’s distress with understanding and love.

We believe that the best way to protect children is when parents, families and communities work together to provide a safe nurturing environment for children. That’s why I am asking you to #createasmile for Scotland’s children and support our work to strengthen Scotland’s children and families.

To sign up and show your support visit: (and make sure to SHARE the smile you create!)

Creating smiles for Scotland’s children


Children 1st’s #createasmile campaign asks people to show Scotland’s children they all deserve lives free from abuse and neglect. Our Individual Giving Manager Lianne Fyfe explains the thinking behind it.

Child abuse is an extremely complex issue for children and has a substantial impact on families. We have a long history of supporting children and families who have experienced or are at risk of abuse and would never underestimate the seriousness of it, or the damaging effects it can have throughout a child’s lifetime. For these reasons it can be difficult for many members of the public to see how they can personally make a difference.

With that in mind, we wanted to make it as quick and easy as possible for people to take part initially – by visiting the microsite, creating a unique smiling child’s face and sharing it on social media. By encouraging people firstly to #createasmile we’re then hoping to encourage them to find out more: that by supporting our work, they can support Scotland’s children. We need more people to help us raise awareness that, with the right help, children can move on from their experiences and be given new reasons to smile.


Edinburgh’s iconic Balmoral Hotel lit up their clock in support of #createasmile

Every day, Children 1st works with children, their families and carers to recover from the physical and emotional impacts of abuse. We help children who have been abused to overcome feelings of helplessness and trauma by providing a welcoming, safe and creative environment to work through their past experiences.

Our trauma recovery workers support children and their families to understand they are not to blame, to believe in themselves, re-discover their confidence and know that they can have some control over the direction of their future.

millieborderMillie’s story

Millie’s story shows that recovery is possible even from the worst experiences.

Millie* was abused by an adult cousin from age five. She was well into her teens before she was able to tell someone, and the police able to act. That was when Children 1st began to support her.

“As any five year old would, I put my trust in my cousin because he was an adult. But he took advantage of me and made me feel like it was all my fault. He said if I told anyone I wouldn’t be his ‘special little girl any more’, he also said I would go to prison and be in a lot of trouble.

“Over the years it had been getting worse as he was doing more stuff to me. I was 17 before it stopped. When one of my young cousins came to visit I got worried about what might happen and wanted to protect her.

“I spoke to my auntie and we went out in the car with my mum. I told them what had been happening. A few days later my mum phoned the police and they came and interviewed me and took statements.

“It was a difficult time and my doctor put me in touch with Children 1st. Thanks to them I was able to confront my cousin and show him I’m in power not him.”

Millie recently wrote to her Children 1st worker:

“I hope you understand this took a lot of courage and inspiration. I got all my inspiration from you. I really appreciate all the help you have gave me. If it wasn’t for you and Children 1st I don’t think I would have been here where I am today.”

Abuse and neglect in childhood can leave lasting emotional scars but with the right support recovery is possible. It takes time, empathy, commitment and consistency. All of which Children 1st provides.

Shockingly, there were 5,123 offences of sexual abuse and cruelty against Scotland’s children last year**. By the end of the month we’re aiming to have at least this number of smiles created – but we could really do with your help!

To sign up and show your support visit: (and make sure to SHARE the smile you create!)

* Names and some details have been changed to protect confidentiality

**Scottish Government recorded crime statistics.