CARA (Centre for Action on Rape and Abuse) provide a range of specialist services to victims and survivors of any kind of sexual violence, working with people of all ages and all genders.
The VVU support CARA through our community grant fund, helping increase counselling for young people who have been victims of sexual violence. The fund has enabled a specialist practitioner to work on a one-to-one basis with up to 15 young people at any one time.
On a cold November day, I visited the project, and on entering CARA it is easy to see why young people feel like they can open up and share their experiences. There are therapy rooms with toys, soft sofas, bright colours and positive inspirational quotes. It feels warm and welcoming.
CARA supports mid and north Essex with a team of 4.5 full time Young Person’s Practitioners.
Demand for their specialist young people’s service has increased by 36% in the last four years – from 338 cases in 2018 to 460 in 2022. Referrals come from social care, police, schools, health professionals and young people themselves.
The project provides around 87 counselling sessions a week which just isn’t enough to keep up with demand; there is sadly a waiting time for CARA, which can be up to eight months due to the charity’s limited resources.
Project workers believe there are lots of reasons for the increase in demand – more young people are actively seeking support and have the understanding, and words, to recognise sexual violence. It is easier to find help via the internet, and sexual violence is more commonly spoken about – although the way it is spoken about can be inappropriate in settings such as schools and among peer groups.
Once a young person has been referred to CARA, they are offered up to 20 counselling sessions. Six sessions tends to be the lowest number completed with the majority of young people having the full 20, and some receiving extensions for additional sessions.
The VVU project covers young people aged 12-19 of all genders although around 90% of the young people referred are girls and young women. Most young people prefer to attend face-to-face sessions in CARA’s counselling rooms although some prefer remote support. Project workers find that sometimes young people prefer remote sessions because of misplaced feelings of shame – the young people don’t want to be seen and feel safer in their own space. CARA is happy to run virtual sessions as long as the young person has privacy and it is safe to work in this way.
While at the project I spoke to Anita and Alice who explained to me that the therapy is person centred, led by the client but often with a focus on educating how trauma can affect the brain. This helps the young person to understand the impact the sexual violence and abuse causes, for example, anxiety, self-harm or anger. Therapy covers self-compassion and learning, so while something may have happened to your past self, you don’t have to be “over it” to make progress. The practitioners cover what healthy relationships look like and how to manage feelings.
While at the project, it was explained to me how vital long-term funding is. This can mean the difference of being able to commit to a lease on a building, a contract of employment, and crucially a commitment to the young people attending. The practitioners all make a commitment to the young people that they see – they will always see the same person on the same day and time. There is a hardship fund available to support those who find it difficult to cover the costs of travel.
The practitioners I met were so passionate about their work and when I asked about what success looks like they were full of positive words about the young people they worked with. Success is measured by the hope of the young person, they told me, it is measured by the sense of happiness a young person has. Small changes such as how they talk about themselves, their self-belief and self-worth increases. In a more practical way positive outcomes might be an improvement in school attendance, managing and having less anger, being less anxious and having confidence to leave the house.
Alice told me that the young people often crave kindness, the listening, having the strong sense they are being heard. I left CARA feeling absolutely certain that every young person they come into contact will feel exactly that.