Siobhan Pyburn.


Siobhan founded Beam Project (www.beamproject.co.uk) in 2017 to offer training based on direct experience of child sexual abuse. She first shared her own story on television in 2008, at the age of 17. Her spoken and written work has influenced 1000s of professionals, and she also runs a YouTube channel (Siobhan Speaks) covering various safeguarding topics, which has received over 50,000 views so far. She has an MSc in Safeguarding in an International Context, and was recently named one of the country’s ‘most prominent activists’ on ITV for her efforts in helping professionals to understand abuse from the child’s point of view.

Using our direct experience of child abuse in safeguarding training – how and why

“Hello! My name is Siobhan and I was sexually abused as a child.”

This is how I begin every conference presentation or training workshop that I run. The change of mood in the room is palpable. It’s like all the caffeine from the morning registration kicks in at once. Delegates suddenly snap back to attention. They want to hear what we have to say.

As I recount my experience of being sexually abused at home, I’m mindful of answering any questions the audience might have, before they need to ask: how did it start? Why didn’t I tell anyone for so long? How did I finally manage to disclose? What could professionals have done to help me speak up sooner? What support did I receive during the court process? What about family reactions?

Speaking from a personal or ‘lived’ experience point of view is valuable because it allows us to reflect on how things might have gone differently, using specific examples. I am often told that hearing my story reminds people of why they chose frontline professions in the first place. However, it’s the focus on what my experience means for earlier intervention which has the biggest impact. Telling the story is one side of the coin; extracting the lessons from a professional practice point of view is the other. This is achieved through group exercises and an open, frank dialogue with myself and the other survivors who facilitate our training.

Sometimes, we even ask delegates to role play various disclosure scenarios (based on real events) in order to understand ideal and less-than-ideal responses. This helps people to engage with the difficult subject of child sexual abuse in a tangible way. We think it’s better to practice these scenarios in a safe training environment first, where delegates can gain an understanding of how the child may be feeling, before finding themselves in a delicate situation with a distressed child and not knowing what to say.

Unfortunately, there is no magic combination of words which can compel an abused child to disclose. I think being specific about what we can say to build trust, as well as learning how to listen to traumatised children without assumptions, is key to effective training. By listening to adults who were abused as children explain the obstacles which prevented disclosure, we can reflect on what may be holding back a child we know from telling us. As well, trainers must gather feedback on whether delegates actually used anything that was discussed to help a child disclose sooner than they otherwise would have. Without doing this, we can’t really know if what we offer has made a difference. The purpose of using direct experience as a learning resource is not just to hear a powerful story; the focus should also be on what it means for the children who are still suffering and need us to act today.