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PPKK May 22

It's 6.30pm on a Thursday evening, a time most mothers are dealing with happy, noisy chatter around the family dinner table, but for the six mums sitting in a pink gold cartier love bracelet circle in this South London community centre the conversation is broken by moments of bleak silence. The women take turns to speak, clutching mugs of tea and damp hankies. One mother, in her 30s, asks for the blinds to be pulled down. It's getting dark outside and she doesn't want the lights to attract passers by. These women guard their privacy more fiercely than most, because they have already been grossly violated: they are all mothers of children abused by someone they knew.

'I relive it every day. Every time I wake, every time I speak to my daughter, the full horror comes flooding back,' says a mother whose seven year old daughter was abused for more than two years by her father in law when he babysat for them. 'We'd go out for dinner or a movie believing that she was safe with her granddad,' she says.

'There are no more family reunions, no Christmases together; nothing will ever be the same again,' another mum says. She came close to a nervous breakdown after discovering her daughters were being abused by her father when they stayed with him during the school holidays. The abuse went on for at least four years. Two years have passed since then, but for this mother, as for all the mums here, the feeling is still very raw.

This weekly group is run by Mosac, a London based charity that supports non abusing parents and carers of sexually abused children. The mothers, from a variety of backgrounds, have allowed me access, under strict anonymity, because they want to spread the word about Mosac. They feel that the devastating impact of abuse on the whole family has been shrouded in secrecy for too long, resulting in insufficient support for those who need it.

'People feel uncomfortable talking about it, so society doesn't help either. There is nowhere to turn,' says one mother whose boyfriend abused her daughter for three years from the age of seven. 'I shouldn't feel shame or be silenced, but people just want you to quietly get on with it.' The group is run by two therapists who help manage the mothers' distress during an intense, difficult two hours each week.

Child sex abuse is one of this country's darkest crimes, and one that the NSPCC estimates affects one child in 20. Since the Jimmy Savile case hit the headlines last year, the spotlight has been on victims, and the organisations that support them. Yet experts stress that the parents are victims, too. Mosac counsellors say discovering your child has been abused can be as traumatic and earth shattering as bereavement.

Counsellors, child psychologists and mental health professionals who work with abuse victims agree that the child's recovery depends almost entirely on the resilience and strength of the adults left to pick up the pieces. But who supports these parents and carers? Many succumb to depression and other anxiety disorders, and normal life becomes impossible. Most of the mothers I met had either changed jobs or stopped working altogether   their lives were altered for ever.

Mosac is the only charity in the UK that helps these families. It was started 21 years ago when four women in Greenwich, South London, formed a support group with help from social services, after discovering their children had been abused by a family member. Linda, a founding member, says they wanted to help other women, but they knew that confidentiality and anonymity were prime concerns. Setting up a helpline seemed like a good first step.

'People feel uncomfortable talking about it, so society doesn't help'

'With small local donations we bought a filing cabinet, stationery and printed leaflets. I remember when we got a start up grant of 500 from the local council, we cartier love bracelet white gold danced around the kitchen,' she says. The helpline was publicised through posters and local newspapers, and was soon getting calls from across London.

Today Mosac runs a national helpline which has been inundated with calls since the Jimmy Savile case and disturbing 'gang grooming' stories made the headlines. Mosac estimates it gets 800 calls a year and may handle up to 40 in a week. Linda still answers calls one day a week and 12 trained volunteers cover the rest of the week in rotation. On a Friday morning, I watch Linda in action. Among brochures and books with titles such as Hurt, Surviving Abuse and Strong Mothers, she picks up messages from the day before. One is from a father asking how to help his teenage daughter, who has disclosed she was raped. I ask Linda if she is ever shocked by what she hears. She shrugs and says, 'You have to be prepared for anything when you answer that phone.'

Most calls are from mothers wanting help after discovering their child has been abused. Often they know the abuser   the NSPCC says over 90 per cent of abused children are abused by someone they know. 'It's predominantly dads, stepdads, granddads,' says Linda, but she adds, 'increasingly we are getting calls about siblings and peer on peer abuse   where the child is abused by one of their friends or acquaintances.' She also says there's an increase in calls involving abuse by neighbours, family friends and childcare professionals such as teachers, childminders and babysitters.

In most cases, families have already reported the abuse to the police. If not, Mosac encourages callers to do so. But unless the child is still at risk, the charity sees its main role as being a support to callers. Linda speaks to a distressed mother and scribbles extensive notes. She listens for long periods in silence, intermittently telling the caller gently, 'It is not your fault.' One thing that's common to all calls, she says, is guilt. 'The parents feel their job was to protect, and that they failed.'

Denise Hubble, appointed 16 years ago to give counselling to parents, explains that Mosac works to assuage this guilt. Gentle and softly spoken, she says that many mothers develop post traumatic stress disorder in response to the discovery. 'It's the reaction, the devastation, the disbelief,' she says. 'It can trigger any unresolved traumas from the mother's own early childhood, so that they feel unable to cope in the moment. They may have panic attacks and struggle with anger and stress.'

Mosac offers parents therapy on an individual basis and also supports the children themselves. Child play therapist Kim May says there is a long waiting list. She works part time, like all Mosac employees, and sees around 11 children a week in what looks like a mini nursery, stacked with toys, puzzles and boxes, with colourful child friendly pictures on the walls. At one side is a sandpit, on the other a doll's house. Kim has worked here for four years and seen children aged four to 16, boys as well as girls. One in five of the children helped by Mosac is a boy, but Kim says she sees the same problems, regardless of gender.

''Older children tend to talk about the abuse. Younger ones may use the sandpit to show they are burying it'

'Their trust in people has gone, so we see a lot of trauma, guilt and shame,' she says, explaining that she allows the children to lead the one to one sessions. 'They'll tip things out, showing how their lives have been turned upside down. Others will play out stories with dolls or toy animals. Older children tend to talk about the abuse. Younger ones may use the sandpit to show they are burying it.' The aim is for them to feel heard and safe so they can process their experiences and go on to have a happy, normal life.

Mosac also works to strengthen bonds with the non abusing parents. 'It's important to support both the child and the parents so that full recovery can take place,' says Denise. Alongside counselling, Mosac offers massage therapy and runs a popular but overstretched advocacy service, which supports families through the stressful process of seeking justice.

For many of the mothers I meet, almost every aspect of the abuse has become a challenge. A recurrent theme is the desperate loneliness that comes from having to maintain secrecy. 'It's not something you can talk about at the school gates,' says one of the mums. 'Who wants their child to be labelled as abused or turned into gossip fodder? But when even close family and friends don't want to hear about it, that's when it really hurts.' The women agree that protecting their children's privacy is paramount, but that it also deepens the taboo of abuse. So providing a safe haven where parents can talk openly is crucial. The atmosphere is welcoming and calm   great sadness is found here, but lightness and healing are encouraged, too.

With more and more people finding the courage to seek help, Mosac's work has never been more important, yet it is under staffed and under resourced. It has some backing from the National Lottery and BBC Children in Need, but currently only has funds for another 18 months.

In September the charity marked its 21st anniversary with an event to thank its supporters. Six parents gave powerful, moving testimonies to an audience of about 100, drawn from members, volunteers and professionals from linked services. There was one father who spoke   most of Mosac's work is with mothers, but they also support non abusing fathers   and he explained in stark terms what the charity's help meant to him. After discovering that his father in law had abused his six year old daughter, he struggled with mounting rage and despair until he collapsed. He believes he would have seriously harmed himself or someone else if a colleague hadn't suggested Mosac.

He and his wife had counselling, and their daughter benefited from play therapy. 'If it wasn't for Mosac,' he says, 'I'd have ended up in prison or buried six feet under. They rescued me and my family.'

The applause that came from the audience spoke volumes   the staff at Mosac aren't just supporting these shattered families, they are literally saving them.

'Life was shattered': one mother's storyThere was never any sign that my daughter Lizzie was being abused; she wasn't unhappy

or withdrawn. When she was nine, she started to say, 'I don't like Daddy,' but if I quizzed her, she'd say it was because he was grumpy or asking her to do chores. I just thought they weren't getting on. By then my husband and I had been married for 20 years and had a very comfortable life, but I knew things had changed. We no longer spent as much time doing things together and he was short tempered and always suffering minor ailments. I worried about him and his relationship with Lizzie, but I couldn't get to the bottom of it.

I'll never forget the day I got the call at work. The police told me they had arrested my husband at home on suspicion of the sexual abuse of Lizzie, as well as an assault on her friend Polly. It was a double dose of horror. A few days earlier Polly and Lizzie had been playing upstairs and my husband was chasing them around. I'd heard squeals of delight and was pleased they were having a good time. But when Polly went home she told her dad that my husband had touched the girls between their legs and groped their breasts. She also said Lizzie had told her she was being abused by her dad. The police went to see my daughter at school and she told them it had been going on for almost two years.

In shock, I was convinced that the girls had made it up. My husband was allowed home with me on bail, but because of that, and because I did not believe what Lizzie had said, she was taken into care and I wasn't allowed to see her. When a social worker came to give me the details a few days later, I had to face the truth. I wanted to kill myself. I confronted my husband and he admitted it, blaming it on excessive drinking and over medication   both of which I'd been unaware of. I told him to leave; his bail was changed so that he was not allowed near our house, and

it took me another month to get my daughter back. I went into post traumatic shock: I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep, I couldn't function.

My husband was imprisoned for just under four years. I have spoken to him once or twice, but although I feel sorry for him because he seems so contrite and depressed, I don't want anything to do with him. My life has been shattered. So many people, including my own parents, don't know the truth, as Polly's family also wanted it kept quiet. It's too shocking and shameful, so I just say that he had an affair and moved to cartier white gold love bracelet America. I can't help but think that if he had died instead, I'd have had support and at least been able to treasure the happy memories.