Counselling volunteer Fran O’Donnell knows just how important a charity helping the sexually abused can be – because she was once a victim herself.
The 57-year-old says she suffered abuse while growing up in foster homes in Portsmouth. Fran explains: ‘My mum was ill and wasn’t able to look after me or my seven brothers and sisters. This meant I was in and out of foster homes until I turned 18, when I got married.
‘I was physically and sexually abused and although I knew what was happening was wrong, I was scared to death to say anything.’
Fran has been a volunteer for Portsmouth area rape crisis service (Parcs) for seven years. The charity, which is marking its 30th anniversary this year, helps both sexes aged 13 and over in the Portsmouth and South East Hampshire area who have suffered, or are suffering, from sexual abuse.
Fran first found out about Parcs while she was taking a counselling course at South Downs College. She says her own experiences have made her more determined to help others going through similar problems.
She explains: ‘When I heard about Parcs I remember wishing it had been in place when I was younger and it’s why I volunteer for them now.
‘It’s such a wonderful organisation and so many people get so much support, but I know there are so many more that still don’t come forward.’
Parcs was founded in 1981 by a small group of Portsmouth women. It was set up in response to a number of rapes that had happened in the city, but the closest rape crisis unit then was in London.
In its first form it was created by women for women, but in 1992 Parcs expanded to include working with men.
Today around 50 volunteers help run face-to-face counselling sessions and work on helplines.
In addition the organisation also aims to promote healthy relationships and alleviate the physical, emotional and mental distress associated with sexual abuse through education, training and support.
Referrals to parcs can be made via a doctor, or people can call the helpline to set up a meeting. But due to high demand and because Parcs offers a longer counselling service, there is a waiting list. People in Portsmouth may face a wait of six months and in Hampshire a wait of nine months.
The charity says 88 per cent of its clients are female and more than 70 per cent of people seen have been sexually abused both in childhood and later in adulthood.
Worryingly, Parcs says 73 per cent of the clients it deals with have not reported abuse to police.
Kim Holier is centre director for Parcs and says demand for the service has been growing.
She said: ‘We take about 1,000 calls a year and have 100 face-to-face counselling sessions each week.
‘We are getting more and more calls. This is partly because there has been a reduction in services elsewhere, but also because more people are coming forward. Maybe it’s because more people are starting to hear about us.’
She adds: ‘While we’re here, we want to help. I want to challenge the conception that volunteers are inexperienced, because that isn’t the case here. We offer special therapies and can work with people long term.
‘Many services can offer six to 12 sessions of counselling, but we can work for up to three years. This is why we have a longer waiting list, but we believe in spending more time with people.’
Parcs also offers a phone line service three days a week.
Kim says: ‘We hear from a range of people – many have suffered abuse in their childhood, while some are being abused in adult relationships. What we need to remember is these people are victims of crime. And sometimes they have not reported the abuse to police.’
The helpline is available on Monday from 1pm to 3pm and Wednesday and Friday from 7pm to 10pm.
There are separate numbers for men and women and it’s a confidential service for those aged 18 and over.
‘People do not have to disclose their age on the phone, however they are at the right place to get help,’ says Fran.