In November 1995 I was on my way to the BBC television studios to present the London news when I braked and hit black ice. The car spun out of control and I hit another vehicle travelling towards me head on. The impact was horrific and I lost consciousness. When I came round I was literally not sure whether I was alive or dead. Strangely I was not afraid and would even say there was a feeling of peace around me. Visions of the life I had lived flashed before my eyes and two thoughts overwhelmed me. One was sadness that I would not see my husband again and the other was a feeling of huge disappointment that I had not used my life to make a difference to the world.
I felt that I had done some good in my career as a journalist and news presenter, but it was not nearly enough. In that moment, I made a promise to God, that if I lived that I would change my life. I vowed that I would use my journalistic skills differently to try to bring about change in the world for children.
This idea was also important to me because up until this point I had tried to forget my traumatic childhood. But in this moment it became clear to me that I could use my experiences along with my writing and presentation skills to help children. Until this time in my life nobody knew that my grandfather was a paedophile and at the age of 3 began sexually abusing me. My father was also very violent and beat my mother on a regular basis, so I also witnessed extreme violence in my home. I suffered this until I was 7 when my Mother finally left my father fearing that he would kill her.
At that point I couldn’t read or tell the time because of the trauma I was suffering and I had always been labelled as a ‘remedial’ pupil. Literally nobody knew what was happening to me and I had no way of understanding how I could escape from the nightmare. I just kept wishing that some grown up would help. In school I couldn’t understand why nobody knew and I didn’t know how to tell.
My husband Neil wanted to help children because of his experiences as a Metropolitan Police Officer. During the course of his job he had to tell parents that their child had died either through crime or accidents. Often he could see that if the child had been better informed about the risks they might not have made the mistakes that lead to their death.
Just the year before my car crash, Neil also had a near death experience. He was almost killed in a riot against the Criminal Justice Bill in Park Lane. During the fighting an anarchist climbed to the top of a gate and dropped a paving stone from a great height on his head. He was lucky to survive the impact and it took us a long time to recover physically from these traumatic experiences. However they certainly gave us a wake up call about what matters in life. We pledged to do more with the skills we had and to try to make a difference to the lives of others.
We have now made it our life’s mission to empower children by giving them the skills to learn good values and make safer choices in life. After we recovered from our accidents we started to create a learning programme for children based on a cartoon character called Dot Com who could be a friend to children and who would also help them to learn.
We then formed the Dot Com Children’s Charity to raise funds to reach as many children as possible in the country, and around the world, with the Dot Com Learning Programme. To reach the children with the Dot Com messages it is necessary to train the teachers and police officers in the ideology of the programme and show them how the resources can be used with children to have maximum impact. The charity funds the training for teachers and police officers and also supplies the teacher’s guides which help ensure the programme is delivered to a high standard and has maximum impact.
The charity places great value on building relationships with schools, children and the police officers and PCSOs who work with those schools. Good service is a top priority. All the staff go the extra mile to provide help and support and this is especially important when supporting schools with issues or disclosures which may arise from using the programme.
Disclosures by children during Dot Com lessons have led to criminal investigations by the police. A core purpose of the charity is to spread awareness of the issues facing children and the need for prevention to be in our schools through the Dot Com Programme. The charity is committed to evaluating outcomes and gathering stories and evidence from customers/schools of the impact of the programme.
The reason the charity is needed is because human beings tend to move away from pain and towards pleasure and so many people are in denial about the scale of the problems facing our children.
Child abuse and domestic Violence in particular are very hidden crimes and children are the silent victims. The charity needs to help to bring the prevention programme into all schools. There is often a desire to introduce the programme in areas of great deprivation where it is easier for teachers to see the risks in the community or where children’s behaviours are extreme because of the trauma they are suffering. However figures show that there are two children in every primary school who are suffering abuse or neglect and usually it goes unreported. One in four women are victims of domestic violence and the office of the Children’s Commissioner in London reports that child abuse affects one in twenty families. It is therefore important that assumptions are not made about which children are vulnerable. Schools in more affluent areas need the programme just as much, but are often far more focused on academic results. But the truth is, that the safer and more confident children feel, the greater their achievements will be.
Every Child Matters made safeguarding a priority for adults in education settings, however the Dot Com Children’s Charity needs to help schools to see that the missing piece is putting the skills to stay safe and develop good values into the hands of the children themselves.
We saw this first hand when we accepted an opportunity to run a homeless hostel for vulnerable families. We did this for three years, but we saw the children there struggling with so many different problems that at times it was very traumatic. A number of the children even arrived mute as they were so traumatised by violence that they had witnessed.It was through watching the experiences of children in our homeless hostel that I had the idea to create Dot Com, a cartoon character who could be a friend to children and help them to learn good values and how to keep themselves safe.Seeing personally how very traumatic some children’s home lives could be we realised that there is an important opportunity to help children to learn about good values and the risks they might face in life in school.
It is very lonely being a child living with violence, trauma and divorce and all I really wanted was a friend I could confide in. I knew that Dot Com could be the friend that a child could turn to for help. Other issues such as bereavement, bullying and divorce also have a great impact on children and I knew that Dot Com would also provide a safe mechanism for teachers and police officers to communicate with children about values and making safer choices.
Around this time I was asked by the Metropolitan Police to chair their first global conference on domestic violence with the Commissioner Sir John Stevens. I was also asked to advise them on how they could communicate with children about issues such as abuse and domestic violence. I began to train officers about the effects of the violence and abuse on a child and I came up with the idea of a cartoon based learning programme centred on Dot Com as the main character.
I worked with teachers and the Metropolitan Police in London and the Association of Chief Constables to create the Dot com programme. I also worked with the parents of murdered teenagers to create a secondary schools programme called the Watch Over Me film series. The first series was funded by the Home Office and Department for Education along with the parents of murdered Surrey teenager Milly Dowler.Our work continued to be supported by the Home Office and in 2014 I became a consultant to the Home Secretary while setting up the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. During that time I travelled the country meeting many victims and survivors and the sheer scale of the problem was overwhelming.We discovered that there were literally millions of unknown victims of abuse who had never found a way to disclose what had happened to them. It was clear to me that not only did there need to be a way to bring criminals to account who had abused or were abusing children, but there needed to be a mechanism to ensure that the next generation had the knowledge and the skills to protect themselves.
The mechanism created had to be affordable for schools to purchase and sustain. With my husband we brought Dot Com to life in a series of personal journals that each child in the class would own. The journals are their way to learn about the most sensitive issues in life and a way to communicate with adults about their problems and feelings.
The ‘Dot Com Journal’ belongs to the child, the teacher does not mark it and the children can write in it with any pen in any colour. The personal ownership of the journal and its quality is a very important message to the child. It tells them that they matter to adults and it is their special journal. The teacher helps them understand that they can choose if they want to share it with any other children, but the teacher will read it. The journal is a safeguarding tool in the hands of the child because through what they choose to write and draw they can tell adults about their problems. The teachers are trained to understand that the journals must be kept in a safe place and locked away so the children cannot read each other’s journals unless they choose to share. The teachers are asked after every lesson to read the pages that have been completed and initial and date it so the child knows it has been read.
From a safeguarding position the teacher can also prove that they are reading the child’s work and will take action if anything that is written looks like it is a cry for help or a child protection issue. The Designated Safeguarding Lead in the school should be made aware that the programme is being used and be available to deal with any issues that arise for staff or children. It is important to remember that there are many adults who have never disclosed abuse and neglect or violence in their childhood so may need support when delivering lessons.
At £150 per class of 35 children for one year the Dot Com programme is a cost effective way to reach every child in the country with strategies to stay safe from abuse and violence and to give children the emotional vocabulary and emotional intelligence to know how and when to ask for help.
The programme gives children the knowledge and confidence to make safer choices and this emotional intelligence will make a difference to the lives of the decision makers of the next generation. It is a simple way to the change the people in the world.
Dot Com is the friend that I would like to have had when I was the victim of violence and abuse. She is always there for children to listen to their problems and worries and she always tries to do the right thing no matter how hard it is.
Through her internet adventures in an amazing fantasy world online she shows children that courage is not the absence of fear, but doing the right thing no matter how scared you feel. Dot has red hair and glasses and is not really worried about the way she looks or what she wears, she cares about the way she is as a person. She looks at other people for who they are inside not what she sees on the outside. Love, kindness, happiness, peace and determination are her core values and through her stories and adventures she shows children how she tries to stick to these values no matter what problems come her way.
Dot tries never to hate and always tried to find a way to love everyone even if their behavior is difficult to understand. She believes that if you try to be a good friend to everyone and do the right thing that your good values will help you to stay safe.
Dot has a fantasy world where her magic mouse can suck her into her computer and take her on adventures anywhere in the world to help children. When she is online in these adventures she discovers her dog Wizard, who is her best friend, can talk and is always there to keep her safe. In the fantasy world Dot meets other friends who can help her like Cursor the Cat, who is a cat with ‘Cattitude’ and works in Internet Security and Data Protection. He is a cat who battles with the Cyber-Rats, a gang of out of control rats who live to cause chaos on the Internet and who dislike children.
Dot’s fantasy world is a very important escape mechanism for children. When I was growing up at risk and living in fear I used to read the ‘Wishing Chair’ by Enid Blyton and dream that I could get into the chair and disappear to a fun and safe place which would be full of kind adults. Dot’s Internet adventures and mission to help children all over the world gives children who are lonely and afraid a friend who will always be there for them. She gives them a mechanism to dream of going to a safe place with friends and people who will help them. She also helps them believe that if they ask for help that they will be listened to.
Dot also has a real family and school life where she faces all the issues and worries of day to day life and is trying to make sense of the world around her. The content of the journals is a pull together of all the core safety messages that the emergency services would like to teach children and also includes information gathered from a number of important organisations like ‘Protective Behaviours’ who work to try to protect children.
The key themes in the programme that are repeated throughout the journals were created in partnership with an organisation called Protective Behaviours. They are:
We all have the right to feel safe
Others have the right to feel safe with us
We can talk with someone about anything even if it feels awful or small.
The children are introduced to the programme by meeting Dot and the other characters in her life, which include animals. The characters and the stories in their lives provide teachers and adults with a ‘one step removed’ way of discussing issues. So the teacher can ask ‘how might Dot (or someone) stay safe in that situation?’
The first thing the children learn and repeat in every journal is that Dot is special and they write and draw about the ways in which they are special and unique. This is fundamental as children who do not feel valued are very vulnerable to being groomed either criminally or sexually. Perpetrators look for children who lack confidence and then lure them into friendship by praising them and offering them gifts to make them feel cared for and special.
The programme helps children learn how to value themselves and also how to choose their core values so they can make safer choices.
They learn that:
‘Feelings are just feelings but behaviour is a choice with either consequences or rewards’
‘Stop, Feel, Think, Do’
They learn about Dot’s uh-oh signs, which are the body’s early warning signs of danger, or sometimes talked about as ‘fight or flight’ signals.Finally they draw their helping hand, which is their own safety network of people whom they could share their journal with and could turn to for help.The programme also helps children as they draw close to the age of criminal responsibility to think about their core values and to think about strategies for staying safe. For example they will consider whether carrying a weapon is a good strategy for staying safe.They will learn the value of the law and their rights and responsibilities as children. They will look at the value of religion and how the core value of almost every religion is ‘treat others as you would like to be treated yourself’. They learn how if we share good values we can live together peacefully.
The programme is supported by the Home Office as experts have agreed that the programme helps to protect children from child abuse, domestic violence, child sexual exploitation, female genital mutilation, grooming for terrorism or crime, the use of weapons and violent youth crime. When the programme is introduced to children it is suggested that the ‘Dot Minute’ card be shown to the children and made available. If a child is feeling worried or afraid by something then they can ask the teacher for a Dot Minute and also if a child starts to disclose something that the teacher believes needs to be said in private they can tell the child to stop because they need a Dot Minute in private together. This mechanism keeps both child and teacher stay safe.
Dot Com Core Values
The core values of the charity are those values that we wish to imbue our children with.
Most important is a sense of caring for themselves and for others. ‘Treat others as you would like to be treated yourself’ is the golden rule and is a core theme of the Dot Com learning programme. It is vital that children who are our next generation of leaders learn a spirit of caring from our example. The charity is committed to serving the children, teachers and police officers involved with the programme with caring and empathy.
Kindness and Understanding
Being kind to those we teach our ideology to is fundamental and showing understanding of their difficulties or barriers to learning or delivery. To quote from the novel ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view….until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
Integrity – ‘always doing the right thing’
Fundamental to the Dot programme and the charity is that we always do the right thing no matter how hard it seems. Approaching every situation with honesty and integrity is fundamental to myself as a former journalist who was committed to seeking the truth in every story and looking for the higher good. The same was true of my husband in his profession as a former Metropolitan Police Officer. We saw first hand in many situations that if you do not seek out the truth it has a way of floating to the top anyway!
Peace and Love
It is very important that children learn the true meaning of love because those who abuse children also use love or withhold love as a commodity. The charity helps children understand what love means and to ask the questions: “would someone who loves me hurt me or ask me to commit a crime?”. The programme also gives children the opportunity to think about violence and hatred. Nelson Mandela was a personal hero of mine and I was privileged to be reading the news on Sky TV when he became South Africa’s first black President. He became the first person to endorse the Dot Com programme and Neil and I met him on a number of occasions. We believe it is fundamentally important to show children that the way that wins in the end is a peaceful approach and that hatred only leads to more pain. Nelson Mandela said:“No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate they can be taught to love, for loves comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
Determination and hard work
The charity has a tough mission to change society’s attitude to the safety of our children and make it a number one priority. There are many doors that are hard to open and some that shut in our face, but what matters is perseverance in the face of this adversity. If you never give up you cannot fail.
Attitude and Commitment
Behind all successful people there is a positive mental attitude and a commitment to their goal. The charity uses role models to inspire children and to understand the hard work and right attitude that has gone into their success.
If the charity is to succeed it is fundamentally important to learn not to take things personally because nothing others do is because of you. This is very important for children to learn and this way of thinking has been important to me in overcoming the effects of the violence and abuse in my childhood. I also believe that forgiveness is vital. I realised that forgiving my father and grandfather for what they did to me gave me back the power. If you choose to hate someone all your life then that person stays with you forever. To quote Nelson Mandela; “Anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. Not forgiving someone is like drinking poison expecting the other person to die. Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”
The charity is committed to forming lasting relationships with committed individuals who are passionate about the charity’s purpose. These relationships have developed over many years and a partnership approach is vital. Perhaps the most fundamental for the charity has been the lasting friendship with the Nelson Mandela Children’s Foundation. Nelson Mandela endorsed the Dot Programme because it is committed to the empowerment of children and showing children how they can achieve success rather than portraying children as victims.
Honour and Courage It is very important for children to understand that courage is not the absence of fear and also to consider what is truly honourable behavior. These values wrongly applied can be used to groom children into dangerous and harmful situations.
Fun and Happiness
Children learn through fun and a sustained approach to the messages, they do not learn through fear. By the same token the charity has taken the view that to raise awareness of our work and the need to make protecting our children our number one priority that we should not be trying to shock or shame people into supporting us. Because I was saved by dancing at Len Goodman’s Dance School and our patron Kristina Rihanoff a professional dancer also believes that dancing saved her from the damage of growing up in a home full of violence and fear. The charity uses ‘dance’ to bring people together and have fun.
Dot Com Core Purpose
The core purpose of the charity is to get this safeguarding programme onto the timetable in every school and to work with teachers, the police service and politicians to make prevention of child abuse and violence a number one priority.
The Dot Com programme is a simple and effective way to bring core values and safer choices into the lives of every child and also to educate parents about the risks their children might face. It is critical that we do not shy away from difficult or sensitive topics with children because that leaves them vulnerable to the risks in society.
The charity has created a sustainable mechanism, that can reach every child and a mechanism that can bring greater awareness to professionals working with children of the long-term effects of violence and abuse on children. The Dot Com journals are an important tool that genuinely give children a voice and create an evidence trail, which professionals can act upon. Esther Baker, a survivor of child sexual exploitation who was sold by her father for use by a paedophile ring from the age of six, said of the Dot Com journals: “I know if I had this at school I would have been able to tell someone what was happening to me. I wrote notes and poems which I left on my desk and hoped the teacher might find. But the Dot Com journals are your own personal book that you know the teacher is going to read and also is trained to look out for anything that is written which is clearly a cry for help or shows there is a child protection issue. It also creates a time in class when real life issues are discussed so it gives children the opportunity to speak up and ask for help.”
The charity aims to raise awareness of the fact that many behaviours that are punished in children are the result of the pain and suffering they are experiencing and are a cry for help. Children who grow up in families where there are poor values simply absorb those values and replicate the behaviour, so unless they are given a chance in school to learn different and more positive values and behaviours, then they are not making choices, they are simply making mistakes because they are not informed. If children grow up in chaotic environments where they are subjected to violence or abuse and if they are given little quality time with their parents and have their belief system shattered by broken and empty promises they do not feel valued or that they matter. Children who do not value themselves very early in life engage in risky behavior and because they don’t believe they will ever achieve anything, simply take what they can, with no thought for the consequences. They are quite simply unable to delay gratification or work towards a goal because they have a core belief that they are worthless and will never succeed. The charity’s mission is to raise awareness of the need to protect children and not to criminalise them for their behavior, but to look at the cause and to help them understand that they can make better and safer choices. It is also a core purpose to empower children and give them the skills to ask for help and make a success of their lives rather than go onto a self destructive path.
The training of police officers and teachers is the ideology of the charity and these issues is vital. What is particularly effective is giving these professionals the chance to hear the stories of adults who have suffered different forms of neglect or abuse in their childhood, so they can understand the impact it had on their behaviours and the long term effects on their lives. This is also an empowering role for survivors who like myself can feel that the terrible evil that they experienced gave them the life skills to help train professionals and be part of a prevention programme that can protect the next generation. This programme will also imbue the next generation of leaders with the life skills and the values that will create a better and safer society. Teachers and children report that when they complete the Dot Com Programme the classroom feels safer and the children are more tolerant and confident about how to deal with the world around them. Quite simply they have learnt emotional intelligence or in more common parlance ‘street smarts’ that will help protect them and allow them to feel they are valuable members of society.