A teenager who helped jail her paternal grandfather after he sexually abused her as a small child is speaking out to “take away the shame” for survivors like her. Poppy hopes her story will change attitudes and help others.
The 18-year-old has set aside her right to anonymity because she believes “if people can see a face behind something so taboo, it makes it more relatable”.
She describes how, as a small child, she thought the abuse she suffered was normal – and how she felt enormous relief when she eventually told her parents, aged 11.
Only by talking openly, says Poppy, will others understand that abuse can happen within any family.
“Why should we be hidden? It is a crime, as simple as that,” she says.
“I am like any other person probably going through it. Survivors are very good at acting like nothing is wrong, people didn’t see it in me.”
Poppy is speaking out as new data shows more cases of child sexual abuse are being reported to police in England and Wales than ever before.
There were 105,542 sexual offences recorded against children in the year up to March.
The Home Office figures have been analysed for the BBC by the Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse (CSA Centre), which studies the causes, impact and scale of abuse. The centre says greater awareness is a key reason for a 57% increase in recorded offences over six years.
Child sexual abuse within a family environment accounts for nearly half the cases.
That’s why Poppy believes talking publicly will help children realise that someone will listen to them.
Taking the leap
It’s a hot summer’s day. At a busy airfield in Kent, Poppy is pulling on overalls and being helped into a parachute harness.
Four days after finishing her A-levels and a week before her 18th birthday, she is about to jump out of a plane to raise money for a charity that helped her deal with the abuse that blighted her early years.
Poppy believes doing her first skydive mirrors the “scary leap” you take when you tell someone about abuse.
Her mother, Miranda, is there to support her. Her father, David, is working away, but she video calls him just before she climbs into the plane.
They are a close family. They’ve had to be to survive the toughest of times.
They believe Poppy was first abused when she was a toddler.
“I thought grandparents did that to their grandchildren,” says Poppy. “I thought that was quite normal.”
David’s father, John, would help out by looking after Poppy when needed.
“I knew the cues,” Poppy says. When the regular children’s programme she watched with him ended, then the abuse would begin.
Today Poppy is eloquent and thoughtful, but as she casts her mind back to that time she falters as she searches for words.
“It would always start with: ‘Can you help me come and get dressed?’ And I’d have to go to his bedroom. I was made to do things to him, he would then do things to me.”
- If you are affected by any of the issues in this article you can find details of organisations that can help via the BBC Action Line
When I say to her that she was groomed, she says yes and describes the complex relationship she had with her paternal grandfather. She says she felt so much shame and believed she was in the wrong, so wanted to protect him.
At the age of five, just before going on a trip to Legoland, she tried to tell her mother about the abuse.
A photo taken that day shows a little girl with long blonde plaits smiling up at her parents. If it is hard for Poppy to find the right words now, this is a reminder of how impossible it must have been at such a young age.
“She started to tell us, then giggled,” says Miranda. “We just didn’t really realise what she was trying to tell us.”
Her parents thought she had seen John when he had come out of the shower. David spoke to his father.
“His immediate response was – ‘I might have got changed in front of her,'” says David. His father promised it wouldn’t happen again.
“He literally shut it down completely, but in a calm way. And I thought, OK! He is my dad!”
The abuse stopped, but as Poppy grew, so did her anxiety. She describes the guilt she felt as “eating her alive”.
At school, aged 10 and 11, Poppy was having lessons warning about sexual exploitation and grooming. She began to recognise what had happened to her.
“I’m sat there thinking, ‘I’m involved in that’,” Poppy says. “That’s me, that’s dark. That’s disgusting.”
The CSA Centre says an estimated one child in every 10 will have their life damaged by some form of sexual abuse by the age of 16.
Then came a day when Poppy was being physically sick. Her mother suggested they go for a walk. It was then Poppy took the leap and told her about the abuse.
“It was sickening,” says Miranda. “She obviously saw the look on my face, and was like, ‘Mum, please don’t tell anybody. I don’t want anything to happen to him. I love him.’ She immediately said, ‘It’s my fault. I’m not a nice person.'”
Miranda says she was “clueless” as to what to do next. “I’d never even come across anyone that had been through this. I just needed to keep her safe.”
Poppy had been worried about her mum’s reaction, but says it was an immediate “we are going to get through this”. The relief she felt was huge, because “it was now in other people’s hands”.
They headed home, and as Miranda puts it: “Cried a lot, then it was, how do I tell David?”
She phoned her husband – as he was working away.
He describes his “huge mixed emotions” when he heard the news.
“I had to make this call to ultimately report my father,” he says. “It was incredibly tough. However, she’s my daughter, and she comes first.”
Within hours John was arrested.
Poppy was then interviewed by Det Con Deniz Aslan, from Kent Police’s child protection team, along with a social worker.
Det Con Aslan remembers the 11-year-old being very anxious. This was the first time she had explained to anyone exactly what her grandfather had done.
“Any sexual abuse of a child is serious,” DC Aslan says. “But the rape of an under 13-year-old, I don’t think you get more serious than that.”
She says the grandfather never admitted what he had done.
Miranda’s voice breaks as she describes being told by the police the details of what had happened.
“She was being raped by him. And she felt responsible for it. No child should feel responsible for that,” she says.
“Poppy would never give us the full detail of what he’d done. She was trying to protect us.”
For David, there was the distress of knowing his father was the abuser.
“He was abusing our daughter, and then five minutes later, he was having a cup of tea with us. So I felt, who is this man?
“But then equally, as a child, I had many happy memories. There was a real conflict going on in my mind.”
It took 18 months for the case against the grandfather, John, to reach trial.
Across England and Wales, only 12% of reported offences result in charges – according to the CSA Centre – and it typically takes nearly two years for those to get to court.
Poppy’s recorded interview was played, then she was cross-examined. She had just turned 13.
“I was so desperate to fight my own corner,” she says. “In some ways, there was a good amount of anger behind me, so telling my side of the story was incredibly important.”
In 2018, John was found guilty on three counts, including rape, and was jailed for 13-and-a-half years.
The judge described Poppy’s testimony as “heart-rending” and “utterly compelling”. John’s defence that she had made it up at her parents’ instigation was described as “quite absurd”.
He died in prison last year.
The conviction was important for Poppy, but so was the counselling she received. She had to wait five months for that support – now, it can take much longer. At Family Matters in Kent, where Poppy went, they have more than 300 abuse survivors waiting.
“When you want help, you want help now,” says the charity’s chief executive, Mary Trevillion – whose team spends a lot of time risk assessing people while they wait for a counsellor.
She also finds many people hide what has happened to them, only asking for help when they are adults.
The Home Office told us it was significantly increasing support for victims of child sexual abuse – including quadrupling money for victims’ services by 2024-25.
It also said it recognised that child sexual abuse was an “often-hidden” crime, and that was why the government was making it “mandatory for those who work with young people to report any suspicions that a child is being sexually abused or exploited”.
The small plane climbs high into the cloudless sky.
Poppy is doing the skydive to raise money for a helpline that supports abuse survivors while they wait to see a counsellor. So far, she has raised more than £70,000.
Poppy and her instructor shuffle to the edge of the plane’s open door – the patchwork fields of Kent spreads out beneath them.
Then they jump.
Minutes later, Poppy is on the ground – safe and laughing.
“You’ve got that initial panic,” she says, “but then it’s just that relief to jump out – you are in it now, you’ve got to do it.”
Thinking back to the 11-year-old who found the courage to tell her mother about the abuse, Poppy says “I’d give her a massive hug. Without her strength, I don’t think I’d be here today and the life I have now is incredible.”
Her message to others who are struggling with abuse is “take that jump” – tell someone.
“I can’t promise you will be believed by everyone,” she says. “But I can promise there is someone who will believe you, and there is a way through this.”