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‘I just knew that he could not break me’

Chris Casey, The Haven's founder
Chris Casey, The Haven's founder

The Haven has been supporting survivors of sexual violence and abuse in Waltham Forrest for over 30 years. A growing number of the people it helps are men. Neil Baker visits its founder, Chris Casey.

 “We’ve never had a waiting list this long before,” says Chris Casey. She's sitting behind her desk at The Haven, a Waltham Forest charity that supports people who’ve suffered physical or sexual abuse. Two years ago it was a six to eight week wait to get an appointment with one of her counsellors. Now it can take five months.

Chris has dedicated her life to supporting abused women. But it’s not a sudden increase in their number that has extended her waiting list: “It’s shot up recently because we’re seeing so many more men,” she says.

She blames Jimmy Savile. Before the entertainer was exposed as a serial sexual abuser, Chris had two men on her waiting list. Now she has more than 50. “Child abuse is always on the news and in the media now,” Chris says. “People are finding they just can't get away from it.”

Men who suffered abuse as children are seeking help for the first time. There are over 300,000 adult male survivors of childhood sexual abuse in the country, says Chris. The public inquiry set up following the Savile scandal is passing 100 new cases to the police every month.

A lot of the men who come to The Haven thought they'd buried the painful memories. Suddenly overwhelmed by their emotions, they can feel defeated by their abusers – like failures, says Chris. “They think they can’t cope anymore, but if you look at what they’ve been through, and the fact that they are still here – they should be proud of themselves, because they have survived.”

Helping such survivors to become thrivers is why Chris founded The Haven 35 years ago. A rebellious 27-year-old with no qualifications, she created a space for people to share their experiences and get support.

Back then officialdom – in the shape of doctors, police and others – didn't want to know. “I was the mad, bad troublemaker from the local women’s centre, doing everything on a wing and a prayer,” she says. Chris remains a fighter for the abused – albeit a middle-aged one in a soft pink sweater and a black and white scarf.

Today The Haven has one office and three small counselling rooms in a local church-owned community centre. With funding from The London Community Foundation, Chris has increased the support she offers specifically for men. But most of the people that get help at The Haven are women. They’ve all experienced sexual or domestic violence – from rape to genital mutilation.

Often they’ll go to their GP with the symptoms of depression, and only then reveal that they’ve been abused. Many have had counselling elsewhere and are referred to The Haven for specialist support.

When they come to The Haven, they experience something unique. The ten counsellors who run its one-to-one sessions and peer discussion groups all have one thing in common: they are themselves survivors of domestic or sexual abuse and violence.

“When we sit with a client we can say 'I know what you're going through, I understand'," says Chris. "And that's quite powerful.”

For Chris it was like this: she was raped or abused by her father every day until she was 15 years old. "I just knew that he could not break me," she says, when asked how she survived. "There was something about me that meant I wouldn't go under. You don't think that way at the time because you're just a kid, but I knew that one day it would end."

But the experience has led to lifelong health issues. "I'm in pain every day. Constant pain," she says. It's a result of the nervous stress she lived with as a child – the fear of being attacked at any moment. "Sometimes you can see it in my eyes. But you've got to do what you've got to do. What's the option? To give up? No, you just get on with it."

That "getting on with it" involves endless fundraising efforts and punishing hours. Chris often works from eight in the morning to 11 at night – for seven days a week, when there's a grant application deadline.

This dedication has kept The Haven running at a time when budget cuts or a lack of funding has forced other local services for the abused to close. Chris lists their names in a depressing roll-call. "There are not so many of us around now, so any that go are a great loss," she says.

But Chris and her team keep going, trying to pick up the pieces. "Success for me is when someone says they are ready to move on, to live the life they want for themselves, whatever that might be. Sometimes it's just about helping people to level out, to start feeling okay."

There are many photos in the office Chris shares. One of her with Boris Johnson, collecting an award for The Haven’s work – “I’d rather he gave me a check instead,” she jokes. There’s one of her husband, who passed away recently. "Some people say we perform miracles here,” she says, when it’s time to leave. “I'm not sure about that. We just do the best we can with what we've got. And what I’ve got is an organisation that works."

For more information: http://www.havennetwork.org.uk. While The Haven has a waiting list for appointments, Chris and her team are always able to speak to people on the phone. "If you are desperate, call us," she says. "Please, don't do nothing. We can always talk to you."

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