My daughter Elizabeth was 13 years old when it started. She was a really well-behaved girl; we had a fantastic mother-daughter relationship. She has had a stable home life and I have always had clear boundaries for what is acceptable behaviour. There was nothing to suggest that she would be in any danger.
It started when Elizabeth was contacted through Facebook by a 20 year old woman who she knew vaguely through a family connection. This person was able to gain Elizabeth’s trust and used her influence to draw my daughter into meeting with her and then a wider group of young people. There were young teenagers aged 13-16 there, a lot of them came from troubled backgrounds. The group also included men and women aged up to their mid-20s.
It seemed as though they had a power over Elizabeth. I realised that while she was with this group they were working on her, brainwashing her against me. It was clear that these young people were being controlled by the older adults – both men and women. I’d hacked into Elizabeth’s Facebook account and saw the messages they would send her – manipulating her with emotional blackmail, veiled threats and saying horrible things about me. I would read messages demanding my daughter leave her home in the middle of the night to meet them.
The first time my daughter went missing it was for three days. The group would meet together and drink and take drugs, and they had convinced my daughter to come along to one of their parties. I reported her missing to the police, and when they finally brought her back it was as though her personality had been completely transformed. It was like she had been replaced by this rude, aggressive girl. She would say things like ‘they’re my family, not you’ or ‘you hate my friends but you don’t even know them.’
Elizabeth started to go missing from home at least twice a week. I was out of my mind with worry. I’d report her missing to the police and eventually they’d find her with her ‘friends’ and take her home, drunk, aggressive, fighting, sometimes threatening to kill me. It didn’t matter what I did to keep her in the house, she would be gone – climbing out of windows, sneaking out when I was too tired to stay awake. Her attendance at school dropped. She would just walk straight out of school and go and meet the group.
It is the control they had over her that frightens me the most. Elizabeth’s appearance changed completely. The group would self-harm together as though it was a competition, they would take her out shoplifting. They even convinced her to file a police complaint for assault against me. The police had to investigate, which meant interviewing my other children and asking if I’d ever hurt them. The pain of having that happen to my family is still difficult to bear.
I’d always had a good relationship with my daughter but it was like she’d been cloned. I felt humiliated, powerless. I was working with specialist social workers and police officers to try and manage her behaviour – they were questioning every part of my relationship with her, telling me what I should and shouldn’t do as though I didn’t already know how to be a good parent.
Then after about seven months, Elizabeth came home having gone missing for four days. I knew instantly that something awful had happened. From the snippets of what we’ve learned since, during a ‘party’ one of the men had given her drink and drugs until she passed out, then he raped her.
That was a turning point – it was then that she realised that these people weren’t her friends, but the control they had over her was still there. Gradually, with a lot of work by myself and social workers, we were able to distance my daughter from the influence of the group. Together we are helping her recover, but she has found it so difficult dealing with the guilt of what happened. It resulted in her taking an overdose. I’m just thankful that she survived without any lasting damage.
As time has gone by my daughter will write me letters speaking of the shame she feels for how she behaved and the pain she caused, but she was manipulated at an incredibly vulnerable point in her life by adults who knew exactly what they were doing. A lot of the young people in that group weren’t as lucky as Elizabeth – they didn’t have people at home who could help them understand that they were being taken advantage of.
My relationship with my daughter now is getting better. Her attendance is up at school and she is staying away from the places where she knows she might run into her old ‘friends.’ Naturally I have real problems trusting her – Elizabeth has no leeway when it comes to going out and she knows I will not hesitate to call the police again if I get a hint that something isn’t right. But we are moving on as a family. I have been supported by a worker from Parents Against Child Sexual Exploitation (Pace) who is there solely to help me, whether it’s a quick chat or something more, and it’s a blessing to be able to speak about that part of my life with someone who is not part of the police or social services.
My message to parents is to never be complacent about what your children are doing online or who they are meeting when they go out. Elizabeth was not groomed by an Asian gang; it was a combination of young people around her own age and the adults that manipulated them. She thought they were her friends, but she could not distinguish between normal teenage behaviour among peers and being used and controlled by men and women in their 20s. It can happen to anyone.