Sexually harmful behaviour among children and young people is an
important topic for practitioners, as anyone who has been reading
Community Care recently will know. But is it so important
for the government?
The answer seems to be no. The Report of the Committee of
Enquiry into Children and Young People who Sexually Abuse Other
Children1 was published 10 years ago and, although
there has been some progress in policy and practice, there is still
no national strategy. Government policy remains unclear and
services on the ground are sporadic. As a result, many of these
children and young people are not receiving the type of support
Earlier this year, the NSPCC produced a report2 that highlighted
the issues and called on the government to develop a national
strategy (see below for proposals).
In some ways it is easy to see why the government has been
lukewarm in its approach. Treating sexual abusers in anything other
than a punitive manner is hardly a vote-winner. In addition,
non-specialists are likely to have scant knowledge about children
who display sexually harmful behaviour.
Although research tells us much about the backgrounds and needs
of these young people, it is difficult to convey the complex
messages about this group to the media, the public, the government
and, sometimes, to professionals.
One difficulty is knowing when sexual behaviour is harmless and
when it is not. Many children engage in activities that form a
normal part of their sexual development. But the sexual behaviour
of young people exists on a continuum, from mutually agreed
experimentation to serious behaviours such as multiple rape.
Indeed, research shows that juveniles commit at least a quarter of
all sexual offences.
But does condemning the behaviour mean we should condemn the
child? Studies show that a significant proportion of these children
have suffered some form of abuse or trauma. The behaviour is
particularly linked to experiencing sexual abuse, domestic violence
and poor attachments. And a significant proportion of those seen by
specialist services have severe emotional or learning
Over the past 10 years successive governments have not developed
a strategy that guarantees an appropriate response to every child
and young person who displays sexually harmful behaviour. Indeed,
the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, the Sex Offenders
Act 1997 and the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 have resulted in a
move away from a child welfare approach to a criminal justice
The Department of Health and the Home Office have issued limited
guidance. But these two departments come at this problem from
different starting points. The Department for Education and Skills
has issued no national guidance for schools or teachers. Funding is
not co-ordinated across departments. In other words, there has been
no agreed overall approach. As a result there is an inconsistent
response to children and young people at the local level, with
different systems and policies operating in different areas.
Without specific agreements there is no guarantee that child
protection and criminal justice agencies will work together in
areas and there is not a strong enough obligation on social
services departments to respond to this group of children and young
people. Children and young people going down the criminal justice
route are unlikely to be adequately assessed in terms of their own
The outcomes of these different routes are likely to be
different. Behaviour can result in “no further action” and no
record under social services, but a custodial sentence, schedule
one (charged with a sex offence) status and registration on the sex
offenders register if dealt with by the police.
The NSPCC report also highlights the lack of knowledge about
treatment services such as what activities are being undertaken and
by whom. In general, there is poor access to specialist treatment
provision and there are concerns about the quality assurance of
such services. There is also a lack of rigorous record keeping for
this group so it is difficult for agencies to share appropriate
These children and young people are not “young sex offenders”.
Most are not motivated by a sexual preference for children,
although this behaviour can become entrenched. Rather, the
behaviour is a response to their own experiences: a way to fulfil
needs, exert power or express anger.
This does not make the behaviour acceptable, and certainly we
need to acknowledge that some of these children and young people do
pose a risk to others. But at the same time we should remember that
these are children and young people with complex problems and
needs. As such they deserve our help and are entitled to
A coherent system is urgently needed in which agencies work
together to deliver a consistent response to all children and young
people. Such a response would lower the level of child sexual
abuse, meet the needs and manage the potential risks posed by this
vulnerable group and help to stop these children and young people
developing this behaviour into adulthood.
Elizabeth Lovell is a policy researcher for the
1 NCH, The Report of the
Committee of Enquiry into Children and Young People who Sexually
Abuse Other Children, NCH, 1992
2 Elizabeth Lovell, “I
Think I Might Need Some More Help with This
Problem…Responding to Children and Young People who Display
Sexually Harmful Behaviour“, NSPCC, June 2002. Copies of the
report can be obtained from 020 7825 2500 or
T Morrison, “Where have we come from: where are we
going? Managing adolescents who sexually abuse others”, NOTA
News 21, National Association for the Treatment of Abusers,
- A cross-departmental UK government review to develop an
overarching strategy of response based on a “child-first”
- The government should develop a designated unit with
responsibility for co-ordinating a response. The children and young
people’s unit should ensure a joined-up government approach.
The Treasury should co-ordinate funding across government
The Department of Health should:
- Map the extent and quality of inter- and multi-agency protocols
on children who sexually harm others.
- Ensure the dissemination of best practice including a
partnership approach in all local authorities, improvement of
recording practices in social services departments and the
development of protocols for sharing information
- Develop a national treatment strategy and establish a policy
for accommodating these young people.
- Consider how recommendations made in the report are related to
the national service framework, the national strategy for sexual
health and work with children and young people who are fostered or
The Home Office should:
- Undertake to review the application of the sex offender
register and schedule one to juveniles.
- Develop an improved response to 18 to 25-year-olds, especially
those who are high risk, in accordance with the Children Leaving
Care Act 2000.
- Guidance for multi-agency public protection panels and disposal
guidelines should be drawn up by the Youth Justice Board.
The Department for Education and Skills should:
- Develop and disseminate guidance and training for all school
staff on this issue.
- Improve sex education, especially for disabled pupils and those
with learning difficulties. This would help children to make
informed choices about their behaviour and that of others.