The problem of children who sexually abuse other children and young people is difficult to deal with. Craig Kenny reports on how they can be helped to turn their behaviour around
The sexual abuse of children is usually regarded as a morally simple problem, with a clear line between abusers and their victims. But what if the abusers are themselves children?
Experts say this is a problem that even experienced social workers find it hard to understand and, as a result, some bad decisions have been made.
Most notoriously there was the murder of an 11- year-old boy by 18-year-old sex offender Dominic McKilligan. He was not placed on the sex offenders’ register on his release from a young offender institution, where he had served a sentence for indecently assaulting young boys. He committed the murder nine months later.
During the recent row over adult sex offenders being cleared to work in schools, John Dunford, head of the Association of School and College Leaders, claimed that pupils were at greater risk of sexual assault from their peers than from teachers.
Headteachers, he said, sometimes had to decide how to teach young abusers who were sitting in the same class as their victims.
Official statistics show that around a fifth of sex offenders in the UK are under 18, although up to a third of child protection cases involve abuse by a minor. Moreover, more allegations of sexual abuse are made against 13 to 17-year-olds than any other age group.
Research shows that young sex offenders typically have poor social skills, lack sexual knowledge, are socially anxious, and have experienced loss, adversity or fractured care. Almost half have learning difficulties. While many have been sexually abused themselves, they are just as likely to have been physically abused.
Estimates of how many go on to commit sex offences in adulthood vary widely, but it’s certainly true that many young abusers will go on to commit non-sexual offences, including crimes of violence.
Experts stress that these children should not be regarded as a homogenous group – there is a world of difference between an over-sexualised toddler and an older adolescent who has raped young children.
But sometimes authorities respond inappropriately. Simon Hackett, editor of the Journal of Sexual Aggression, cites the recent case of a seven-year-old boy who had been abused by his older brother and went on to abuse a younger brother in turn.
Social workers decided the boy had therefore “crossed the line” and become a perpetrator and tried to place him with the older brother – his abuser.
“Individual workers sometimes struggle in balancing and identifying an appropriate response,” says Hackett. “It’s symptomatic of the panic that exists when a child demonstrates inappropriate
“Some young people with relatively minor misdemeanours are fi nding they are given cautions, which can have a lifelong effect on their chances of employment,” he adds.
“One 12-year-old had a caution for indecent exposure to a teenage girl, which he did as a joke. He would find his life chances restricted because of that particular offence.”
Hackett says most young people with sexual behaviour problems never enter the criminal justice system, but says it’s important for them to get help. “We should do something with that majority under the waterline, who risk popping up above the water as a more serious sex offender later. Many adult offenders will say they started their abusive behaviours in adolescence,” he says.
Child psychiatrist Eileen Vizard, who has years of experience working with children who abuse, says: “As a society we have a fixed idea that children can only be victims or young thugs. That’s also how professionals look at it – even quite sophisticated ones fi nd this hard to get their heads around.”
However, Kevin Gibbs, the NSPCC’s lead manager on sexually harmful behaviour says most area child protection committees and safeguarding children boards now have protocols to deal with these cases.
Recent guidance suggests that six or seven agencies may need to be involved in making decisions about, for example, whether to prosecute; where to place the abuser; and what treatment
might be needed.
“For instance, the school might be aware of a number of low-level incidents that were being dealt with quite appropriately by them, but they add up to a bigger picture,” Gibbs says.
He adds that the development of youth offending teams over the last five years, with their multi-agency approach, has been a positive step.
Treatment often takes the form of cognitive behavioural therapy, but experts stress that a holistic approach is needed which should include mentoring and family work. Hackett says this have
been successful with other young people in trouble, although most teams lack resources for working with families.
Ultimately, Gibbs says, intervention is effective. “If you intervene appropriately at a significant stage in a young person’s development with a robust programme, you can stop them developing into adult sex offenders.”
What to look out for
Does the child or young person:
The Young Abusers Project, London
The NSPCC runs 22 projects for young people who sexually harm others but the Young Abusers Project in Kentish Town, north London, only takes the most extreme, complex cases, mostly as referrals from social services.
It is not a residential centre, but works with other agencies in an advisory capacity. “We start with a lot of consultation with agencies because usually the case management has been very poor,” says Eileen Vizard, consultant child psychiatrist and the project’s founder.
The team, which includes social workers, a forensic mental health team, clinical psychologist and child psychiatrist and psychotherapist, then makes detailed assessments and interviews carers.
Most children they see are already in foster care or children’s homes. Those who can commute are offered treatment. However a minority “are too disturbed for treatment at first”, says Vizard.
“There needs to be planning about where they live, because they are a danger to other children. It would be very unethical to provide treatment in the long term for a young person who was still living with their victim and continuing to abuse them,” she says.
Another issue that has to be sorted is allocating a social worker. “There is huge resistance to allocating social worker time,” says Vizard.
The project’s rate of recidivism of convictions for sexual offences is 10 to 25 per cent, but Vizard urges caution here. “That does not mean that most of them grow out of it. It tells us that 25% were convicted, not how many trials collapsed, how many children were under the age of criminal responsibility, or how many were not charged.”