Most children’s professionals feel they lack the know-how needed to assess and support children who are sexually abused or exploited online, according to a study for the Marie Collins Foundation.
The study, carried out by University Campus Suffolk and Plymouth University, asked 692 people working in children’s services, the NHS and education, including social workers, about how confident they feel about helping victims of online child abuse.
It found that 62% did not feel confident about assessing online risks and 54% said they were not confident about their ability to assist those who had been harmed online despite many of them encountering the problem during the course of their work.
Cases the professionals questioned had dealt with included incidents where underage girls had been persuaded to perform sex acts that were filmed on webcams and posted online, children in care who had renewed contact with birth parents via Facebook, and paedophiles who had groomed children via chat rooms and game consoles.
In one case the mother of an 11-year-old girl had offered her daughter’s sexual services to men she befriended online.
Despite this, 70% of the professionals surveyed said they had not received training in online risk assessments and 81% had not been trained in helping children to recover from online abuse.
Tink Palmer, founder and chief executive of the Marie Collins Foundation, which seeks to help children abused online, said: “The results of this research have confirmed our fears: that there is a dearth of understanding and professional expertise in relation to the recovery needs and future safeguarding of children abused online.
“Professionals lack confidence in assisting children in their recovery and it is apparent that this is due to a lack of adequate training. Currently, many professionals are attempting to deal with cases for which they are not equipped.
“We have to develop much more widespread expertise in assisting recovery so that those who have been abused can recover and live safe and fulfilling lives.”
Plymouth University professor Andy Phippen, one of the researchers behind the study, added: “The fast pace of the internet’s development has in many cases left the authorities playing catch-up and while some now have policies in place, a huge amount of work is required to ensure those affected by online abuse receive the correct support.”
The NSPCC said it was vital that social workers and other professionals who work with children get training to help them protect children from online abuse.
“Sex offenders are adept at using new online opportunities to target and groom children for abuse, so it’s vital that those whose jobs involve combating this type of crime stay in touch with the latest developments,” said Jon Brown, the NSPCC’s lead on tackling sexual abuse.
“We are currently researching this area of child protection so we can give more support to those in the field, many of who tell us they are inadequately equipped to deal with the problem.”