Social workers need to be better equipped to spot signs of child sexual abuse within the family, England’s deputy children’s commissioner has told Community Care as her office issues a report on the subject and prepares to launch a national inquiry.
The report, published today, highlights “glaring omissions” in knowledge around the incidence of child sexual abuse in family environments. This includes, it says, “an almost complete lack of research directly looking into children and young people’s experiences of what would help to prevent it or to support those who have been abused.”
The study, It’s a Lonely Journey, was based on analysis by Middlesex University of more than 57,000 research studies and raises questions about the potential under-reporting of intrafamilial child sexual abuse (IFCSA). Among its key findings are:
- The voice of child victims of IFCSA is largely absent from research and prevalence is difficult to estimate
- The UK child protection system is far from child-centred and is concerned with meeting targets at the expense of listening to and protecting children
- The criminal justice system may subject victims of child sexual abuse to secondary victimisation
- Much is known about convicted male child sexual abusers; little about child victims and their experiences
The Office of the Children’s Commissioner will now launch a two-year inquiry into the subject, drawing on evidence from statutory bodies, voluntary sector organisations and adult survivors of abuse and looking for examples of best practice. It will also commission an in-depth study directly examining children and young people’s experiences.
Speaking last night to Community Care, the deputy children’s commissioner Sue Berelowitz said: “Clearly there’s an issue around the under-identification of children [being abused]. What we know about prevalence is largely down to [victims] reporting in adulthood; there’s usually a 12 to 14 year gap between the abuse finishing and somebody reporting it.
“One thing we’re curious about is whether what’s getting in the way of social workers identifying that a child is a victim is that they expect children to make disclosures – and children don’t seem to operate like that,” she added.
Dr Miranda Horvath, deputy director of forensic psychological services at Middlesex University and author of the report said: “It is imperative that future research and the work of the inquiry brings [children’s experiences] to the fore using ethical but innovative methods. At the same time, we need to know more about programmes that are focused on preventing family-based child sexual abuse before it occurs, in order to take a preventative rather than reactive approach.”
The study, which drew on literature including the Munro review and Ofsted inspections, found evidence of good – and improving – practice within the child protection system, but that outcomes for children did not appear to have got better. It highlights multi-agency safeguarding hubs (MASH), which bring together safeguarding professionals from different agencies in one location, as “a step in the right direction.”
Berelowitz said she hopes the report and subsequent inquiry will trigger a “strong awareness” that there are likely to be many more children in our midst that are victims of sexual abuse than are being identified through the child protection system.
She said: “We need to help professionals overcome [barriers to recognising sexual abuse], and to utilise a range of questions such that they really engage with, think about and work closely with the child.”
Berelowitz added that for social workers and others working in the area, a supportive work environment is crucial.
“We’d emphasise the importance of supervision – sexual abuse is horrible, ugly stuff. Professionals need to be supported, and I’m sure there’ll be messages [from the inquiry] for managers that staff need good ongoing professional development throughout their careers and good support.”