Study reveals ‘alarming’ knowledge gaps around child sexual abuse within the family

Office of the Children's Commissioner launches two-year inquiry, says social workers must be more alert

Photo: Rex Features (posed by model)
Photo: Rex Features (posed by model)

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.”

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One Response to Study reveals ‘alarming’ knowledge gaps around child sexual abuse within the family

  1. Jan Cosgrove July 14, 2014 at 12:18 pm #

    One hopes this will not perpetuate the commonly trotted out myth about most sexual abuse happening in the home. When it is stated that 93% of abusers are in domestic situations, that is not the same as saying most child victims are in the home setting. Fact is, and the Children’s Commissioner should take this on board, the 7% who abuse in institutional settings may well account for far more than 7% of the child victims …. in a ten year period we may safely assume the average child victim rate in a domestic situation will not rise above 2 children to one abuser. Now consider the abuser:victim ratio in institutional settings over a similar period. 2, 5, 10, 20, 100 ….? WHO KNOWS….?

    This lack of information extends to the institutional setting with a vengeance. Truth to tell, there is not much evidence out there. At Fair Play for Children, we made some assumptions based on the 7%/93% split domestic:institutional. This was subject to critical analysis by someone from the Lucy Faithful Foundation, both papers can be accessed at our Online Library under Child Protection, and we can see that where there are e.g. 20 victims over a ten year period, the abusers account for over a quarter of all child victims.

    The newly-announced and long overdue review by the Government is welcome but isn’t the full-scale ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ process we want to see. Maybe it’s not at the Savile level but the ratio is far higher one suspects than has been imagined even by those of us involved over some years. In the US, there is the reported study of undetected paedophiles somehow recruited to find out how many 150 of them abused, or claimed to have abuse, between them. It exceeded 24,000 child victims or 150 each.

    Are we going to find out that institutional settings have been a cesspool of abuse over decades, places where trust has been pillaged. Until we get to grips with the questions we are raising here, we won’t know. Many victims have gone to their graves unheard, a few even murdered, many others stand mute and neglected and abandoned.

    Perhaps we will now see those who have trumpeted that institutional abuse claims have been exaggerated and have put off good volunteers, and that it’s all about domestic abuse only will shut the hell up. Yes, there has been injustice, no one likes to see false allegation, but it will be shown for sure that it palls against the huge morass that is yet to be uncovered, and which must be.