‘Social workers too concerned with labelling children who abuse’

Sexually harmful behaviour by children is a significant problem, but social care responses still need improvement, according to experts. Tristan Donovan finds out what needs to change. (Picture posed by model)

Some estimates suggest under-18s may be responsible for around a third of all sexual offences committed in England and Wales, but even that figure may be an underestimate.

“Home Office statistics reveal 30 to 35% of all sexual assaults are carried out by a young person, and that’s a significant underestimation,” according to Julie Henniker, project co-ordinator for Greater Manchester’s youth offending initiative the AIM Project, which develops approaches to working with adolescent sex offenders.

Related conference

Community Care is holding a conference on supporting children and young people who sexually harm in London on 7 February 2013

“That figure is not going to consider the under-10s who are below the age of criminal responsibility, nor those who don’t go down a criminal justice route – and we know there are probably more who don’t than do,” she says.

While the proportion of young people involved in such offences is high, responses are often hampered by a lack of multi-agency working and research. For Henniker, the issue is too often regarded as a youth offending rather than child protection matter.

“My experience is that there is a sense sometimes from children’s services, as opposed to youth offending services, that we are asking them to do something in addition to their mainstream work,” she says. “But this is about child protection.”

Labelling children who sexually harm

Part of the problem, Henniker explains, is that professionals are often too concerned about labelling children and young people who sexually abuse others.

“I see lots of cases where, if we were talking about an adult sexually harming a four-year-old child, people would be jumping up and down, but because it’s a 12-year-old harming a four-year-old people are much more lenient about how they respond.

“But you are no less abused because you are abused by a young person, or a young person with a learning disability, or an adolescent female than if you were abused by an adult,” Henniker says.

Carol Ireland, forensic psychologist and sex offender lead at Coastal Child and Adult Therapeutic Services, agrees that this reluctance to view children as abusers can be problematic.

Reluctance to view children as abusers

“We should recognise that it’s harmful behaviour rather than just a bit of sexual experimentation and not say they are victims of sexual abuse when, clearly, they are victims but also perpetrators,” she says.

“It’s better to identify these young people early on and manage them, support them and develop their life skills rather than brushing it under the carpet, watching it perpetuate in adulthood and then trying to deal with the behaviour once it’s firmed up.”

Evidence suggests treatments that seek to develop the life skills of those who carry out child-on-child abuse are vital if problems in adulthood are to be avoided, adds Simon Hackett, professor of applied social sciences at Durham University.

Research conducted by Hackett and Helen Masson of the University of Huddersfield examined what happened to more than 100 young people who were subject to professional interventions due to sexually harmful behaviour between 1992 and 2000.

‘Social anchors’

The ERSC-funded study, the largest ever undertaken in the UK, found many of those who achieved good outcomes in adult life had what Hackett terms ‘social anchors’ around them.

These include employers, family, partners or professionals who support the individual through challenges they face in adolescence and early adulthood due to their history of abusive sexual behaviour.

Those who lack these kind of support networks were more likely to reoffend – sexually or otherwise – or end up unemployed, socially isolated and faced with mental health problems.

Strong message for the field

“It seems to me that this is a really strong message for the field,” says Hackett. “We shouldn’t just take our reference point when working with these children as being about stopping them sexually reoffending.

“That might be the number one target but the other thing is about helping them to meet positive life goals that are going to help them maintain long-term abuse-free lifestyles.”

Doing this, he says, means that multi-agency work is key – to help prevent young people from re-offending and develop the skills and competencies that will enable them to be successful in their lives.

“Things like health promotion, housing and managing drugs and alcohol are not standard parts of adolescent sex offender treatment provision, but looking back at the trajectories of these young people, these are critical factors that would have made a difference to them,” Hackett says.

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