Social workers unsure how to assess cases of harmful sexual behaviour in children

Government urged to implement a national strategy on working with children who sexually abuse, amid claims cases are getting more serious and social workers lack confidence when assessing and intervening. (Picture posed by models.)

A 35-year-old man from Surrey was recently jailed for 12 years after subjecting three girls to a campaign of rape and sexual assaults over a number of years. The charges dated back more than two decades, to when the man was only 11 years old.
Children sexually abusing each other is not a new issue, yet many professionals are still unsure of how to assess and intervene appropriately in such cases.
Dr Eileen Vizard, consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist at Whittington Health and honorary senior clinical lecturer at University College London, points out this is not for a lack of research into the phenomenon.
Government slow to take action

“It’s not like it was 25 years ago when I was starting out and no one knew what to do,” she says. “The research and evidence base is now pretty convincing [around assessment and intervention]. What is lacking is a co-ordinated response.”

Research and statistics

20-60% of all child sex abuse is perpetrated by other children and young people

Child sexual abusers have much lower rates of sex abuse recidivism in adulthood (9-37%), but much higher rates of non-sexual reconviction (37-89%)

Studies suggest three factors increase the risk of becoming a victim: living in a dangerous community; having a chaotic multi-problem family environment and emotional problems that increase risky behaviour and compromise a child’s ability to protect themselves.

Risk factors to becoming a perpetrator include multi-problem family environment, emotional problems and previous sexual abuse, but there is no causal link between being abused and becoming an abuser. For boys, witnessing domestic violence is also a factor.

(Source: Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry: The victims and juvenile perpetrators of child sexual abuse 54:5 (2013) 503-515)

There have been calls for a national strategy on the issue since the 1990s. Vizard helped draw up a strategy in 2005 and again in 2009 for the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Education.

But while parts of it have been included in other guidance around sexual abuse and child protection, the government has always shied away from publishing and implementing the strategy in full.
The Home Office has now set up a national working group to look at the sexual abuse of children, but while it is examining child sexual exploitation and cyber-crimes, the working group does not have a specific remit around children abusing other children.
Jon Brown, who leads on sexual abuse prevention for the NSPCC and is involved in the working groups, says its remit needs to go further. “And we need to be lobbying for this while the media lighthouse beam is still firmly fixed on the sexual abuse of children.”
There is no reason the working party could not look at children who display sexually harmful behaviour and produce a sexual abuse prevention guide, Brown says. “It doesn’t need to be an epic tome, but it is needed given the lack of knowledge, competence and confidence amongst many professionals, including social workers, when it comes to [sexually harmful behaviour in children].”
Complicated, ‘very different’ issues

Deputy children’s commissioner Sue Berlowitz believes the issue is more complicated, however. She says: “Technically the term children sexually abusing other children includes both a teenage boy showing an unhealthy interest in a pre-pubescent child and some of the gang issues we have been exploring.

“Yet I would argue they are very different issues, which require very different approaches. I would be wary about lumping the two together in any national strategy.”
Perhaps it’s unsurprising that the coalition is reluctant to pursue a national strategy involving co-ordination across four government departments, given its preference for the localism agenda. But Julie Henneker, AIM project manager, says local government has struggled with the issue for the past decade.
AIM, which stands for Assessment, Intervention and Moving on, was developed 10 years ago to create a more co-ordinated approach across a number of local authorities in the North West. It has had success, and AIM has become a sector leader in this area, but Henneker is frustrated that it has failed to stick in many councils.
Calls for dedicated roles within councils

“We get called into a lot of local authorities all over the country to do training and to co-ordinate the process,” she says. “They are spending £30-40,000, but once we leave the momentum goes and it just falls by the wayside. We’re now being called into some local authorities for the second time, which is so dispiriting.
“There needs to be a dedicated role within the council to continue the focus and maintain it otherwise it is just wasted money. Usually what happens is that it is bundled on top of someone’s day job and of course it slips to the bottom of the priority list.”
Henneker believes a national strategy is needed, or local safeguarding children boards need to take ownership of the problem. “It needs to be dealt with now because anecdotally we’re hearing there are more cases coming through and they are more worrying than they have been in the past.”
She points out that teachers and foster carers should also able to assess children as it is they who will notice any troubling behaviour first. By the time it comes to the attention of a YOT or social worker abuse has already taken place.

Early intervention can reverse behaviour

In an attempt to address this issue, the Lucy Faithfull Foundation (LFF) is in the process of putting together a traffic-light guide for parents and foster parents (similar to the one developed for professionals by Brook) to help them identify problematic behaviour.
Donald Findlater, director of research and development at the LFF, says the move stemmed from frustration that governments have been talking about parent education for years, but there has never been a national plan to help achieve it.
“Some schools have brilliant sex education classes, and we do some, but its still only reaching a small number of children and parents,” Findlater says. “Ultimately there needs to be a national push on this.”
Brown agrees, adding this is the one area of child protection where a national strategy could make a real difference. “If intervention is early enough very few children who sexually abuse go on to become adult sex abusers. But the longer it is left, the more difficult it is to reverse entrenched behaviour.”

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