Advice for social workers on children who display harmful sexual behaviour

Valerie Sheehan, a director and senior child protection consultant at Mentor Forensics, shares research and advice on this complex area

Since the Savile abuse scandal came to light, media attention has focused heavily on historic cases in which the alleged perpetrators are now in their 60s, 70s and sometimes older.

Yet social workers are increasingly alarmingly having to confront complex cases at at the other end of the scale.

Between 2009 and 2010, over 200,000 sexual offences committed by children were recorded in the UK (Cooper and Roe 20120). In fact, research shows that not only is sexually abusive behaviour by children nearly twice as common as sexual abuse by adults (Radcliff 2012), but also that it is increasing in comparison with other types of young offending.

The law enforcement report of the Garda Diversion Programme in Ireland (The Irish Examiner 2014), for example, details that while there was a decrease of 12% in juvenile crime in general, there was an almost four-fold increase in sex offences committed by children between 2009 and 2012. The same report found a 52% increase in sexual assaults by children and a 33% increase for defilement of a boy or girl under the age of 17 in 2012.

As co-director and senior child protection consultant at Mentor Forensic Services, I train social workers to work with young people who are experiencing and/or exhibiting problematic sexual behaviour. The reality is that there is no simple, single solution.

Alongside the trauma a whole family is likely to be experiencing if a young person has demonstrated problematic sexual behaviour, there are immediate practical issues of safeguarding, assessment and intervention to deal with.  To achieve the best outcome for all, professionals need to fully understand the issues that can be present when a child engages in such behaviour.

The most common case profiles involve boys aged 13 to 15 who primarily target pre-adolescent children with limited use of physical force. Rape occurs to a lesser degree. Statistically, these boys are more likely to get into trouble or be arrested for later non-sexual problematic behaviours than for sexual crimes (Rich 2011).

However, the reality is that children of both genders come to the attention of services because they are displaying problematic sexual behaviour – even under-fours.

Research into harmful sexual behaviour in children has evolved towards a general recognition that neglect and maltreatment in early childhood, including sexual abuse, may predispose the onset of sexually harmful behaviour (Hackett, S and Masson, H). However, while it needs to be considered, it’s not correct to assume every child who displays problematic sexual behaviour has been sexually abused themselves.

While each case needs its own specific approach and support, I would advise social workers to bear some key considerations in mind when working on such cases:

1. Do not assume the behaviour is sexually motivated.
2. There may be more than one influencing factor- Insecure attachment, anxiety and low self-esteem,  general neglect, underdeveloped impulse control, early exposure to sexual behaviour/material, family conflict, learned behaviour, to name but a few.
3. Recognise that a child’s development is fluid and that this behaviour is likely to be responsive to intervention and will ultimately cease.
4. There may be other unreported or undetected problematic behaviour – not just this allegation.
5. Parents and carers may not fully understand or be able to safeguard in the early stages of disclosure: despite what they have been told they may struggle to absorb the information.
6. Young people who target children rather than peers or adults are more likely to have male and female victims.
7. Although sexually troubled and sexually abusive behaviour in children can look remarkably like their adolescent counterparts, the developmental differences suggest major distinctions between the age groups.
One significant difference being that older children are likely to be gaining sexual pleasure which reinforces the behaviour. The issues become more complex when trying to work with an adolescent who wants, and indeed needs to have sexual expression and relationships, but where they struggle to achieve this in a healthy way.
In addition, adolescents are more likely to have a clearer understanding that the behaviour is wrong and be more closed to talking about their problem. One study found 80% of juvenile offenders were frequently deceptive to assessors when describing aspects of their offence prior to treatment (Burkhart, Cook & Sumrall 2008). It is crucial to help this group overcome feelings of shame and to talk about their thoughts, feelings and behaviours.
8. Lastly, there’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach. Every instance in which a young person indicates sexually harmful behaviour will have unique circumstances and requires a unique response. Understanding the motivations and risk factors in young people who engage in sexually harmful behaviour – and implementing balanced risk management strategies responsively – underpins the potential to improve outcomes.

  • For more on Mentor’s ‘Young people experiencing and exhibiting harmful sexual behaviour’ training see
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