Social workers are being “sidelined” in investigations into child sexual abuse and many children do not receive services when prosecution is not pursued, according to a major report from the Children’s Commissioner for England.
There is a “perceived dominance” of the police in inquiries into child sexual abuse, with Achieving Best Evidence interviews “frequently police-led”, according to evidence submitted to the inquiry into child sexual abuse in the family environment led by Anne Longfield’s office.
It also identified the “practical challenge of bringing together the relevant police officers and social workers for an interview given the time constraints of a criminal investigation”, and a shortage of “suitably trained social workers”.
The weakening of the social work role has led to concerns that substantiation of sexual abuse is “often delegated to the police using the criminal burden of proof [of ‘beyond reasonable doubt’]”, the report added.
One children’s charity told the inquiry: “It feels almost like social workers have lost their role in Achieving Best Evidence interviews. It is very much police led. What happens to children after a decision has been made around whether something is going to be taken forward to prosecution or not almost defines whether children get services or not. There are a significant number of children who do not get services where prosecution is not pursued.”
Most abuse within family
The report claimed that up to 450,000 children in England were victims of sexual abuse in the two years to March 2014, but only 50,000 victims were known to statutory agencies during the same period. Two-thirds of child sexual abuse occurs within the family or its “trusted circle”, according to the report, which used a statistical model called multiple systems examination to estimate the number of unknown victims.
Most victims are not identified because agencies including social work and the police “are geared towards children self-referring or reporting abuse, although they rarely do this”, it claimed.
‘Embed social work in schools’
The report recommended that the government should consider creating a new “embedded social worker” role within schools to support a “whole-school approach to child protection”.
It highlighted that teachers were key professionals in identifying victims, and school was “the location where a child would most likely go to for help”.
It also recommended that the government co-ordinates all sources of support for children and families, including the Troubled Families programme, where there is a “particular risk” of sexual abuse. And it said the government should “explore how to strengthen the statutory responsibilities of organisations and professionals working with children… to ensure they work together more effectively to identify abuse”.
Other findings from the inquiry included:
- Child sexual abuse often comes to the attention of statutory and non-statutory agencies as a result of another presenting factor, which becomes the focus of intervention, but the underlying sexual abuse might not be identified
- Children from Asian/Asian British communities are particularly likely to be under-represented in the data held by statutory services
- Victims who have a physical/learning disability might face particular barriers to reporting abuse, and be less likely to access help from statutory services, even though they are more vulnerable to abuse
- Many survivors became aware of the abuse long after it started or occurred. More than a quarter of respondents to a survivor survey said they did not become aware until they were adults that they had been sexually abused as children
- Girls are much more likely to suffer abuse (they account for 75% of victims), though males might be under-represented because they are less likely to report it
Longfield said: “The starting point for this report is not about professional failure but it is about doing things differently. A system which waits for children to tell someone cannot be effective.
“It is clear that professionals working with children and the systems they work within must be better equipped to identify and act on the signs and symptoms of abuse.”