Abuse victims have ‘mixed feelings’ about social work interventions

A new study finds social workers were described with "deep ambivalence" by victims of child sexual abuse in the family

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Victims of child sexual abuse feel ‘unduly scrutinised’ by social workers, research has suggested.

A report published today by the University of Bedfordshire, NSPCC and Children’s Commissioner for England found mixed feelings from child sexual abuse victims towards different agencies’ involvement in their lives. The report also found barriers to accessing help meant some abuse victims faced waiting years for appropriate support.

Researchers carried out in-depth interviews with victims, and 34 spoke about their experiences with social workers.

While they acknowledged the important role social workers play, and the research identified difficult working conditions for practitioners, victims had “mixed feelings” about their interventions.


The report said, more than other “helping” professionals, social workers “were described with deep ambivalence”. Victims identified positive and negative aspects of practice but voiced frustrations with the “systems and processes involved”.

The researchers found many of the children strongly associated social workers with keeping them physically safe.

“Two of the young people living in foster care specifically highlighted the positive role of social workers in removing them from their families and supporting them to access physical safety,” the report said.

Negative accounts of social work included interactions “driven by process and procedure” rather than needs.

“Several interviewees’ narratives also described feeling rushed, pressured or poorly listened to by some social workers. This was exacerbated in cases where interviewees noted that they had not been spoken to directly by the social worker,” the research found.


The report said this could “reflect the well-documented pressures on social workers’ time” or indicate poor practice.

Researchers said a recurring theme was children and their families feeling that they were put under “undue scrutiny from social care”.

“A number of interviewees perceived that an emphasis on the physical family environment (cleanliness and tidiness) took precedent over recognising and responding to their emotional and psychological needs.

“Similarly, a small number of interviewees voiced concerns that social workers failed to recognise their non-abusing parents’ needs and/or conveyed what they felt to be inappropriate blame on that parent. Interviewees reported high levels of anxiety associated with this scrutiny and judgement – including feeling they needed to prepare for social workers’ visits.”

Let down

Anne Longfield, children’s commissioner for England, said children were being “let down by the system”, adding: “Too much is being expected of victims themselves. Not only do many feel unable to disclose abuse, they are waiting too long to see their abusers charged and jailed. Often they have to wait months and years for therapy following abuse.”

Responding to the report’s findings, a government spokesperson said it is improving the way police, social services and other agencies work together, and given £20 million to the National Crime Agency to target online child sexual exploitation.

“We have also changed the law to make sure young people get taught about safe and healthy relationships at school, giving them the life skills they need to help them stay safe and face the challenges of growing up in today’s world,” a spokesperson said.

The researchers identified ten key qualities victims wanted to see in professionals they worked with. These were:

  1. Active listening (and supporting children to express themselves and feel heard)
  2. Demonstrating belief
  3. Care and compassion
  4. Facilitating choice and control (including the absence of pressure)
  5. Subject expertise
  6. Facilitating safety
  7. Optimism (reassurance and encouragement)
  8. Advocacy (providing practical support, signposting and advice)
  9. Non-judgmental (and respectful practice)
  10. Trustworthy and authentic (engendering trust through honest, transparent and confidential practices)



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