Inadequate responses to child sexual abuse (CSA) within family environments by agencies are leaving children repeatedly victimised and unsupported and perpetrators unidentified, inspectors have warned in a report today.
Social workers and other professionals lack the skills they need to identify perpetrators and support disclosure by children, due to low confidence and a lack of adequate training, it found.
The problems were driven by a lack of local and national strategies to tackle the problem, the greater priority given to child sexual exploitation (CSE) over CSA and an approach that was police-led, which led to an insufficient focus on the child.
Following the report – issued by Ofsted, the Care Quality Commission and the police and probation inspectorates and based on field work from six areas – the government said it would publish a national strategy on tackling CSA.
‘Unseen and unheard’
“As it stands, children abused in the home are going unseen and unheard because agencies simply aren’t capable of keeping them safe,” said Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman. “The lack of national and local focus on this issue is deeply concerning and must be addressed.”
More on child sexual abuse
The report identifies many of the issues raised in an inquiry by the Children’s Commissioner for England in 2015. This found that two-thirds of all child sexual abuse took place within the family environment but that just an estimated one in eight victims of CSA came to the attention of statutory authorities, due to a disclosure-led approach from professionals and considerable barriers to children disclosing.
Responding to today’s report, commissioner Anne Longfield said: “It was clear then that many professionals working with children, and the system, were ill-equipped to identify and act on the signs of abuse. Five years later, amid rising costs children’s social care and with less spent on early intervention, many children are still being let down badly.”
Today’s report used the commissioner’s definition of CSA in the family environment as that perpetrated or facilitated by a family member or someone otherwise linked to the family context.
The report noted the challenges for professionals – and parents – of identifying CSA, including absent or inconclusive physical evidence, the fact that signs of abuse, such as abdominal pain, can be indicators of certain medical conditions, the rarity of verbal disclosure and children’s communication of abuse through behaviours, demeanour or other signals.
However, inspectors found that disclosures, when they did occur, were “often not recognised or [were] misunderstood, dismissed or ignored”, a problem which afflicted groups including disabled children, boys and children from some ethnic minority groups in particular.
To enable disclosure, children needed access to safe adults with the skills to listen and the opportunity to confidentially explore the consequences of dislosure.
But practitioners lacked confidence in identifying the signs of CSA, which often led social workers and other professionals to focus on other types of harm, such as emotional harm or neglect, which they felt more confident assessing risk for. This was then recorded on child protection or child in need plans, meaning the focus of multi-agency action was not on sexual abuse.
Focus on criminal justice, not the child
This problem was compounded by a response to CSA that was too often police-led and focused on whether a criminal offence had taken place, rather than on the child.
As a result, where there was a lack of hard evidence in relation to CSA, professionals did not always feel confident to address it head on with the family, even where there were significant indicators that a child had suffered abuse.
Inspectors said social workers needed to be confident enough to challenge the police, saying that it was vital that agencies did not retreat when there was not enough evidence to secure a conviction.
Professionals also did not have a good enough understanding of perpetrators’ methods and motivations, and the signs that someone may be an abuser.
For example, they did not understand well enough the relationship between viewing child abuse images and committing abuse.
Need for more training
Inspectors said there was a need for better training, support and supervision for all professionals involved in tackling CSA. However, they found evidence that some local authorities did not have access to good-quality Achieving Best Evidence (ABE) training, meaning social workers were less aware of how special measures could be used to support children in giving evidence of their abuse.
This also left the police, who are ABE-trained, as the sole decision makers as to how an investigation should be carried out in the child’s best interests.
Also, the report found that professionals believed there had been a shift in the emphasis of training towards child sexual exploitation that had “overshadowed risks from familial sexual abuse”.
Ian Dean, director of the Centre of expertise on child sexual abuse, said: “This report highlights the acute need for better and more training and support for everyone working with children who have been sexually abused within the family. The CSA Centre is currently working with professionals from across the country to give them the knowledge, confidence and support to be professionally curious and act appropriately in order to protect and support children where there are concerns of sexual abuse, but this report highlights the scale of the challenge in many areas.
“It is clear that far more children are being sexually abused and harmed than we are currently identifying or safeguarding; and children are most at risk in their own family. Identifying and responding to concerns of child sexual abuse will always be challenging, but children should not bear the burden of protecting themselves and stopping their abuse.”
National strategy pledged
Following the launch of the report, a government spokesperson said: “We are taking urgent action to tackle these crimes and will soon be publishing a first of its kind national strategy to tackle child sexual abuse, better support victims and improve collaboration between the government, agencies and law enforcement.
“Alongside work to better safeguard children new sentencing laws will see serious sexual offenders spending longer behind bars and we are recruiting 20,000 extra police officers to bring more abusers to justice.”
Association of Directors of Children’s Services president Rachel Dickinson said any strategy needed to focus on children who faced additional barriers to disclosure, including boys, disabled children and those from specific ethnic minority groups.
She added: “Our ultimate goal must be to prevent child abuse from taking place in the first place. It’s clear from the report that more data and research is needed to better understand the scale and prevalence of child sexual abuse within the family environment as is research on potential perpetrators. Better information sharing between agencies including with health, probation and school nursing staff, who often hold key information and insights, can only be a good thing for children and families.
“Awareness of child sexual exploitation has developed immeasurably over the past several years, in part because it has been talked about so much. There are future opportunities for a specific focus on child sexual abuse in the family environment through the training of social workers and increasing awareness amongst pupils via Relationships and Sex Education in schools. Beyond all this, we need to urgently tackle the social, cultural and moral issues at the root of this abuse so that all children can lead safe and happy childhoods.”
Community Care Inform Children subscribers can access resources that help practitioners protect children from CSA and support victims in the child sexual abuse knowledge and practice hub. Risk factors, signs and indicators can help you identify a young person at risk; Understanding ‘disclosures’ explores how to make telling a two-way process so responsibility for seeking help is not all on the child and Supporting children to speak about sexual abuse provides tips on working supportively and the impact of trauma. Find information and answers to FAQs about accessing CC Inform here.