‘Why did no one ask me?’ The question no child sexual abuse victim should ever have to ask

Too often, confusion around child protection guidance drives over-cautious responses to concerns around child sexual abuse. A new guide aims to give professionals the knowledge and confidence to act, explains Anna Glinski

Image of girl talking to male social worker (credit: Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse)
(credit: CSA Centre)

by Anna Glinski, Centre of expertise on child sexual abuse

Some years ago, while responding to an ‘access to records’ request, I read through the case files of ‘Simon’ – a child who had been removed from his family of origin on the basis of years of neglect, and placed in foster care with his younger brother.

The case chronology showed a catalogue of concerns about sexual abuse – multiple incidents of sexualised behaviour and indicators of emotional distress, numerous people of concern moving in and out of the family home, a lack of boundaries around privacy and nudity in the home. It was clear from case notes that social workers had been repeatedly concerned over a number of years that Simon and his brother were experiencing sexual abuse, and yet each episode concluded that concerns weren’t evidenced because the boys hadn’t made a ‘verbal disclosure’.

When Simon read through his files as a young adult, he confirmed years of sexual abuse at the hands of family members. When he was asked why he hadn’t told anyone at the time, he said simply: “Why did no one ask me?”

Unreasonable expectations

Children need help to tell. But there are multiple barriers to them doing so –including shame, fear, confusion, threats and intimidation, feelings of responsibility, not understanding what abuse is, not having the language to tell, and many more.

It is just not feasible that children will feel able to tell an adult what is happening to them without being supported to do so.”

As highlighted in the 2020 report into the findings of six joint targeted area inspections (JTAIs), the current statutory child protection approach to responding to concerns that a child is being sexually abused puts too much responsibility on children and young people to recognise the abuse they are experiencing and then to seek a trusted adult to talk about what is happening to them. This is a heavy, and frankly unrealistic, responsibility. Children cannot, and should not, be the only witnesses to harm they experience; it is the responsibility of the adults around the child to respond to help-seeking behaviour and to safeguard them.

But how do we do this?

Every social worker will likely recognise the feelings of helplessness that arise from thinking a child is being sexually harmed – but not knowing how to evidence it.”

Simon, like many victims and survivors of sexual abuse, wanted the opportunity to talk about what was happening to him and his brother.

Yet we know that social workers were likely paralysed by the fear of getting it wrong, by asking a ‘leading question’, saying something which might be challenged in a possible trial. So rather than working with Simon and his brother, creating a relationship and an environment which may have supported them to tell, and taking time to plan how to ask them about their experiences, professionals focused on the neglect issues, something we felt could be more clearly evidenced and was markedly easier to talk about.

Helping children have conversations

Unfortunately, national and local guidance for social workers can be confusing, with mixed messages about what you can and cannot say to children. Incorrect interpretations of child protection guidance – which encourage practitioners to avoid asking ‘leading or suggestive questions’ – often drive a cautious response, which, in reality, means many practitioners avoid questions altogether.

At the CSA Centre, we wanted to address this. Following on from the recent publication of our Signs and Indicators Template, which supports professionals to build a picture of their concerns, we have developed the Communicating with Children Guide, so anyone who works with children knows how to recognise what is happening and understands how to help the child to have that conversation.

The journey to creating the guide has been significant. We gathered the views of leading experts across different sectors to agree key messages for the frontline professionals working with children, no matter what their professional role or background. Experts gave their time to thrash out the relevant issues in roundtable discussions with the CSA Centre, and review draft versions of the resource.

We reached a consensus on what can and cannot be said to children at different points in the child’s journey – when professionals are worried a child is experiencing sexual abuse but has not yet said anything; when a child does say something; and when we have other evidence of abuse, for example, indecent images of a child discovered online. The output is unlike other guidance out there and I’m confident it will help social workers in practice and all those working with children.

Put simply, the Communicating with Children Guide explains:

  • What may be going on for children when they are being sexually abused.
  • What prevents them from talking about their abuse.
  • What professionals can do to help children speak about what is happening.

Taking the onus away from the child, it brings together research, practice guidance and expert input – including from survivors of abuse – to help give professionals the knowledge and confidence to act. Importantly, the guide encourages all professionals to feel confident in talking to children when they need help.

Simon and his brother are, sadly, just two children out of half a million who are estimated to experience some form of sexual abuse each year, the majority of whom do not tell anyone at the time that they are being abused.”

Social workers are in a unique position to identify and respond to concerns of child sexual abuse – in early help, initial assessment, family support, children looked after, adoption and leaving care services. Professionals – and certainly social workers – have the skills that are needed to have these sensitive and important conversations with children, and we hope that this resource fills a gap by providing the knowledge and practical advice needed to speak to children when we are concerned.

Anna Glinski is deputy director for knowledge and practice development at the Centre of expertise on child sexual abuse (CSA Centre). The Communicating with Children Guide is available to download for free at www.csacentre.org.uk

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