Child sexual abuse (CSA) remains “very hidden” despite increases in the number of cases identified over the past year, experts have warned.
While the identification of CSA in assessments in England reached record levels in 2021-22, relatively few were placed on child protection plans for this reason and many more cases of abuse went hidden, warned the Centre of expertise on child sexual abuse.
The CSA Centre also identified a “concerning” postcode lottery in the identification of the abuse in assessments of children and in numbers subsequently placed on child protection plans, in a report on data trends in 2021-22 published yesterday.
It said the report showed the need for both improved data and better training and support for practitioners in relation to sexual abuse.
Record case numbers but well short of estimates
The number of children’s social care assessments in England that identified CSA as a concern rose by 15% in England in 2021-22, to 33,990, the highest level since this information started being published in 2015.
However, while CSA Centre welcomed this rise, it said it fell well short of the 500,000 children it estimated fell victim to sexual abuse each year, leaving a “huge gap between those children who get help and those who remain unprotected”.
The extent of underidentification led the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) to recommend the government place professionals under a duty to report CSA whenever they received a disclosure, witnessed the abuse or observed recognised indicators of it. The government is due to respond shortly to the inquiry’s final report, published last October.
While assessments identifiying CSA had increased, those identifying child sexual exploitation (CSE) fell for the fourth consecutive year, to 16,330 in 2021-22, down from 20,000 in 2017-18, said the CSA Centre.
Low conversion of identified concerns to CP plans
And despite the number of child protection plans for which sexual abuse was listed as the main concern rising by 3%, to 2,520, in England in 2021-22, this was the equivalent of just one in 20 of the children whose assessments recorded CSA or CSE as a concern.
The difference was far smaller for other types of harm, with the number of assessments identifying neglect as a concern being only three times higher than the number of child protection plans under this category, and ratios of 4:1 for emotional abuse and 13:1 for physical abuse.
The CSA Centre suggested these figures hid the numbers of children on plans experiencing CSA, citing 2015 Office of the Chidren’s Commissioner research that found social workers were more likely to categorise children under neglect or emotional abuse than sexual abuse, where there were CSA concerns.
This was among a number of data gaps identified by the report, which also highlighted that no figures were recorded about sexual abuse concerns in relation to children on child in need plans, those referred to early help and looked-after children.
In Wales, the number of children placed on the child protection register for sexual abuse, whether uniquely or as part of the ‘multiple abuse’ category, fell, from 220 in 2020-21 to 190 in 2021-22.
‘Concerning’ postcode lottery
The report identified a “concerning” postcode lottery across both countries in the identification and response to CSA.
The centre found three-fifths (92) of English authorities placed “no or very few children” on child protection plans because of CSA, with one-third (47) placing five or fewer children on plans.
This issue was regionally concentrated with all councils in the East of England and all but one in outer London placing two or fewer children per 10,000 population on a child protection plan for CSA. Rates were comparatively high in the West Midlands and Yorkshire and the Humber.
There were also significant local and regional variations in England in the the rates of assessments that identified CSA as a concern, the centre found.
In Wales, half of authorities placed more than two children per 10,000 in the population on child protection plans for CSA (including in cases of multiple abuse) with the rest below this rate.
Underidentification of abuse of black, Asian and mixed children
The study also highlighted an underidentification of CSA among children from black, Asian and mixed ethnic groups, who made up 17% of children on child protection plans for sexual abuse in England in 2021-22, but 26% of all children in state-registered nurseries and schools.
A 2020 report by IICSA and the Race Equality Foundation found that cultural sterotyping by practitioners – for example, the idea that abuse was part of a child’s culture – created barriers to disclosure for children from ethnic minority backgrounds.
On the back of its latest report, CSA Centre director Ian Dean said: “Sexual abuse is a very hidden form of harm which many professionals find challenging to identify and it will take a significant and sustained effort to address this – but it must be a priority.
“We urgently need better data, not just to get a more realistic picture of the scale of child sexual abuse but also to better understand the nature of this abuse and how professionals can intervene to keep children safe.
National prevalence study urged
The centre called for the UK government to introduce a regular national prevalence study of CSA to identify the current scale and nature of the problem.
It also called on government to initiate improvements in the quality, consistency and comparability of data collected by agencies, including children’s social care. The CSA Centre has previously produced a guide for organisations on improving their information on child sexual abuse, including a core dataset of measures they should collect.
And in an echo of its response to the IICSA final report, the centre urged improvements in pre- and post-qualifying training for practitioners working with CSA, including social workers.
This would ensure they had “the knowledge and confidence they need to better protect children by
identifying and responding to concerns of child sexual abuse and recording them appropriately in data systems”.