Safeguarding leaders have launched a national review into child sexual abuse within the family due to a “concerning number” of such cases.
The Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel said the inquiry would examine how practitioners and agencies could improve how they identified, assessed and responded to CSA within the family.
The panel, whose role is to oversee and draw national lessons from serious cases, has commissioned the Centre of expertise on child sexual abuse (CSA Centre) to lead on the review.
‘Concerning number of CSA cases’
“We have seen a concerning number of safeguarding cases featuring this type of abuse,” wrote panel chair Annie Hudson to education secretary Gillian Keegan last month, in a letter announcing the review.
“The review will address how multi-agency local and national safeguarding practice can improve to reflect better the evidence on how to protect and respond to children experiencing this specific type of harm.”
The review, which the panel expects to report on by summer 2024, will have two strands.
The inquiry’s two strands
Strand A will examine how practitioners can identify and address hidden abuse, including where perpetrators are employing coercive control or deception.
It will also look at how social workers and others can assess situations based on evidence, such as the child’s voice or changes in behaviour, rather than by assuming too much from non-abusing parents about their ability to keep the child safe.
Strand B will probe challenges and barriers to practitioners recognising and responding to indicators of CSA; appraising relevant contextual information about families, and hearing the child’s voice without relying on verbal disclosure.
Building professional confidence
It will also explore triggers for practitioners suspecting and then reporting CSA and what can be done to build professional confidence in this area.
The review will draw upon, among other things, engagement with children’s services practitioners, safeguarding partners and young people and families.
The panel is responsible for overseeing cases where a child dies or is seriously harmed following suspected, or known, abuse or neglect, which councils must report to it.
‘Substantial underreporting of CSA’
Though the panel has seen a concerning number of CSA cases recently, experts have argued that there is substantial underreporting.
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. A similar level was recorded in 2022-23.
However, the CSA Centre said this was well short of the 500,000 children it estimated fell victim to sexual abuse each year, in a report earlier this year.
Also, there has been a 15.2% drop, from 2018-19 to 2022-23, in the number of child protection plans in England for which CSA was the initial category of abuse.
And in its final report, issued last year, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) concluded that there was systemic under-identification of CSA.
As a result, it said, professionals and others working with children should be mandated to inform the police or children’s social care of cases of abuse they had witnessed, observed the recognised signs of or had disclosed to them.
Failure to report disclosed or witnessed cases would be a criminal offence.
But while the government has agreed to implement so-called mandatory reporting, its proposed way forward falls short of what IICSA proposed.
Not only has the Home Office rejected the idea of a criminal offence for failure to report, it has also not taken forward the proposal to require reporting when a practitioner observed recognised signs of CSA.
And while the inquiry said the introduction of mandatory reporting in other countries had led to a significant rise in the number of children identified as in need of protection, the Home Office assessed that this would not happen with its plan.