An estimated 55,000 people are waiting for child sexual abuse support services in England and Wales, with average waits of six months, experts have warned.
The Centre of expertise on child sexual abuse (CSA Centre) found that just half of services were able to meet demand for services including one-to-one therapy or counselling, group-based interventions, helplines or advocacy for child or adult victims/survivors and family members.
A similar proportion delivered services to just 100 people each in 2021-22, with the centre estimating that there were between 10,000 and 20,000 victims/survivors per service in each of the regions of England and Wales.
Postcode lottery and significant service gaps
Alongside a postcode lottery in provision, the centre identified significant gaps in support for specific groups, including people from ethnic minority backgrounds, boys and men and victims/survivors of intra-familial or online abuse.
It also found that the majority of providers were struggling financially, with two-thirds not fully confident that they could sustain their existing service provision into the next financial year, often because of short-term contracts.
Services – most of whom were charities – also faced challenges recruiting and retaining staff because of the skills required and their difficulties in offering competitive salaries. More than half were using volunteers to fill roles such as befriending, administrative or technical support, and service promotion.
The centre’s findings were published in a report last week, Support Matters: The landscape of child sexual abuse support services in England and Wales, which it said was the most comprehensive picture of provision ever compiled.
It carried out a mapping exercise in 2022-23, identifying 468 specialist services for victims/survivors and their families in England and Wales, and then interviewed representatives from 168 of these, on which its findings were based.
‘Unacceptable’ lack of support
CSA Centre director Ian Dean warned that the research revealed a “huge” and “growing” gap between provision and need and said it was “unacceptable” that some survivors were waiting years to access services that could make a difference to their lives.
“Research and testimonies have consistently shown the vital role that timely support can play in reducing the short and long-term impacts of child sexual abuse, and the huge difference that services make to the lives of victims and survivors,” he said.
On the back of the research, the CSA Centre called for the UK and Welsh governments, councils and other commissioners to:
- Ensure sufficient funding for services to maintain their current provision and provide timely support, including by offering long-term, unrestricted funding to ensure financial stability for providers.
- Provide additional funding to enable services to expand to meet the needs of existing and new users.
- Provide further funding to help services develop their infrastructure, for example improving data collection and analysis systems.
- Resource services to train and upskill their staff and boost training for non-specialist staff in statutory services.
- Commission research into specific groups’ support needs and access to services, such as those of boys, physically disabled children and people from ethnic minority backgrounds.
- Improve commissioners’ expertise in funding CSA services.
Independent inquiry findings
The centre’s findings echo those of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), whose 2022 final report found “considerable unmet need for all forms of support services”, driven by a postcode lottery in provision, a lack of specialist support and tight eligibility criteria.
It called for the UK and Welsh governments to provide a national guarantee that child victims are offered specialist and accredited therapeutic support.
In April 2023, the Welsh Government accepted the recommendation in principle, but said it needed to “consider, with partners, the options for commissioning and delivering this support”.
The following month, the UK government said it accepted there was “more we can do to ensure that those who have suffered get access to the provision they need to help them recover and rebuild their lives”.
It said it was “committed to making sure these services are available to victims and survivors of child sexual abuse” in England, and that it would “elicit views on the future of therapeutic support, including possible systemic changes to provision”.