New research shows victims of child sexual abuse within families face differential access to support with many failing to receive the help they need

20 April 2017

New research shows victims of child sexual abuse within families face differential access to support with many failing to receive the help they need

Professionals often failing to pick up signs of abuse, leaving many victims having to seek help themselves

Victims frequently having to wait months or years for therapy following abuse

Some schools failing to offer children any lessons on sexual abuse

Children waiting 100 days longer than adults for sexual abuse investigations to go to court

The Children’s Commissioner for England is today publishing three new reports which shine a light on the experiences of children who are victims of child sexual abuse.

The studies hear from children who have suffered sexual abuse within the family environment, look at the role of schools in preventing it, and examine the length of the criminal justice process in child sexual abuse.

One of the studies, ‘Making noise: children’s voices for positive change’, gives a powerful insight into the lives of abuse victims. Commissioned by the Children’s Commissioner, researchers from the University of Bedfordshire in partnership with NSPCC interviewed children aged between 5 and 19 who were receiving support for experiences of child sexual abuse in their family.

Previous research by the Children’s Commissioner into child sexual abuse has concluded that as few as 1 in 8 victims come to the attention of authorities and that abuse in the family environment counts for two thirds of all child sexual abuse.

Today’s reports set out some of the significant barriers to support that still exist for children who are the victims of child sexual abuse.

On children’s experiences of seeking help and support for child sexual abuse within the family environment:

  • Every aspect of a child’s life is affected if they experience sexual abuse within the family but appropriate support to address the impact is often lacking with differential access across the country
  • Professionals are often failing to pick up signs of child sexual abuse, unfairly placing responsibility on victims to make sure their abuse is identified
  • Many children feel unable to disclose that they are victims of sexual abuse
  • Many victims of child sexual abuse are waiting months or years before accessing support.

On the role of schools in preventing child sexual abuse:

  • Schools are frequently not fulfilling their role in giving children the knowledge to recognise abuse and seek help where necessary, making the early identifications of victims harder
  • A significant number of schools are failing to offer pupils lessons on sexual abuse
  • Teachers feel confident identifying the signs and symptoms of sexual abuse, but concerns raised with local authorities are much more likely to be acted upon if the child has made a clear disclosure.

On children’s experiences of the justice system:

  • Increased reports of sexual offences are placing a significant demand on police, the Crown Prosecution Service, local authority children’s services departments, the criminal and family courts, and specialist voluntary sector services for victims and survivors
  • Child sexual abuse investigations take considerably longer than for any other type of offence, including adult sexual offences, with the median length of time for investigations of child sexual abuse cases is 248 days compared to a median 147 days for non-child sexual abuse offences
  • Many victims receive inconsistent advice about their entitlement to therapeutic support prior to court and many are blocked from receiving any therapeutic input
  • Children taking part in video recorded interviews after reporting abuse and subsequent court cases overwhelmingly find the experience difficult and often distressing
  • Victims of child sexual abuse are facing long waits to find out whether perpetrators have been charged.

The report ‘Making Noise’ includes a number of powerful personal testimonies from the victims of child sexual abuse.

“It started when I was about five and finished when I was about 14 so that’s a very long period of time for it to be going on, without being able to tell anyone.”  (Teenage girl, abused by mother’s male partner)

“When abuse is happening to you, you feel very isolated.  You know that you need to tell someone, or you may even feel this urge to tell someone, but you know you can’t because that fear will overrun your whole body and your mind.” (Teenage girl aged 13)

“I had to do like the video evidence where they video record everything. I don't know, that was more traumatising than the actual abuse I went through. Like I said I was very alone and I only had my family. I really wish I knew [the therapeutic service] then... I didn't have the support network that really I should have had in place. .. It's literally like it's [the abuse] going on again, the whole thing's happening again.” (Teenage girl aged 19 years)

“I think because it’s such a taboo subject in school, you never really talk about it… I think it should be spoken about more openly to children so they know where to get help if they need to because it’s something like one in five people that never tell.” (Teenage girl aged 17 years)

“My family – they abandoned me – told me I was slanderous and destroying my brother’s life.” (Teenager aged 18) 

The reports also set out a number of policy implications for tackling some of the problems facing victims of child sexual abuse. The Children’s Commissioner calls for:

  • Professionals and other adults in contact with children to be supported to develop the knowledge and skills needed to recognise signs of child sexual abuse
  • Children of all ages to be taught from an early age in schools to recognise abuse, talk about it and seek help
  • More consideration to be given to the ways in which a school can create opportunities for a child to seek help and disclose abuse
  • Support and response to victims of child sexual abuse in the family environment to involve direct support to non-abusing family members and carers
  • Access to pre-trial therapy to be supported and facilitated by professionals with understanding, experience and confidence about the processes
  • The quality and speed of decision-making in criminal investigations of child sexual abuse to be accelerated by introducing a licence to practice for professionals working on cases and embedding Crown Prosecution Service Rape and Serious Sexual Offence specialists in police child abuse investigation teams
  • Professionals working with children to respond to and recognise children’s own resources and resilience and to communicate hope, and support children’s wider identities beyond that of ‘victim’.

Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England, said:

“It is clear from this research and the heart-breaking stories told by young people within it, that many child sexual abuse victims are being let down by the system.

“Too much is being expected of victims themselves. Not only do many feel unable to disclose abuse, they are waiting too long to see their abusers charged and jailed. Often they have to wait months and years for therapy following abuse. 

“Professionals remain dedicated to supporting the victims of abuse, but urgent changes need to be made to the way it is reported, the role of schools in preventing it and the criminal justice process in child sexual abuse cases.

“The Icelandic ‘Barnahaus’ approach, where services ranging from medical examination to therapy are provided to victims under one roof, has been proven to be successful in overcoming some of these hurdles and I hope it will be trialed in England.”

Dr Camille Warrington, University of Bedfordshire and lead author of Making noise said:

“We know that child sexual abuse flourishes in cultures of silence. Undertaking the Making Noise research project highlighted only too well children’s own appetite and ability to help break that silence. It also emphasises the need for us as adults and professionals to improve the way we listen to and talk with children to prevent and respond to abuse - and the benefits that come from doing so.”

Trish O’Donnell, Development Manager from the NSPCC said:

“The ‘Making Noise’ report allows the voices of children who have experienced familial sexual abuse to be heard. It tells us how they can be let down by systems but when they do find help it can really changes things for them. It is crucial that we create a culture where children who have suffered from such a traumatic experience are encouraged to speak out, and when they do that they get all the help they need in dealing with the difficult and upsetting events and emotions that stand in their way before they can hopefully get their lives back on track.”   

Fay Maxted OBE, CEO, The Survivors Trust said:

“I really welcome the findings highlighted by the three reports issued today and the message they send to national policy makers. The fact that there are still huge barriers to identifying and effectively responding to children who have suffered sexual abuse  in their own family environment is a shameful reflection on our inability as a society to fully protect vulnerable children. The reports highlight that every aspect of a child’s life is affected and where no support is provided this impact can last into adulthood and sometimes for life. This makes the courage of the children and young people who spoke out in the ‘Making Noise’ research project even more impressive. As a society we now need to match this courage and bring in the changes to policy and practice that will ensure we can meet the challenge of protecting and responding to children who are being sexually abused.”

Read the reports here.