Skip to content

Graham Ritchie, the Head of Policy in the Children’s Commissioner’s Office spoke at the launch of Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence Awareness Week:

To begin, I would like to thank Migdal Emunah – not only for inviting us to speak at this event, but also for their determination to organise and drive forward the Sexual Violence Awareness Week.  Bringing this initiative to life is an enormous challenge. Your presence here today is a testament to their success in this endeavour.  This is only the first event in a week of activities, and I hope that the momentum from today will be sustained to put a spotlight on this important issue for the full week.

The Children’s Commissioner has a statutory duty to protect and promote the rights of children, as enshrined in the UNCRC. The UK Government is a signatory to this Convention, which states, in Article 34, that all children have a right to protection from sexual abuse and exploitation.  The establishment of the Convention was the moment where globally, Governments came together and recognised that the sexual abuse of children was a universal problem, which is in many ways quite distinct from other forms of harm experienced by children.  Furthermore,  Article 39 states that children have a right to access services which will assist with their recovery and rehabilitation.  The responsibility of the State for children who have been sexually abused, and indeed those who may be at risk, is quite clear.

It is the Children’s Commissioner’s duty to promote and protect these rights, and her Office has long been concerned by the scale and nature of child sexual abuse and exploitation in England.  Broadly speaking, the Commissioner is concerned that too many victims of sexual abuse do not come to the attention of the authorities – they are not protected, and they do not receive help.  It is our statutory duty to look into this issue and make recommendations to Government on how to improve policy and practice to correct this issue.

In November of last year, we published a detailed assessment of the scale and nature of CSA in England, focusing in particular on CSA in the family. This report drew upon data gathered from the police and local authorities, practitioners and other experts, and involved the largest survey of adult survivors of child sexual abuse ever undertaken in this country.  This report marked the midway point in the Commissioner’s Inquiry into this issue, with further work currently taking place on prevention, investigation, and the provision of services for help and recovery.

Our report found that there are a number of compelling lines of evidence which point to the scale of CSA being larger than that which is currently identified by or reported to the authorities – the number of adult survivors reporting abuse as a child which wasn’t reported at the time (approx. 12,000 over 2012-2014); the number of adult survivors who report that they never told anyone as a child (in our study and others); cases like that in Rotherham and elsewhere, where many victims of sexual exploitation were not identified as such for many years; and consistent results from prevalence studies of CSA in the UK, which suggest that between approximately 6-11% of children are sexually abused.  These studies are generally undertaken with adults looking back on their childhood and answering questions about their experiences retrospectively, and the high level of consistency between multiple studies suggests that they are accurate.

There are approximately 11.5 million children in England.  These prevalence studies therefore suggest that hundreds of thousands of the current cohort of children living in England will have been sexually abused by the time they turn 18.  This is not unique to England or the UK – similar studies have taken place elsewhere, and they have generated similar results.  So we know the scale of the issue is significant.

Using the Commissioner’s powers we were able to obtain data pertaining to victims of CSA from various sources.  We identified that there were approximately 50,000 victims of CSA known to services over the period April 2012 – March 2014.  The question is, by what magnitude is the actual scale of CSA greater than that which is known to the authorities, and how can we account for the gap?

We used a statistical model to estimate this.  It estimates that approximately 400-450,000 children were sexually abused over the period in question, so 1 in 8 victims of CSA are known to the authorities.  In the context of the prevalence data – which is very consistent and robust – the figure generated by this statistical model is plausible.

Why is it that many victims of sexual abuse do not come to the attention of the authorities?  We have undertaken a detailed qualitative research programme, involving hundreds of practitioners from various sectors in order to try and answer this question and find out what more can be done to improve policy and practice responses to this issue.

It is clear from our work that identifying CSA is extremely difficult for professionals, so, by and large, the identification of abuse relies upon an initial disclosure being made by the child.  The onus is therefore on children to come forward and report.  They must carry the burden.

A disclosure-led approach is very likely to miss out a large number of victims.  Our research found that many children are abused when they are quite young, though most victims known to the authorities are in adolescence. This suggests that abuse often happens when children are too young to understand it, and when they don’t have the words to explain it.  And yet we rely upon them to tell us what has happened in order to intervene. Physical evidence is often crucial for substantiating abuse, yet this is rarely present.  In fact, police data indicates that more than half of cases don’t come to their attention until after the opportunity to gather forensic evidence has disappeared.

Even when children do speak out and tell someone, the process of substantiation is highly problematic – it relies upon children being able to talk about what has happened to them in an interview.  For very young children, children with physical or learning disabilities – they may require additional help to talk about what has happened to them.  However, the use of intermediaries in the interview process is sporadic and inconsistent.  When the account given is incomplete or inconsistent, this doesn’t mean that the abuse didn’t happen – indeed, we might expect this from a child who has been through something so traumatic – but sadly, from an evidential perspective, this undermines the likelihood of a successful criminal justice outcome.  For the police, substantiating abuse ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ is extremely challenging, particularly where there is no clear physical evidence.

The Commissioner is concerned that there are too many children in England who are sexually abused, but who do not receive the protection to which they have a right.  Not only is the burden of responsibility placed on the shoulders of children, the odds are stacked against them in the process of substantiating their allegation.  I do not think that this is good enough, and I am absolutely certain that we can do better.

Previously, from 2011-2013, the Commissioner’s office conducted a programme of work on Child Sexual Exploitation.  Some of the issues which emerged remain highly pertinent, not least our work on children and young people’s understanding of consent. Working with London Metropolitan University, we found that for many young people, consent is understood to be a black and white / yes and no issue, with little understanding of the way in which contextual issues, such as coercion, pressure and vulnerability, can impede someone’s ability to give or withhold consent.  This issue is highly relevant to our understanding of sexual abuse and exploitation – research has demonstrated that abuse is often perpetrated by young people, and many victims of abuse and exploitation don’t realise that what they have experienced is wrong.  In some sexual exploitation cases, victims have felt that they are in some way responsible for what has happened to them, because they didn’t say no.

In order to address these issues, over the past few years, we have made a number of recommendations to Government on the basis of the evidence that we have examined.  Broadly speaking, our aspirations for children are very clear – we want to reduce the number of children who are sexually abused, ensure that those who are at risk or who have been abused are identified, and that the criminal justice and child protection processes are optimised to ensure that their impact on children is minimised, and the likelihood of a successful conclusion is maximised.  Our recommendations are designed to bring this about.

Prevention should be at the heart of our approach to this issue – it is our view that Government departments should work together to implement a comprehensive prevention strategy, at primary, secondary and tertiary levels.

A key part of this is lessons for children on healthy relationships and what to do if they are worried about something.  Many respondents to our survivor survey said that they didn’t know that they were being sexually abused, as they were too young, and they didn’t have the words to tell anyone.  Given that the system for getting help largely depends upon children being able to tell someone, we believe that all children should receive age appropriate lessons on this.

And of course, we don’t think that the burden of disclosure should sit exclusively with children. We think that professionals who work with children should be equipped with the knowledge and experience to identify abuse and take the appropriate action to safeguard the child when they do so.  We cannot pretend that this is easy – indeed, we know that it is extremely challenging.

And this is the reason for which the Sexual Violence Awareness Week is so important.  It gives us a space for coming together to recognise the scale of the issue, and the challenges that we face in delivering the Article 34 entitlements of children.  I hope that the events and actions taking place this week will contribute to the raising of awareness among professionals, and more children who are sexually abused will be identified and helped by the authorities.  I hope that the Awareness Week will reach children who find themselves in this situation, so that they realise that they are not alone, and there are people ready to listen to them and help them, whenever they’re ready to tell.

In my role, I am often required to talk about the challenges facing current policy and practice regarding CSA. People often ask me if I get depressed working in this field.  I always tell them that, on the contrary, I have never felt so motivated.  Not only am I constantly inspired by the generosity of survivors of sexual abuse who share their stories with me and who campaign for change, I genuinely believe that the sexual abuse of children is not inevitable, and the work we are doing will make a difference.

The Sexual Violence Awareness Week gives us an important opportunity to focus on the solutions and build on our existing strengths, rather than to dwell on the problems.  I have had the privilege to meet hundreds of dedicated professionals in my work – teachers, social workers, doctors, nurses and police officers, in statutory and non-statutory sectors – all of whom are absolutely committed to doing the best job they possibly can to help victims of abuse.  I have never met a professional who was not prepared to reflect on current practices, to consider how to innovate, do things differently, and consider how best to ensure a good outcome for all children.

It is my firm belief that we have a fantastic opportunity to make considerable progress over the next few years.  The Prime Minister has made CSA a national priority.  Our understanding of this problem has never been greater.  The establishment of the Goddard Inquiry demonstrates a commitment to victims and survivors of CSA, to learning the lessons of past failures, and to investing in the development of new solutions to this problem.  It is my belief that it will bring about a permanent systemic and cultural change in the way in which we protect children, investigate CSA and manage our institutions.

For now, over the next few days, I hope that policy-makers and practitioners will use the opportunity provided by the Awareness Week to come together and share ideas on how this can happen.