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The Children’s Commissioner calls for urgent action to improve the prevention and early identification of child sex abuse and the support provided for victims.

The true scale of child sex abuse in England is likely to be significantly greater than official figures suggest, according to a report published today by the Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield.

Though police and local authorities recorded around 50,000 cases of sexual abuse over the two years to March 2014, it is estimated that as many as 450,000 children were abused over the same period – meaning that only 1 in 8 received the vital intervention needed to keep them safe and help to overcome their experiences.

The majority of victims go unidentified because the services that protect them, including the police and social services, are geared towards children self-referring or reporting abuse, although they rarely do this. Often, children do not even recognise that they have been abused until they are much older.

The report, entitled Protecting children from harm: A critical assessment of child sexual abuse in the family network in England and priorities for action reveals that the vast majority of child sexual abuse (66%) takes place within the family or its trusted circle. There are additional barriers to children reporting this type of abuse resulting in most going unreported.

Girls are much more likely to suffer abuse within families (75% of victims are girls) – though boys may be under-represented because their abuse is less likely to be identified.

The report reveals:

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

“In recent years the terrible experiences of sexual abuse that some children have suffered in institutions or at the hands of groups of perpetrators have come to light and preventing and tackling these been made a priority. We must now wake up to and urgently address the most common form of child sexual abuse – that which takes place behind the front door within families or their trusted circle.

“Our research suggests that many victims suffer in silence, unknown to those who could protect or help them to overcome their experiences. This is often because the services we provide rely on children coming forward and telling someone that they have been abused, which they rarely do. This could be for a number of reasons – they may feel intimidated, scared of causing trouble for their family, or simply not have the words to express what has happened to them.

“We all have a duty to keep children safe. This damaging crime will not go away – it needs constant and concerted effort by all those responsible for, or who have contact with, children. We must get better at preventing child abuse from occurring, identifying the victims when it does, and helping children who have been abused to recover.”

Jon Brown, NSPCC lead for tackling sexual abuse, and co-chair of the Inquiry panel, said:

“A series of national scandals has, in recent years, seen the issue of child sexual abuse taken out of the shadows. This important and timely report paints a stark picture of how far there is to go if we are to reach and support the thousands of children who are abused within the family environment and who are currently coping alone with this appalling crime.

“Sexual abuse is happening in every community and affects all levels of society, destroying the childhoods of children from every background. By its nature it is hidden, going on undetected while untold damage is done. Increasingly, children are now bravely speaking out about the sickening things done to them, often within the family home.

“Tragically, many more victims remain silent and continue to endure a living nightmare. The psychological and emotional effects of sexual abuse are devastating, lasting a lifetime without the right support. Much more must be done to identify and offer help to children whose daily existence is scarred by abuse. The current dearth of services to support the recovery of victims, that can help children pick up the pieces of their shattered lives and move forward positively, needs to be urgently addressed.”

The Commissioner recommends that:

1.    A strategy for the prevention of child sexual abuse, in all its forms, is developed and implemented by relevant Government departments, including the Department for Education, Department of Health and Home Office.

2.    The Government explores how to strengthen the statutory responsibilities of organisations and professionals working with children, as part of their duty of care to children and young people, to ensure that all professionals work together more effectively to identify abuse.

3.    The Government recognises the importance of and coordinates all sources of support for children and families where there is a particular risk of sexual abuse, including the Troubled Families programme, to ensure that victims are more effectively identified and helped.

4.    All schools equip all children, through compulsory lessons for life, to understand healthy and safe relationships and to talk to an appropriate adult if they are worried about abuse.

5.    All schools take the necessary steps to implement a whole-school approach to child protection, where all school staff can identify the signs and symptoms of abuse, and are equipped with the knowledge and support to respond effectively to disclosures of abuse. This should be supported by the Department for Education. In addition, a new role or embedded social worker should be considered.

6.    All teachers in all schools are trained and supported to understand the signs and symptoms of child sexual abuse. This should be part of initial teacher training and ongoing professional development, with the latter requirement reflected in the statutory guidance on Keeping Children Safe in Education.

7.    All Achieving Best Evidence interviews are undertaken in the presence of an intermediary or a suitably qualified child psychologist, and that appropriate provision for this is made by the Ministry of Justice and police forces.

8.    From the moment of initial disclosure, children receive a holistic package of support, tailored to their needs, including therapeutic support to help them recover from their experiences. The Barnahus model should be piloted in England, in order to determine its potential for improving victims’ experiences of statutory interventions, including the criminal justice process.

9.    The Government reviews the process of inter-agency investigation of child sexual abuse, including the role of the police and children’s social workers, to ensure that the process minimises the potential for re-traumatisation, whilst maximising the possibility of substantiating abuse and taking effective protective action and taking the views of the child into account.

10.    The Home Office amend and update the Annual Data Requirement to ensure that all police forces record this aspect of child sexual abuse-related crimes, and ensure compliance among all police forces.

11.    Children and young people with harmful sexual behaviour receive proportionate and timely intervention to reduce the risk of this behaviour continuing into adulthood.

Anne Longfield added:

“Child sexual abuse casts a long shadow and for many victims and survivors, the impact can last a life time. The sexual abuse of children is not inevitable, and I have been clear that my ambition is to see a major reduction in the number of children being harmed over the next five years.

“The starting point for this report is not about professional failure, but it is about doing things differently. A system which waits for children to tell someone cannot be effective. It is clear that professionals working with children and the systems they work within must be better equipped to identify and act on the signs and symptoms of abuse.

“This report establishes that the scale of child sexual abuse in the family is such that it must be recognised as a national priority. Over the next year I will be investigating how we can respond most effectively and what is needed to prevent children being harmed in this way.

“I would like to see every organisation that works with children review their practices and make sure that they have in place safe spaces or properly trained, trusted adults, so that children can turn to them if they are able to report abuse.  They must also make sure that staff are trained in identifying the signs of abuse and know what to do when they do – schools play a critical role in this respect. Finally, we need to make sure that there is proper therapeutic support for child victims of abuse.

“Our duty must be to do all we can to ensure it stops, to ensure children get the childhood they deserve.”

The report authors used the Multiple Systems Estimation (MSE) model to estimate for the number of children suffering sex abuse. The model has previously been used to estimate the scale of modern slavery, victims of which are similarly less likely to come forward to the authorities.

Protecting children from harm is published today on the Children’s Commissioner for England’s website.

Chief Constable and National Police Chiefs’ Council Lead Child Protection and Abuse Investigation, Simon Bailey, said:

“The scale of abuse identified within the OCC report is horrific and it confirms my belief that the police service has been dealing with the tip of the iceberg. There is no doubt in my mind that as a service we are improving our response to all forms of child sexual abuse, however I recognise that we have to do a lot more to ensure that we get it right every time and that includes securing the best evidence from victims.

“We will make those improvements, but my challenge to every organisation involved in caring for children is that by the time a child reports sexual abuse the damage has been done and we must do more to stop the abuse occurring in the first place. If we are to do this there has to be a fundamental rethink about partnership working which ensures that the indicators that abuse might be taking place are identified, shared and acted upon. A system which relies on the child reporting abuse, will only respond to a fraction of the abuse taking place.”

Jenny Pearce, Professor of Young People and Public Policy, University of Bedfordshire, said:

“We know from existing research that the extent of sexual abuse of children has been underestimated and hidden from public view. The existing onus on the child to tell others about the abuse means we still have under-reporting. This report is a wake-up call, giving us the opportunity to better understand the extent and nature of sexual abuse within the family environment.”

Fay Maxted, OBE, Chief Executive of The Survivors Trust, said:

“This report has revealed the shocking scale of sexual abuse happening to children in their own homes and destroys the myth that sexual abuse is something that happens to children outside of their own families. Research tells us that the impact of sexual abuse can be devastating for a child, particularly when the abuser is from within the victim’s own family circle.

“Physical and mental health can be affected, sometimes for years, affecting every aspect of a child’s life as they grow – relationships, school, home life. Without care and support at the time, people abused as children can go on to suffer lifelong problems with mental ill health, depression and inability to form close relationships.

“With only one in eight children actually receiving help from professionals, it is clear that current systems are not meeting the needs of vulnerable, abused children. This is a wake-up call for society and for everyone working with children to take responsibility for ensuring that children are safe and that they receive the right care and support at the time they need it.

“It is also a reminder that there are many thousands of adult survivors now who experienced childhood sexual abuse and who are still suffering today and in need of effective specialist support.”

Tim Loughton, MP:

“This is a further important piece of work from the Children’s Commissioner and the comprehensive data the authors have assembled provides irrefutable evidence for the extent of the problem we have been facing in the UK and continue to face. It is alarming that only one in eight cases of CSE actually comes on to the radar of the relevant authorities and that very young children are left to suffer at the hands of perpetrators, too often within their own families, without knowing how to speak up and what support they should be expecting. Whilst good progress has been made on raising the profile of this abuse the report shows just how far we still have to go and this is an urgent wake up call to Government and others to redouble our efforts and make sure the system enables these children to appear on the  radar and receive the help they need.”

Notes for editors

About the report

1.    Protecting children from harm: A critical assessment of child sexual abuse in the family network in England and priorities for action has been written on the basis of evidence from: the Police and children’s social services departments; meetings with expert practitioners across England; and a survey of adult survivors of child sex abuse. A number of experts gave oral evidence to the Child Sex Abuse in the Family Environment Inquiry secretariat and panel.

2.    The report outlines the findings of the first phase of the Children’s Commissioner’s Inquiry into child sexual abuse in the family environment. For the purposes of the Inquiry child sexual abuse in the family environment is defined as sexual abuse perpetrated or facilitated in or out of the home, against a child under the age of 18, by a family member, or someone otherwise linked to the family context or environment, whether or not they are a family member. Within this definition, perpetrators may be close to the victim (e.g. father, uncle stepfather), or less familiar (e.g. family friend, babysitter).

3.    In this phase of the Inquiry, the Commissioner aimed to assess the scale and nature of child sexual abuse in the family environment in England, which is currently detected and undetected by statutory agencies.

4.    Data gathered for this Inquiry relates to the two year period April 2012 – March 2014. The Multiple Systems Estimation (MSE) modelling was used to estimate the number of victims. Based on the data gathered by the Inquiry, the Commissioner estimates that 400,000 – 450,000 children in England were victims of child sex abuse between April 2012 and March 2014. Therefore, the number of victims and survivors known to authorities is 1 in 8. The MSE model is limited by the quality of the data available, though it is consistent with other research findings on the likely prevalence of CSA in England.

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