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Social workers need more support in dealing with online abuse of children

Social workers are in desperate need of specialist training in how to spot the warning signs that a child is being targeted for sexual abuse online, a survey by the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) and the NSPCC reveals.

Half of all social workers surveyed by BASW and the NSPCC said they felt concerned about dealing with online sexual abuse or behaviour. Over two thirds of social workers felt they needed more support with child protection cases involving online abuse.

 Other findings from the survey included:

• Almost half (49%) of social workers said that 25% of their sexual abuse cases now involve some form of online abuse
• A third (34%) of social workers said they do not feel confident about understanding the language used by young people online
• 47% said they were not knowledgeable about how young people communicate via social networking sites
• 36% felt they did not know the right questions to ask to identify and assess online sexual abuse
• 30% said they did not feel confident dealing with child protection sexual abuse cases using the internet
• 50% say they don’t know what how to recognise the signs of the online sexual abuse of children

Comments from social workers responding to the survey included:

"We are way out of our depth and training measures are needed without delay."

"We need to know how the perpetrators can attract children, or vulnerable adults; for example, the last case I dealt with was using a site with Harry Potter on it. I do not know how the internet works."

"I work across various London local authorities and the understanding of online sexual abuse is sketchy. A UK training programme is necessary for qualified staff to ensure a uniformed approach so that perpetrators do not slip under the radar in some areas."

BASW is backing an NSPCC training tool, Keeping children safe online, an online learning programme developed by the charity to educate child protection professionals about the risks the internet can pose to children.

Commenting on the need for such initiatives, BASW professional officer Nushra Mansuri said: “The number of cases in which the internet plays a part in the grooming and abuse of children is rising, and social workers need to be equipped to recognise the warning signs. Social work educators and employers must keep pace with new technology and training on the risks posed by social media should be an intrinsic part of learning.”

Peter Wanless, NSPCC Chief Executive, said: “Keeping children safe from sexual abuse increasingly means protecting them from offenders who use technology to target their victims, such as grooming in chat rooms or online social networks. And vulnerable young people are now being coerced into sharing explicit images of themselves via mobile phone messages and apps. So it’s vital that social workers dealing with child sexual abuse cases understand these techniques and can talk to children about them.

“It’s worrying that the majority of social workers surveyed by BASW are struggling to understand how online child abuse happens. We know they are doing a tough job under pressure and shouldn’t need to be technology experts but they do need to have a grasp of the basics. The NSPCC is developing an e-learning course in partnership with the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre to help social workers get up to speed on this rapidly evolving world.”