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Protecting children from harm: A critical assessment of child sexual abuse in the family network in England and priorities for action

Summary

In July 2014, the Children’s Commissioner launched an Inquiry into child sexual abuse in the family environment. This is a critical analysis of the scale and nature of this form of child sexual abuse. Based on data examined by the Commissioner, it is likely that only 1 in 8 victims of sexual abuse come to the attention of the police and children’s services. Up to two thirds of all sexual abuse happens in and around the family.

Our evidence shows that children are sexually abused from a very young age, but most victims do not come to the attention of the police or children’s services until they reach adolescence. Accessing help from the police and children’s services is largely dependent on a child telling someone that they have been abused, but evidence examined by the Commissioner clearly demonstrates that most victims of sexual abuse in the family do not report it until they have the knowledge to recognise abuse and the words to describe it. Many victims of sexual abuse in the family will never tell – they may be worried about the impact telling will have on other family members, they may be fearful that they won’t be believed, and they may also be worried about what will happen next if they ask for help.

Child sexual abuse is the subject of considerable public concern. In March of this year, the Prime Minister announced that child sexual abuse had been prioritised as a ‘national threat’, on a par with serious and organised crime. The commitment of Government to tackling child sexual abuse is commendable. Child sexual exploitation is now widely acknowledged as a priority for local and national agencies with child protection responsibilities as a result. Social work reforms aim to further tackle abuse. However, the focus of much of the activity has been child sexual abuse which occurs in institutions, and child sexual exploitation which occurs in communities. Child sexual abuse which occurs within families has been largely absent from the national conversation.

This is despite the fact that the majority of victims of sexual abuse are abused by someone within their trusted circle – a family member or someone already known to the child. Sexual abuse within a family has a particular impact on victims and the wider family. The violation of trust, the barriers to accessing help, and the impact on the entire family structure, pose particular challenges to policy-makers and practitioners.

This report of the Inquiry calls for the practice of professionals in identifying children who are being sexually abused to be strengthened, children and young people to be equipped with the knowledge to recognise abuse and access help when they are worried, and processes for the investigation of sexual abuse to be improved to minimise their impact on children and maximise their effectiveness. It urges urgent action to reduce the prevalence of child sexual abuse in this country to the lowest in Europe.