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Social workers’ knowledge and confidence when working with cases of child sexual abuse

What are the issues and challenges?

This report considers the extent to which social workers in England are confident in working with cases of child sexual abuse, along with the issues and challenges of this work. The research study on which this report is based was undertaken with social workers, managers and Safeguarding Board Chairs in six different English Local Authorities representing a social, regional and demographic mix. Through a series of individual and small group interviews staff spoke about the challenges of working with abused children in general, and those who had experienced sexual abuse more specifically.

The study revealed that social workers’ confidence in working with sexually abused children is influenced by a number of important variables. These included social workers’ access to training, peer and managerial support and supervision, experience of managing cases of child sexual abuse and previous experience of direct work with sexually abused children. Social workers’ confidence was more evident when working with individual familial based cases of sexual abuse than to forms of abuse where grooming, trafficking, internet abuse and other types of exploitative behaviour were identified and where multi-agency responses were required. Whilst sexual abuse may take different forms, social workers raised concerns that the varied ways in which abuse is described may lead to children not receiving the help and support they require. This was either because criminal investigations took priority, or because cases of grooming and trafficking were handled through multi-agency panels rather than through established safeguarding procedures. Social workers consistently highlighted the limited therapeutic provision and long term social work support available to children and their families after a disclosure of sexual abuse was made.

Social workers were emotionally affected by the cases of sexual abuse that they and their colleagues managed. They undertook the work with a strong sense of commitment and concern for children. Included in this report are examples of good practice and of social workers and their managers providing thoughtful and insightful interventions in complex cases and challenging family situations. Social workers spoke of case load pressures, the expectations of partner agencies and insufficient support and preventative services limiting the responses that they were able to provide to children. Social workers also identified concerns that cases of child sexual abuse might go undetected when more evident indicators of neglect or physical abuse are presented.

There was a general belief that training did not always keep abreast of the increasing challenges of keeping children safe. Social workers suggested that there needed to be more of a focus on nonprocedural elements of the work, including more emphasis on direct work with children, multi-agency working and supporting children and their families post disclosure. Social workers spoke of being in the ‘front line’ when it came to working with highly vulnerable and abused children, but frequently operating without the support, time, knowledge and training they needed to ensure the identification of sexual abuse and the protection and well-being of extremely vulnerable children.