Sex abuse in families: Poor prevention work and staff training is letting down victims

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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Children who are being sexually abused by family members are going “unseen and unheard” because of a lack of prevention work and poor awareness among professionals.

Familial abuse accounts for around two-thirds of all child sexual abuse, although the true figure may be higher due to under-reporting. It covers abuse perpetrated by a family member, including a child or adult sibling, or by a person close to, or known to, the family.

A joint-targeted area inspection, focused on six local authority areas across England, has highlighted a number of shortcomings.

The problems centre around ineffective criminal investigations as well as an absence of preventative education work and training for professionals in spotting the signs.
The investigation report – which has been published by Ofsted, HMICFRS, the Care Quality Commission and HMI Probation – says that professionals are relying “too heavily on children to speak out about abuse”.

It adds: “Children are unlikely to tell someone that they are being sexually abused, particularly when they know the perpetrator. Parents, professionals and the public must understand and know how to respond to the signs and symptoms of child sexual abuse – education is vital.”

The report says that practice is “too police-led”, with health services not always being involved and victims being left without mental health support.
Local areas are not prioritising prevention work, the report finds, possibly due to a “reluctance” to discuss the topic.

Inspectors warn of a “worrying lack of knowledge and focus on familial abuse from all local partners”. There are “pockets of good work”, but this is inconsistent.
Preventative work in education might include training to improve schools’ understanding of the “signs and indicators of sexual abuse and harmful sexual behaviour” as well as awareness-raising sessions for children.

The report explained: “We saw one example in which a school session for children about risks of child sexual exploitation had resulted in a disclosure of sexual abuse in the family environment. This led to a quick referral to children’s social care and sensitive support for the child, as well as a successful prosecution of the perpetrator.”

The “It’s not ok” campaign in York was also praised for having led to a significant increase in schools’ uptake of preventative services, such as the “Speak out, stay safe” assemblies, and an increase in disclosures by young people.

Thorough training is key for all professionals, including teachers. The report adds: “Practitioners may fear incorrectly accusing adults of sexually abusing a child, splitting up families and getting it wrong. That is why it is so important that professionals in health, policing, social care, probation services (and) schools receive training in identifying and responding to the signs of abuse and have clear pathways for investigating child sexual abuse and on-going support and supervision.”

The investigation raised concerns about a lack of school nursing services across the six areas visited. Schools nurses can play a key role in safeguarding, including with students education and staff training and support.

The report adds: “This (investigation) identified a lack of school nursing, which meant that there was less involvement and knowledge about children who might be at risk of, or subject to, child sexual abuse in the family environment.”

Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman said: “As a society, we are far too reluctant to talk about sex abuse within the family home. It’s much easier to think of abuse happening elsewhere, to other people. Prevention is the best form of protection. If we are to deal with incest or other abuse involving families or family friends, we must talk openly and honestly about the signs and symptoms – to protect children and to stop abusers in their tracks.

“As it stands, children abused in the home are going unseen and unheard because agencies simply aren’t capable of keeping them safe. The lack of national and local focus on this issue is deeply concerning and must be addressed.”

Commenting on the report, Iryna Pona, policy manager at The Children’s Society, added: “Time and again we see the same shortcomings in the way professionals respond to sexual abuse of children within families as we do when it comes to sexual exploitation outside the home.

“We need a significant culture change that puts children at the heart of police and social services’ response, coupled with better training for professionals working with children and clear information-sharing processes at a local level.”

  • The multi-agency response to child sexual abuse in the family environment, Ofsted, February 2020:

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