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'Protecting Children from Harm' - a report of the Children's Commissioner for England

Last week the Children’s Commissioner for England released ‘Protecting children from harm: A critical assessment of child sexual abuse in the family network in England and priorities for action’. This is the first report to come out of the Commissioner’s Inquiry into Sexual Abuse in the Family Environment. Among its central findings it reports that only around 1 in 8 cases of child sexual abuse are detected by the police or other statutory services, and that around 2 in 3 cases of child sexual abuse occur within a family environment.

This is a welcome report, improving our understanding of both the extent and nature of sexual abuse. As we develop our knowledge of abusers and victims, both professionals and lay people are in a better position to make defensible decisions which will make abuse harder to carry out and easier to detect.

One of the interesting things about this report is the way it reached its estimate of the levels of un-detected sexual abuse. By definition, it is impossible to know with certainty about the extent of un-detected problems; this is an issue which we also face in knowing the extent of adult sexual abuse. Because different statutory authorities, such as the Police and Local Authorities, are responsible for collecting data on sexual abuse of children it is possible to compare their records and calculate the probability of each body detecting an individual incident. This allows an estimate of the number of cases not detected. (An overview of this approach is given here)

This method is possible because, with child sexual abuse, we have access to data from two separate bodies which collect sufficient detail to match cases which have been reported to them both. Unfortunately the same is not true of adult sexual abuse, where our two sources are police crime figures and the anonymously collected Crime Survey for England and Wales. However, the finding that 1 in 8 cases of child sexual abuse are not detected is broadly consonant with estimates of under-reporting for adult sexual abuse – the 2013/14 Crime Survey for England and Wales found that only around 1 in 6 victims reported their abuse.

Also similar to data for adult abuse is the finding relating to who is most likely to abuse. Adult abuse is most likely to be committed by those intimately related to the victim – spouses and partners, family members, friends. Unsurprisingly, the same is true of children. The report draws the border of the ‘family environment’ very broadly – it includes those connected to the family but not related, such as faith leaders, nannies, tutors and family friends. Individuals within this family environment have easy access to children and are often in a position of power over them, able both to abuse and to cover that abuse with the child’s silence.

Another key observation made in the report is that systems for detection of abuse are quite reactive, waiting for victims to disclose abuse. Children and other vulnerable groups are particularly badly placed to disclose abuse – they may not understand what is happening to them is wrong, their abusers often hold power over them, and their freedom of access to bodies like the Police is limited. A reliance on disclosure will mean that most abuse is not detected. The report calls for schools, in particular, to be more sensitive to the signs of potential abuse.

Taken together, these findings underscore the value of an approach which empowers lay people to observe and identify the signs of sexual abuse. Much abuse happens to children unable to report it themselves and will not be picked up by formal systems. It will generally be carried out by those we would normally see as beyond suspicion, not the lurking deviant of media panics but parents and family friends. TDI has strands of work training those working for housing associations, leisure providers and faith groups to spot the signs of child sexual abuse and to respond to their concerns in balanced, non-accusatory ways.

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