Before commenting on the report which was released on 9th June 2021, it is necessary to make you aware that the ‘Centre of expertise on child sexual abuse’ is entirely funded by the Home Office which is trenchantly against the introduction of well-designed mandatory reporting of known and suspected child sexual abuse by those working in Regulated Activities (“RA”).
Government mistakenly, and without any supporting evidence, believes that safeguarding should rely on children ‘coming forward’, and whistleblowing by those who work in RA’s. Clearly, it’s not working. Child sexual abuse is grossly under-reported as evidenced in ‘Protecting children from harm’ 2015 by the office of the Children’s Commissioner. Of course, the Home Office also works closely with the Department for Education which has the safeguarding brief but both are responsible for the framework that is misapplied to strategically important RA’s. These important roles and settings have only nominal responsibility and little accountability for the delivery of functioning safeguarding (see our submission to the Reporting and Acting on Child Abuse and Neglect Consultation). They also have entirely different demands to familial abuse and neglect which is the foundation of the current safeguarding framework applied to RA’s. Here is an email we sent to Professor Ben Mathews in 2017 expressing our concern about the situation. Here is his reply.
Because of the structural incompatibility of the safeguarding framework with the role provided by RA’s the Government has regrettably ‘designed in’ default dysfunctionality. This seriously impacts the ability of RA’s to deliver safeguarding on which reliance can be placed. The role of RA’s includes the vitally important ‘sentinel reporting’ function i.e. children at risk of abuse at home or places other than the RA institution they attend. Others have noticed these shortcomings and commented.
No evidence supports retention of ‘discretionary reporting’ by RA’s i.e., the status quo. However evidence does support the introduction of mandatory reporting, on reasonable grounds, of suspected and known abuse by those working in RA’s who have responsibility for children.
The CSA Centre’s report is available here for download.
The headline states:
“To tackle child sexual abuse, we need to properly understand its causes, scope, scale, and impact.”
We agree. The paucity of relevant data in this country compromises the opportunity from which to develop functioning and reliable safeguarding arrangements. This was well-expressed by Sharon Shoesmith during a presentation at Bucks New University in 2015.
Unfortunately, as the analysis below will show, the report makes no attempt to recommend any measures to tackle CSA based on the understanding that it tries to develop.
A selection of excerpts from the report are provided below.
Criminal justice data provides a fragmented but consistent picture of the scale of CSA cases proceeding through the system. After years of increasing volumes of CSA offences recorded and defendants prosecuted, these numbers have levelled off.
This tells us nothing about the prevalence of abuse or any changes in it. Cases going through the criminal justice system can be affected by any number of factors. The criminal justice system has suffered major backlogs in recent years as documented by “The Secret Barrister: Stories of the Law and how it is broken”. The delays are such that it can take years for cases to come to trial and in the meantime the stress on the complainant can be such that they withdraw support for the prosecution. There is also the misuse of pre-trial abuse of process hearings by defence barristers to stop cases in their track. We can provide evidence to underpin the point.
This review concludes that significant gaps remain in what we know about the scale and nature of CSA in England and Wales. There is a continued need to improve data on the prevalence of CSA – which could best be achieved through a dedicated CSA survey – and to improve how agencies collect, record and publish data on CSA.
No specific proposals are made for improving data collection, so that at least at some point in the future a consistent dataset could be made the subject of analysis.
The purpose of this report is to bring together data across different data sources in one place so that evidence can inform the development of approaches to the prevention, disruption and identification of CSA.
There is limited consideration of CSA data from countries other than the UK, particularly common law jurisdictions and/or members of the commonwealth such as Australia. Such comparative studies would serve two purposes: to identify improved forms of data collection and analysis being carried out elsewhere, and to analyse the effect of legislative and policy approaches such as mandatory reporting. No such comparative studies have been attempted in the UK.
The section “Structure of the report” summarises the structure and content. According to this summary, the report looks at definitions of CSA, estimates of prevalence from self-reporting and surveys in England and Wales, summaries of official statistics in England and Wales, summaries of data available from hotlines and helplines, and finally conclusions and
“… recommendations for action to gather more information on the prevalence of CSA and improve how agencies collect, record and publish data on CSA.”
This chapter spends time on looking at the overlapping definition of CSA and CSE, describing various kinds of contact and non-contact abuse. It notes that understanding of the various kinds of CSA has changed over the years and implicitly indicates that our understanding might change further in future.
Section 3.1. contains summaries of studies estimating the prevalence of CSA in other countries. The most recent study is eight years old and two of the five studies mentioned are more than twenty years old. All are meta-analyses of data which is even older. The extent to which reliance can be placed on data this old is questionable.
The following article from 2016 has sadly been omitted from The Centre of Expertise’s considerations : Reports of child sexual abuse of boys and girls : Longitudinal trends over a 20-year period in Victoria, Australia. This shows a significant change to rate of girls to boys abuse reports from (2 : 1) in 1993 to (1.14 : 1) in 2012 i.e., close to equal. The reasons that prompted the trend are recent. We provide the abstract for the article here. Note that the report is solely targeted at improved data gathering.
Section 3.2 notes that the numbers produced by studies may not be all that useful and reliable because of differences in design and methodology between studies. There is a breakout box mentioning that CSA centre has made a separate review of methodologies in studies in other countries, without offering (either here or in the other report) “clear conclusions about which method was most effective”
Section 3.3 looks at results from the Crime Survey for England and Wales (“CSEW”). One conclusion drawn from the CSEW is that:
“Research has found that the likelihood of experiencing CSA is similar across ethnic groups, but that people in some groups face barriers to reporting it”.
However, they do not go on to conclude that the incidence is probably not much affected by culture and therefore likely to be similar in other countries with better data collection, and that differences in incidence are likely to be much more affected by variations in government policy to fight CSA rather than underlying differences in culture.
Figure 14 provides numbers from who CSEW respondents told about their experience of CSA. These are self-reports and so the numbers may be skewed, since those children who didn’t disclose at the time may not have been aware of unreported suspicions held by adults to whom they didn’t actually disclose.
A key point in the CSEW summary is the description of reasons children did not disclose at the time.
“The reasons for not telling anyone about the abuse at the time were generally similar regardless of the form of CSA experienced (see Figure 16): by far the most common reasons were embarrassment, a fear of not being believed, a fear of humiliation, and believing nothing would be done about the abuse. Compared with those who had experienced non-contact CSA or other contact CSA, survivors of rape or penetrative abuse were more likely to have feared that they would not be believed, but much less likely to have believed it was ‘too trivial’ to tell anyone about.”
Rarely touched on is (i) adults working in RA’s failing to report known or suspected abuse and (ii) children simply not having the vocabulary to disclose. This returns us to our comment in the first paragraph of this review. The safeguarding framework across all settings is dependent on children disclosing and adults whistleblowing. England and Wales are out of step with the rest of the world in which 82% of developed nations have some form of mandatory reporting. (Daro D. World perspectives on Child Abuse 7th ed. International Society for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, Chicago 2006)
Section 3.4 looks at the NSPCC child maltreatment study (Radford et al, 2011). An obvious possible weakness of this study (which surveyed children and young people, rather than adults of all ages for experiences of child abuse) is that it can take many years for a child to disclose or even to recognise that what they suffered abuse. As might be expected, the prevalence numbers are lower than those of the CSEW survey. The report makes this point.
“the experiences of CSA among under-11s appear under-represented in the NSPCC study: the 1.2% overall prevalence rate is lower than found by the 2019 CSEW, in which nearly half (48.1%) of respondents describing experiences of CSA before the age of 16 said that it had started by the age of 11.”
So it is clear from these numbers that children very frequently do not disclose abuse at the time.
For additional information we reviewed a presentation by the University of Central Lancashire to IICSA on 12.04.17 provided by Professor Radford. Our article was titled: IICSA Seminar 12.04.17 was Misinformed About Mandatory Reporting by UCLAN Assessment.
Section 3.7 summarises the state of knowledge including a list of things we don’t know. The summary is solely based on data from England & Wales, no data or conclusions from international studies are acknowledged. Broadly speaking:
- we don’t know the current prevalence. Numbers are quoted based on the available surveys, but it is acknowledged that different surveys with different methods give different results (Shoesmith sound file provided at the beginning of the review said much the same).
- most children don’t disclose abuse at the time, and those who do disclose to family rather than professionals.
- adding in peer-peer abuse increases the numbers (but no estimate is made by what amount).
- we don’t know if the prevalence of CSA has increased or decreased over time.
All in all the reader is left blundering about in a blind fog.
Chapter 4 deals with estimates of the scale of abuse as revealed in official data. We’re not much better off here.
“It is generally recognised that official data vastly underestimates the scale of CSA” and goes on to give several reasons for this.
This is a particular problem because while surveys might provide an academic and statistical estimate of overall prevalence, that is no use for intervening to protect children in individual cases. To intervene you need actionable intelligence that a specific child is being harmed. The report refers to a report compiled in 2015 by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, which estimated that
“only one in eight victims of CSA come to the attention of the authorities at the time”.
The report recommends improved data collection methods for local authorities. It refers to a separate data collection template and guide on how to use it.
Section 4.1 states that there is wide variation between LAs as to how cases are recorded and categorised, particularly where multiple forms of abuse are identified. The report states that according to the Office of the Children’s Commissioner:
“Children who had experienced CSA according to police records were frequently recorded under other categories of abuse by children’s services: in cases where a CSA offence was recorded by the police and the victim was also made the subject of a protection plan, only 20% were recorded in the ‘sexual abuse’ category; 32% were recorded under neglect, 29% under emotional abuse, 5% under physical abuse and 14% under multiple forms of abuse.”
Section 4.1.1 described a 60% decrease since 1993/4 in:
“the number of children made the subject of a child protection plan in England under the primary category of sexual abuse”
… although over the same period the total number of child protection plans has doubled. But the CSEW survey
“found emotional abuse, physical abuse and sexual abuse to be almost equally prevalent in the population in England and Wales”,
suggesting that CSA is increasingly unlikely to be recorded as the reason for a child protection plan. No attempt is made to discern whether this is because CSA victims aren’t made the subject of CPPs or whether they are but under a different heading.
Section 4.1.5 suggests that:
“Some commentators – for example, Nelson (2016) – argue that the crises around CSA in the late 1980s and the 1990s20 had a “chilling effect”, making child protection agencies anxious about recording cases as CSA unless there was clear evidence of sexual assault. This means that children’s services data tells us less about the scale of CSA in child protection systems and more about recording practices over time.”
Interestingly in The Scotsman newspaper of 22.10.20 under the headline: “Child Abuse in Scotland: Backlash against investigations means victims are still going undetected”, Dr Sarah Nelson drew the attention of the reader to the shocking scale of under-identification of children being sexually abused in Scotland. We reviewed the article here and included Dr Nelson’s submission to Public Petition PE01551 to the Scottish Parliament 21.01.2015 – Mandatory Reporting of Child Abuse. Both make depressing reading as our review explains.
Section 4.2 addresses police data and recorded offences. Various reasons are given for not being able to make much of the figures although the numbers are provided. There’s a discussion of online offending with the general conclusion that it’s probably bad but we don’t know how bad. NCA estimates that 550,000 people pose a sexual risk to children, mostly for online offending.
Section 126.96.36.199 describes “case attrition” leading to a decline in the proportion of recorded offences resulting in a charge, down now to 10% in England and 14% in Wales, with a further 2% of offences (1% in Wales) resulting in a caution. There is great regional variation – 5% to 16% in England and 9% to 20% in Wales.
There is also CPS data. Prosecutions peaked in 2016/17 and have declined by a third since.
Overall a pretty grim picture is painted.
Section 5 deals with data from calls to helplines and hotlines. The IWF describes a lot of CSA material online, mostly hosted abroad. Stop It Now! had 5,900 people seek help in 2019, half concerned about their own sexual thoughts and half worried about someone else. This rose to 6,600 in 2020. There is also some data from Childline and the NSPCC helpline, indicating increases in call volumes.
Section 6 deals with conclusions and recommendations. Most of the conclusions are statements of the obvious, such as
“far more children experience abuse than are being recorded by police or identified by child protection services”
“attrition of child sexual abuse cases within the criminal justice system is worsening – but it isn’t clear where the issues lie”.
The recommendations are all to do with better data collection so we can better estimate the prevalence. There are no recommendations concerning measures actually to combat CSA, except in as much as better data helps agencies to know where to allocate resources, for instance:
“Comprehensive and comparative data can inform the development of approaches to the prevention, disruption and identification of abuse. Understanding the extent of CSA, who is affected by it, and where and when it happens, is crucial for the development of responses and services that are appropriate to need. “
There’s a call for better training, but even this is couched in terms of enabling better data recording.
“Over the last four years, it has become increasingly clear through the CSA Centre’s work with practitioners that safeguarding and child protection professionals across a range of agencies are not sufficiently equipped with the training, development and support necessary to enable them to apply knowledge and understanding of CSA with confidence (Roberts, 2020). CSA has been eroded from the content of most core pre and post-qualification training programmes for safeguarding professionals. Without that training, it is unclear how social workers, police officers, teachers, doctors and nurses can be expected to confidently identify concerns and record them appropriately in data systems.”
The only reference to measures to combat CSA is contained in the final two paragraphs, which mention existing government strategic plans to address CSA and express hope that if these plans are realised things will improve.
The report goes to considerable lengths to point out the poor quality of data collection on CSA in England and Wales, and that actual prevalence is therefore probably significantly higher than the various available studies indicate but remains entirely silent on the subject of measures that might be taken to try and reduce CSA.
Things that appear missing from the report:
- Anything concerning the experience of other countries and policy prescriptions attempted in other countries, except in the context of data collection.
- Any analysis of IICSA reports concerning whether, how and why organisations fail to pass on reports of suspected or known abuse to the authorities. (IICSA is briefly mentioned in two contexts, a mention of the Truth Project and a rapid evidence assessment concerning online harms).
- Any means of identifying factors that inhibit or facilitate the reporting of known or suspected child sexual abuse to the appropriate agencies.
- Any proposals to reduce the prevalence of abuse, increase the proportion of victims promptly detected and protected, or increase the proportion of abusers charged and convicted.
The overall impression is that the report has limited value as a source document for recommendations on how to combat abuse. It has some possibly useful proposals on how better to record it which is certainly needed if learning is going to improve.