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Alarming gaps in knowledge about child sexual abuse, according to report

Date:7 JUL 2014
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Journals Manager + Online Editor
A report into child sexual abuse in the family environment published today reveals alarming gaps in knowledge about its prevalence, effects, and how best to prevent it. Concern about the findings has led the Deputy Children's Commissioner for England to use the Children's Commissioner's legislative powers to today launch a national inquiry into this troubling form of child sexual abuse.

The report, 'It's a lonely journey' A Rapid Evidence Assessment on Intrafamilial Child Sexual Abuse is based on an examination of 57,226 research studies into child sexual abuse commissioned by the Office of the Children's Commissioner from Middlesex University. It found glaring omissions in what is known about child sexual abuse in family environments. This includes an almost complete lack of research directly looking into children and young people's experiences of what would help to prevent it or to support those who have been abused. The report highlights a particular lack of knowledge about the experiences of disabled children and those from minority ethnic groups. It also finds that most services to support people who have experienced child sexual abuse within a family context are targeted at adult survivors rather than children. Worryingly, little is known about the prevalence of long-term psychological and physical harm caused by sexual abuse in family environments and almost nothing about the economic cost this places on society.

The Office of the Children's Commissioner's 2-year national Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse In The Family Environment will seek to determine how widespread it is, what must be done to support the victims, and how it can best be prevented. The Inquiry will investigate children's experiences of this type of sexual abuse and make recommendations on how services should respond. It will examine evidence of what works well to prevent it from occurring, as well as how children who have experienced it should be helped. The forced marriage of children will fall within the scope of the Inquiry as this invariably leads to child sexual abuse.

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Maggie Atkinson, Children's Commissioner for England said:

'Society is rightly horrified by child sexual abuse. Most of our children are raised in secure loving homes but I am sure very many of us will be disturbed by how much abuse within the family environment goes unreported and how little is done to support the children who suffer. As adults we are morally and socially obliged to protect children from harm. As Children's Commissioner, I also have a legal responsibility to promote their right to protection. That is why I am using my legislative powers to launch a two-year inquiry into the sexual abuse of children and young people within the family environment.'

Sue Berelowitz, Deputy Children's Commissioner for England and Chair of the Inquiry said:

'Some studies suggest as many as one in twenty children and young people experience sexual abuse, the majority of it perpetrated by people within the family or family circle. We know that at any one time, around 43,000 children have child protection plans, only around 5% of whom are on a plan for sexual abuse. These figures do not add up. We believe substantial numbers of children are falling through the net because this abuse is not being recognised. The rapid evidence assessment we commissioned reveals alarming gaps in our knowledge about the prevalence of abuse, and what works both to prevent it and to support children who have been abused. Our national Inquiry will seek to fill these gaps and ensure children are better protected from this appalling and deeply traumatising abuse.'

Dr Miranda Horvath, Deputy Director of Forensic Psychological Services at Middlesex University and report author said:

'Child victim-survivors' voices and first-hand experiences were absent from vast majority of the research we reviewed for this rapid evidence assessment. It is imperative that future research and the work of the Inquiry brings these to the fore using ethical but innovative methods, with the wellbeing of the child at the centre. At the same time, we need to know more about programmes that are focused on preventing family-based child sexual abuse before it occurs, in order to take a preventative rather than reactive approach.'

In response to the inquiry, Barnardo’s CEO Javed Khan said:

'There are few crimes more abhorrent than the sexual abuse of children but when those perpetrating this vile act are relatives, people who are supposed to love and protect, it can be all the more harrowing.

We welcome The Office of the Children’s Commissioner’s announcement of an inquiry into this issue. Abuse within families, is by its nature a hidden crime; easy to obscure from the authorities within the confines of a tightly knit unit.

Barnardo’s works day in day out with the young victims of sexual abuse and the effect on their wellbeing can be profound. Shining a light on existing gaps in knowledge is vital if we are to support these children effectively and ensure robust procedures are in place to stamp out abuse.'

The full report is available to download here.