Statistics could lead to falsely assuming child sex abuse decline

Experts warned over child abuse figures

There’s a warning against false assumptions that child sex abuse is decreasing.

It’s after statistics showed the number of children on formal protection plans in England due to this type of abuse has fallen to its lowest level in 14 years.

The Centre of expertise on child sexual abuse (CSA Centre) said such abuse was only cited as the primary reason for instigating an action plan in a minority of cases.

It has voiced concerns that not specifically naming sexual abuse – as opposed to it being considered part of overall neglect or other forms of abuse – reduces the likelihood that a child will get the appropriate targeted response to meet their specific needs.

The centre said its analysis of Government statistics showed a total of 2,290 children were being supported through child protection plans (CPP) for sexual abuse in the year to March 2023, which it said was 9% fewer than the previous year.

A child becomes the subject of a CPP if they are assessed as suffering or likely to suffer significant harm.

They will first have been assessed, having been referred to children’s social care services and enquiries can be made under section 47 of the Children Act 1989.

CPPs are put in place by local authorities to support families and keep children safe and can be initiated for various reasons including neglect, physical, sexual or emotional abuse.

The CSA Centre, in its latest report, said sexual abuse as the primary reason made up the lowest proportion of new child protection plans since records began, at 3.6% in 2022/23, down from almost a quarter (23%) in 1993/4.

The organisation said the fall comes “despite surveys indicating that children are just as likely to experience sexual abuse as other forms of abuse, such as emotional or physical abuse”.

The centre said the children placed on protection plans under the primary category of child sexual abuse equated to 5% of the children across England whose initial assessments recorded sexual abuse or sexual exploitation as concerns in that time period.

But it said information is not collected at national level on the response by children’s services to the remaining 95%.

Its director, Ian Dean, said more detail in official data is needed “to understand what happened next”.

The centre, funded by the Home Office and hosted by Barnardo’s, describes itself as being the only organisation to collate the latest data across Government, local authorities, policing, criminal justice and sexual assault referral centres (SARCs) to look at how child sexual abuse is being identified and responded to in England and Wales.

It has previously estimated that the number of children sexually abused in a single year across England and Wales is around 500,000.

The centre said information about the equivalent data in Wales was not published in time to be included in this report, but that trends in previous years had shown a “similar decline in child protection registrations under the primary category of sexual abuse”.

In its report, published on Wednesday, the centre said its analysis of Office for National Statistics data showed that children are disproportionately likely to be victims of sexual offences.

It said: “While they make up only 20% of the population in England and Wales, they account for 40% of all sexual offence victims.”

The centre said that, as the country approaches a general election, those in charge must “acknowledge” this statistic and ensure professionals have the “knowledge, skills and confidence” to ensure that the needs of children where there are concerns of sex abuse “are identified and responded to across statutory agencies”.

Mr Dean said: “Identification is fundamental in being able to intervene and give children who may have experienced sexual abuse the protection, care and help they need.

“But we need more detail in official data: from local authorities, policing, criminal justice and health agencies, to understand what happened next.”

He said the findings around sex abuse only being the primary category in a minority of plans issued are “also important because we know that child sexual abuse thrives in silence and gains power from not being named”.

Mr Dean said this can have knock-on effects for victims and authorities.

He said: “For the individual child, not naming sexual abuse reduces the likelihood that they will receive a protection response targeting sexual abuse and support responses that meet their specific needs.

“More widely, at the local and national agency level, this decline in numbers risks false strategic assumptions that there is less sexual abuse, which can lead to deprioritising training and support.”

Mr Dean said the question must be asked about “what is missing from professional practice that results in declining child protection plans?”

The Government has faced criticism over its slow response to enact recommendations made by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) in October 2022 – not least from its chairwoman Professor Alexis Jay.

Speaking last month, Prof Jay said she was “very, very frustrated” at the pace and urged the Government to “get on and do it”.

The Home Office said in January that it was taking “concerted action” on a number of recommendations, including the introduction of a new mandatory reporting duty for people working with children across England to report “known or witnessed incidents of child sexual abuse”, through the Criminal Justice Bill.

Louise Gittins, chairwoman of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, said: “This report highlights the urgent need for more training on spotting the signs of abuse and supporting potential victims – especially in advance of the planned mandatory reporting duty, so professionals are able to implement the duty effectively.

“There also needs to be action taken to address the shortfalls in support for child victims of sexual abuse so that all children receive the specialist support they need, as soon as they need it.”

Barnardo’s chief executive Lynn Perry said “thousands” of children suffering sex abuse are being left alone to cope without proper support and urged the Government to provide “a package of funding for local areas to pay for this much-needed service”.

A Government spokesperson said: “This report, funded by the government, brings together the latest agency data on child sexual abuse and is an important step in helping to strengthen our understanding of the scale, risk and prevalence of this horrific crime.

“We remain firmly committed to tackling child sexual abuse and continue to engage with a wide range of stakeholders, victims and survivors to respond to emerging data and trends, and ensure we use all levers we can to keep children safe both online and in communities across the country.”

Published: by Radio NewsHub

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