Current estimates suggest that 1 in 6 girls and 1 in 20 boys in England and Wales experience child sexual abuse before the age of 16.
Child sexual abuse and exploitation is an abhorrent crime that blights the lives of innocent millions. While there has been a growing focus and a commitment towards tackling it, too many victims and survivors continue to be failed and left waiting for justice. It is also often the case that they have been let down by the very institutions set up to care for them in the first place, making it even more challenging and painful to confront.
In May, the Government published its much-anticipated response to the final report from the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA). Led by Professor Alexis Jay, the inquiry was established in 2015 following a spate of scandals exposing current and historic cases of child sex abuse. What emerged as common themes in these cases was an underlying culture of cover-ups, abuse of power, and institutional failures that meant that horrific abuse went unchallenged.
The inquiry had a wide-ranging remit, gathering evidence from victims and survivors from a broad range of settings including religious institutions, schools, health care settings, children’s care homes, charities, and other organisations and their failure in their duty to protect children in their care.
It made several conclusions, including that childhood experiences of abuse are prevalent and damaging, that disclosures had not been responded to appropriately (children were often blamed or not believed), that institutions and inspectorates did not have robust processes in place, that children who had been harmed had not received support or reparations, and that there are significant gaps in data on the scale of child sexual abuse and exploitation. The inquiry also highlighted concerns about the role of the internet and social media in facilitating online child sexual abuse.
20 recommendations were put forward to the UK and Welsh Governments; however, the Government’s response was criticised by survivor groups and many of those who gave evidence to the inquiry for not providing a clear or comprehensive action plan to take forward the recommendations in full. For example, the Government have accepted all but one of the recommendations, which calls for a ban on the use of pain-inducing techniques on children in custodial institutions. We know through our research on schools that such interventions can be prevented, and both contribute to and fuel trauma among children and young people.
Two of the key commitments that are being taken forward quickly are the establishment of a redress scheme for victims and survivors, and a consultation on mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse in England.
The Government has also said it will gather views on the future of therapeutic support for those who have experienced sexual abuse. While these are welcome first steps, much more needs to be done to prevent these crimes and support those who have been impacted.
We know that child sexual abuse can leave lasting scars and is a known risk factor for a range of mental health problems and trauma. Yet recent debates have me questioning whether we are doing enough as a society to protect our children.
Child sexual abuse and exploitation can be described as a ‘hidden epidemic’ fuelled by stigma, shame, and secrecy. It is because of these factors that it can be difficult to establish the exact scale of child sexual abuse and exploitation. However, recent studies suggest that it is worryingly widespread.
In March 2020, the Office for National Statistics estimated that 3.1 million adults in England and Wales had experienced sexual abuse before the age of 16 (IICSA, 2022).
Experiences of sexual abuse in childhood and adolescence are considered an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) and ACEs are known to have a profound and lasting impact on an individual’s mental health and wellbeing, in both the short and long term. That’s why cross-government action is needed to tackle ACEs and their harmful consequences.
In addition to this, services working with victims and survivors must be trauma-informed: understanding the impact that experiences such as child sexual abuse may have had on an individual accessing their services, while ensuring that interventions are tailored and don’t perpetuate further harm. This applies to a range of settings including schools, health care, mental health services, prisons and probation services, where interventions such as restraint are used. A trauma-informed package of support should form part of the therapeutic offer to all victims and survivors to help them rebuild their lives.
We also endorse calls made by organisations such as Agenda Alliance to introduce routine enquiry within public services by equipping and requiring practitioners to ask those accessing their support routinely about their experiences of abuse.
Significant cultural change is urgently needed in all institutions to root out the culture of complicity that puts reputation before people. The mental health consequences of abuse are made even worse when people are not listened to or believed. Instead, the voices of people impacted by sexual violence and abuse must be at the heart of decision-making and transformation.
To work towards restoration and justice, the Government should adopt IICSA’s recommendations as a complete package and outline plans for taking swifter action to prevent child sexual abuse, including the creation of a dedicated Minister for Children.
Child sexual abuse and exploitation is a serious issue that requires a collective response from a range of national and local agencies, including mental health services. We’ll use our role in the sector to champion change and fight for a society where children are protected and free from harm.