Children sexually abused by family members are going ‘unseen and unheard’, report finds

Children who are sexually abused by family members are going “unseen and unheard” by agencies who are “woefully ill-equipped” to deal with the issue, according to a new report.

Children are often left repeatedly victimised and perpetrators unidentified and inspectors say they can “no longer stay silent”.

A new report from Ofsted, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS), the Care Quality Commission, and HM Inspectorate of Probation visited six local authorities: Bracknell Forest, Cornwall, Derby City, Islington, Shropshire and York.

The report exposes a worrying lack of knowledge and focus on familial abuse from all local partners and calls for greater recognition at local and national levels.

Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s chief inspector, said: “As a society, we are far too reluctant to talk about sex abuse within the family home. It’s much easier to think of abuse happening elsewhere, to other people.”

Familial abuse accounts for some two-thirds of all child sex abuse, though the true figure could be even higher due to under-reporting.

Despite the likely extent of the problem, research shows that the vast majority of parents focus their discussions on “stranger-danger” fears.

Ms Spielman (pictured) added: “Prevention is the best form of protection. If we are to deal with incest or other abuse involving families or family friends, we must talk openly and honestly about the signs and symptoms – to protect children and to stop abusers in their tracks.

“As it stands, children abused in the home are going unseen and unheard because agencies simply aren’t capable of keeping them safe.

“The lack of national and local focus on this issue is deeply concerning and must be addressed.”

While agencies have improved their response to child grooming outside the home, the less high-profile issue of familial sex abuse is not getting the priority it needs, the report found.

Today’s report examines how well children’s social care, health, youth offending, police and probation services work together to keep children who are sexually abused in families safe.

Although inspectors found pockets of good work, this was inconsistent at best, the report said.

Inspectors found:

  • Practice is too police-led, focusing on the criminal investigation at the expense of children, and health services are not always being brought around the table. Children are left without medical treatment for possible sexually transmitted infections, other injuries and without mental health support – because police determine that medical examinations aren’t needed if they fall outside the window for forensic evidence.
  • Poor-quality criminal investigations: Significant delays to police investigations mean that children are left in limbo, or at worst unsafe. Rather than arrest, voluntary attendance is being used to interview suspects, so children aren’t protected by bail, while potential abusers could be destroying evidence. Inappropriate bail conditions leave abusers free to contact and, in some cases, even return to live with the children they are abusing.
  • Preventative work is absent or focused on known offenders: Inspectors saw little work to educate the public about risks relating to child sex abuse. It was also clear that, possibly due to a reluctance to discuss the topic, local partners are not prioritising prevention work.
  • Professionals rely too heavily on children to speak out about abuse: Children are unlikely to tell someone that they are being sexually abused, particularly when they know the perpetrator. The report says that parents, professionals and the public must understand and know how to respond to the signs and symptoms of child sexual abuse.
  • Some initiatives are working well, but these are too piecemeal. Inspectors found examples of effective work in all areas. For example, when children do receive support, it is usually good quality and makes a positive difference. While individual initiatives and campaigns are working well, these are not in place in all areas. A more consistent and strategic approach to what works would widen impact and efficacy.

Ursula Gallagher, deputy chief inspector of general practice and children’s health, said: “The impact of abuse is far-reaching and has a lasting effect on the child and those around them – this report highlights too many missed opportunities to better protect them from harm.

“It is vital that people in healthcare and across other agencies work together, think about the wider social situation a child might be living in, share information to protect children from abuse and create support around those who are at risk.”

Wendy Williams, HM Inspector of Constabulary, said: “As detailed in today’s report, we believe that the police and other agencies do not prioritise this kind of abuse highly enough. This results in missed opportunities to safeguard vulnerable and at-risk children.”

Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, said: “In 2015, I published a report warning that the vast majority of children who have been sexually abused at home were not known to the authorities and that a system which waits for children to tell someone cannot be effective.

“It was clear then that many professionals working with children, and the system, were ill-equipped to identify and act on the signs of abuse.

“Five years later, amid the rising cost of children’s social care and with less spent on early intervention, many children are still being let down badly.”

NSPCC policy manager Andrew Fellowes said “we cannot bury our heads in the sand”.

He added: “This report is a damning insight into failures to tackle sexual abuse in families across the country.

“It’s very clear there needs to be better co-ordination between police, NHS and local authorities.

“We know that can be done, the pioneering Lighthouse service in North London brings together support and treatment of children in a joined up way.

“Reforms to local safeguarding structures are a step in the right direction but the Government needs to give agencies the authority and resources to act where they need to.”

Copyright (c) PA Media Ltd. 2020, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) Caroline Graham / Pre school Learning Alliance / PA Wire.