Sexually abusive girls rise prompts Barnardo’s study

A significant increase in the number of girls who carry out sexual abuse being referred for help in Wales has led to pioneering research into the issue.

Barnardo’s service says 11% of the 128 young people it helped last year after they committed sex assaults were young or adolescent girls.

It hopes its research will lead to improved treatment for those involved.

A psychologist who led Home Office sex offender research said girls’ problems had never previously been studied.

Over the last few decades, research has focused on adult male sex offenders and has been followed up with studies into adolescent boys and adult women.

But Barnardos’ Taith – a specialist service which helps children and young people aged between eight and 21 who commit sex assaults – said little was known about girls who abuse other children.

“People often think girls wouldn’t do this as they are meant to be maternal, they are the babysitters,” said Denise Moultrie, who manages Taith, a Welsh word which can be translated as journey.

It is one of the only specialist services in Wales which helps young sex offenders referred to it by police and social services.

Ms Moultrie added: “We’re concerned that girls with sexually harmful behaviour aren’t being detected. And that means they are not getting treatment. Early intervention in these cases is a must.”

She said that although the charity had not kept figures, it had seen a “marked upturn” in girls being referred in the last four years.

About a third of children who have been abused report that the perpetrators have been other children,. However, it is not yet known how many assaults have been committed by girls and why.

The team has received £265,000 from the Big Lottery Fund for the three-year study and the results will be fed back to the Welsh government and other specialist agencies around the UK.

“What we do know about young people who sexually assault is that they are more likely to have been abused themselves,” added Ms Moultrie.

“We think that’s more true for girls but we’re not sure. There’s a lot we don’t know.”

‘Healthy adult relationships’

Sharron Wareham, who is conducting the research, said they hoped the study would show them how best to help the girls.

“We’re hoping we will be clearer about the areas we need to work with or target,” she said.

“For example, from the girls that come to us, there are fairly high degrees of them being aggressive physically, which you might not expect.

“Ultimately our aim is to ensure they don’t re-offend and that they go on to have healthy adult relationships where they are not vulnerable to abuse or exploitation themselves.”

Richard Beckett, a consultant clinical forensic psychologist, who has led research for the Home Office on adult male, adult female and adolescent females who engage in sexual harmful behaviour, is helping Taith with the research.

He said he believed “absolutely nothing” had been done on the issue of girls anywhere else in the world.

“Women have a cultural role as nurturers and protectors so there’s a cultural resistance to think about women and girls as sexually abusive so that’s delayed people looking at that field,” he said.

“This study will enable new ways to more accurately assess the needs of the girls referred for help and allow specialists to compare and contrast girls with adolescent boys and women with similar problems.

“It will also allow us to map out areas of treatment and help see the effectiveness of treatment.”