CHILDREN are not being protected from sexual abusers in their own families because agencies “simply aren’t capable of keeping them safe”, a new report has found.
The report by inspectorates include Ofsted, the Care Quality Commission, and HMI Constabulary found that agencies and professionals are not adequately trained to spot or deal with sexual abuse within families.
About 15 to 20 per cent of girls and seven to eight per cent of boys are estimated to have been victims of sexual abuse, studies suggest, and two-thirds of this abuse takes place in the family environment. Often the children themselves do not recognise that they have been abused until they are older.
Professionals are relying too much on children to disclose abuse, even though verbal disclosure by children is rare. The report also identifies a decline in the number of school nurses as one of the factors that has made it harder to identify children at risk of sexual abuse.
Children who exhibit harmful sexual behaviour themselves are too often treated only as perpetrators of abuse rather than investigated to see if they themselves have been victims, the report says.
It criticises investigations into familial sexual abuse for being led by police, with little or no involvement by health professionals. This means that abused children are left without medical treatment. Where support is available for children, they are left waiting too long for it.
The report examined the protection of children from sexual abuse within the family in six local authority areas: Bracknell Forest, Cornwall, Derby City, Islington, Shropshire, and York.
While inspectors found “pockets of good work”, they also uncovered “deep concerns” about how some cases were being treated.
Investigations after a disclosure has been made are also taking too long. In one case, the police took four weeks to interview a family member after a child disclosed abuse, and the perpetrator was not arrested, leaving the child at risk. In another case, police took four months to interview a suspect.
The study identified fear of talking about sexual abuse in the family as a stumbling-block in protecting more children.
The chief inspector of OFSTED, Amanda Spielman, 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. 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.”
The HM Inspector of Constabulary, Wendy Williams, said: “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. There needs to be an increased awareness of child sexual abuse in the family environment, with better training and support given to frontline professionals.”
The Children’s Society has called for a significant “culture change” to ensure that children are prioritised in responses by police and social services, coupled with better training for professionals working with children.
The charity’s policy manager, Iryna Pona, said: “Time and again we see the same shortcomings in the way professionals respond to sexual abuse of children within families, as we do when it comes to sexual exploitation outside the home.
“But these issues will be extremely difficult to solve without major investment in services for children and families — starting by addressing the £3-billion funding gap facing children’s services departments by 2025.”