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Child sexual abuse: failing another generation of children?

The Office of the Children’s Commissioner reveals that in England 1.3 million will suffer sexual abuse in their childhood. What’s it going to do about this most secret of crimes?

Beatrix Campbell
15 December 2015

It is almost three decades since the sexual abuse, rape and buggery of children became a torrid theme in Britain’s political culture.

It was in the mid-1980s that the government insisted that concern about sexual abuse must ignite intervention by police and children’s services. Not may, intervene, but must. That was a historic moment, when the state took the side of children. Almost instantly child protection combusted.. The government recoiled.

It initiated public inquiries into what to do - and not to do - about sexual abuse. But not into how prevalent it is, or how to prevent it.    

Into that vortex of not knowing, the Office of the Children’s Commissioner has at last used its considerable authority and resources to find out. Last month it published a report that puts together what we know: Protecting Children From Harm: A Critical Assessment of  Child Sexual Abuse in the Family Environment  in England and Priorities for Action.

Incidence: Over the two years between 2014 and 2014, about 50,000 children were known by the statutory services to have been assaulted or raped in the family environment. The Commissioner collated data from police, local authority and voluntary services  that indicate that many, many more - between 400,000 and 450,000 children - were abused by known adults in and around their family home, but didn’t come to anyone’s attention. 

So, only one in eight were reported to police or children’s services. The cruel gap between known and not known grows if we factor in criminal convictions: during the same two years there were 6414.

Prevalence: The commission calculates that ‘approximately 1.3 million children currently living in England will have been a victim of contact sexual abuse by the time they turn 18.’

It often starts around the age of nine. Two-thirds of sexual abuse takes place in the family environment, but it is a much smaller ratio of the 50,000 known cases - it is least likely to be disclosed and detected.

The men who do this live among us, we know them. They enjoy virtual impunity.

This is the ‘most defended crime,’ comments the academic researcher Sarah Nelson, who has tracked sexual abuse for decades.

Despite the legal duty to protect children from harm, despite seemingly endless tinkering with procedures, and regular scandals, prevalence seems to be no lower than it was, and perpetrators no more likely to be called to account.  In the 1980s child sexual abuse became part of the statutory services’ guidelines,  augmented by a commandment to be collegial: Working Together was the mantra.

Since then, however, the police, the most unschooled and the most masculinised service has taken over. Police officers interviewed by Sociologist Paul Michael Garrett, in his book Remaking Social Work With Children and Families, believed that co-operation meant domination.

Whilst awareness grows, detection declines: Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary reported in Making The Victim Count in  2014 that more than a quarter of sexual offences reported to the police are not even recorded. And the inspectorate warned in  2015 that the police were ‘at risk of failing another generation of children.’

So erratic is the national performance, that vital data about the victim-culprit relationship ‘cannot be easily extracted’, reports the children’s commissioner. The police are not duty bound to record it, so there is huge variation in recording ‘and indeed whether it is recorded at all.’

Police data on family abuse also varies wildly, ‘from 5% to 69%’. Those with the highest numbers are most likely to be comprehensive and ‘more likely to be accurate’.  

The prevalence figures are huge, and they are consistent with earlier and international figures. A large study led by Prof. Lorraine Radford, published by Child Abuse and Neglect in 2013, showed that 20 per cent of girls interviewed at the age of 15 reported sexual victimisation in the past year. A quarter of 18-24 year-olds, 24 said they had experienced sexual assault or rape during childhood. 

We can assume, therefore, that the commissioner’s figure for unreported and undetected cases is an underestimate.  British Home Secretary, Theresa May, was not exaggerating when she said in March that that child sexual abuse is ‘woven, covertly, into the fabric’ of society, where places of safety were instead settings of ‘the most appalling abuse’ and ‘what the country doesn't yet appreciate is the true scale of that abuse.’

That’s what makes publication both useful and disappointing: where was fighting talk from the Children’s Commissioner? Whose side is she on - children in adversity or a government dedicated to austerity?

How can the Office of the Children’s Commissioner (OCC) intervene effectively when its own staff have been savaged?. The OCC has failed to confirm or deny that staff have been scythed from 30 to 15.

Anne Longfield OBE.png

Anne Longfield, OBE, Children's Commissioner in England.

How will the government and indeed the Office of the Children’s Commissioner follow up, will they do something?

This important research was initiated by the energetic Deputy Commissioner, Sue Berelowitz, following her 2013 report on the sexual exploitation of children and her robust interventions in debates about child prostitution. But last spring she was summarily sacked by the newly-appointed Commissioner, Anne Longfield. There was no explanation. ‘It was a set-up,’ complained a colleague. Staff were aghast. Berelowitz had been nothing if not an enthusiast.

A redundancy package was organised by the Department of Education and the Children’s Commissioner and approved by the Treasury. That was jeopardised, though, when the Tory press ran what appeared to be a campaign to humiliate Berelowitz and disparage the deal.

So, instead of being a herald of a fresh start, the new evidence is launched into a mess: Berelowitz’s expertise lost, colleagues in disarray and disabling staff cuts.

What does the report propose?

It urges that yet again inter-professional relations should be assessed. It urges compulsory lessons for life - the government baulks at compulsory. It cautions that since most children are harmed in their family, they should not carry the burden of disclosure, and parents aren’t necessarily the people they can tell.  

Three quarters of the victims are girls, it says, and 90 per cent of the perpetrators are men. Gender appears in the report, but primarily as a concern about boys, not gender as a system - there is no reference to, or strategy to confront the structural links between sexism and sexual abuse. 

The report doesn’t explore the way that abuse varies according to age, time and place -  the more a child ventures into the world beyond the family, the more vulnerable to abuse by peers and other men.

The evidence is inconvenient, it doesn’t offer up a cameo of a perfect victim: blond, blue eyed, crouching in a corner; Nor a stereotypical perpetrator: an ogre. Nor does the report explore what it is about global popular cultures that sustains sexual abuse.

That leaves intact the dangerous polarisation between two categories: incest and paedophilia, as if the problem is pathology rather than politics.

Will the commissioner’s figures caution those commentators still claiming, with unfounded confidence, that children are suggestible, that adults’ reports of historic abuse are part of frenzy, hysteria, panic, witch hunting and latter-day McCarthyism? 

Children’s testimony is still maligned - the Rotherham sexual exploitation scandal, for example, revealed that children’s entrapment in prostitution was deemed ‘a lifestyle choice’.

Yet survivors’ testimony is virtually the only resource in calling the perpetrators to account. Medical signs that might have offered an another route into this most secret of crimes became the disputed crux of the 1987 Cleveland child abuse crisis - the defining moment in child protection politics from which services have not recovered.

The Children’s Commissioner insists that the system must not depend on children speaking out: ‘a system which waits for children to tell someone cannot be effective.’

But that’s how it is Commissioner, so what are you going to do about it?

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