Friday, 10 June 2016

The strange disappearance of child sexual abuse: New book charts decline

Sarah Nelson, CRFR Associate

Has child sexual abuse been steadily falling off the child protection ‘radar’? That sounds a very strange question, given the current - almost daily - publicity and concern about ‘celebrity’ perpetrators, about clergy abuse, child sexual exploitation, and historic abuse in care.

Yet statistics and professional feedback paint a different, worrying picture, as my new book details. ‘Tackling child sexual abuse: radical approaches to prevention, protection and support’ is launched on Monday 13 June at the CRFR International Conference: Unequal Families & Relationships.

Throughout the UK, a continuing fall in officially known sexual abuse cases and concerns has occurred alongside considerable growth in those about emotional abuse, neglect and parental substance misuse. That suggests not genuine declines or increases in these social problems, but altered priorities among policymakers and practitioners.

For example highly-publicised child deaths, such as that of ‘Baby Peter’ Connelly in 2007, brought large increases in UK care orders involving young children, where there were concerns about neglect or physical abuse. Thus, after the case, numbers in England subject to a child protection plan increased by 47% between 2008 and 2012; numbers on child protection registers increased in Scotland by 23%. In 2007–08, registrations in Scotland for sexual abuse were down by 33% on the previous year alone. From 2012 onwards in Scotland, multiple concerns could be recorded at each case conference. Most common were parental substance misuse (39%), emotional abuse (39%) and domestic abuse (37%). Sexual abuse was ninth in a list of 11 concerns, at just over 3%.

Overall, only 5% of all the children on child protection registers or subject to child protection plans in the UK were under a category that included sexual abuse in 2013.

Accepting that child protection registers and child protection plans only form one way of addressing sexual abuse, such figures do not even begin to reflect the most conservative estimates of child sexual abuse (CSA) prevalence. Police figures themselves hint at greater problems. In Scotland in 2013–14 there were 3,742 recorded sexual offences against children under 18. A major study by the Children’s Commissioner for England (2015) estimated that only one in eight sexually abused children is identified by professionals. This was largely, they found, because protective services were geared to children self-reporting, yet children rarely do this. An analysis of more than 200 international studies of prevalence, from 1980 to 2008, with a total of nearly 10 million participants, revealed wider disparities still: prevalence figures of self-reported sexual assault (18.0% of women, 7.6% of men), 30 times higher than the prevalence rates reported by authorities (Stoltenborgh et al, 2011).

Again, when in 2014 Professor Alexis Jay, after extensive study of records, calculated that at least 1,400 children, some as young as 11, had been sexually exploited in Rotherham over 16 years, it became clear that these cases had been neither classified nor recorded as sexual abuse. This was because the stigmatised girls were viewed by most authorities as freely choosing prostitution. Thus, only now will these cases count in official records as ‘substantiated’.

Researchers and trainers in the CSA field have been told in conferences, seminars and discussions with child protection professionals (including social workers, children’s panel members and safeguarding board members) that the priority for CSA has gradually diminished. Some gave feedback that it was regarded as “yesterday’s issue”. Concern was such that in 2013 Scottish specialists working with CSA wrote to the media and met the Association of Directors of Social Work about their deep concern that “sexual abuse is being allowed to disappear off the statutory radar”. They said different types of abuse “should not be in competition with each other for resources, but approached on the basis of need”.

Could the shocking abuse and killing of the toddler Liam Fee further skew child protection priority towards physical harm to very young children, at the expense of vulnerable older children and teenagers, especially with reference to CSA and CSE (child sexual exploitation)?

We cannot hope to meet today’s multiple online and offline challenges from sexual violence against children and young people - and at times by young people themselves upon others -without honestly and carefully examining why this decline in priority has been happening. Many committed professionals believe the situation must change, and currently four Scottish local authorities are pioneering the Stop to Listen project, a Children 1st initiative overseen by a senior multidisciplinary, statutory/voluntary steering group. This and other imaginative initiatives, designed to help abused young people tell without fear and to ensure whole communities are genuinely involved in protecting children in their neighbourhood, are described in my book.

It also includes chapters on major issues which adult survivors face, including mental health and – for some - involvement in the penal system, after offending born from anger and despair. I hope the book will enable the findings of those research projects, carried out at CRFR, to reach an even wider and more diverse audience.  


Delegates of CRFR's International Conference are invited to attend the launch of Sarah Nelson's new book Tackling Child Sexual Abuse: Radical Approaches to Prevention, Protection and Support, Bristol: Policy Press at the conference drinks reception on Monday 13 June, 5.30pm.

You can follow live tweets from the conference using the hashtag #CRFR2016 on Twitter.


Dempster, H., Henry, M., Houston, A., Matthew, L., McCrae, R., Nelson, S., Rennie, J. and Stark, R. (2013) ‘Listening Watch’, Letters, Scotsman, 24 January.

Haringey Local Children Safeguarding Board (LCSB) (2010) Serious Case Review: Baby Peter, 2nd Review. London: Haringey LSCB, October

HM Government (2014) The Fifth Periodic Report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child: United Kingdom, May,’s%20Fifth%20Periodic%20Review%20Report%20on%20the%20UNCRC.pdf

Jay, A. (2014) Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham (1997–2013), Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council.

McLeod, S., Hart, R., Jeffes, J. and Wilkin, A. (2010) The Impact of the Baby Peter Case on Applications for Care Orders, Slough: National Foundation for Educational Research.

Norfolk, A. (2012) ‘Police files reveal vast child protection scandal – Confidential papers show a decade of abuse in south Yorkshire’, The Times, 24 September.

NSPCC (2015) How safe are our children? 2015, Indicator 4, London: NSPCC.

Stoltenborgh, M., van Ijzendoorn, M., Euser, E. and Bakermans-Kranenburg, M. (2011) ‘A Global Perspective on Child Sexual Abuse: Meta-Analysis of Prevalence Around the World’, Child Maltreatment, 16(2): 79–101.

Scottish Government (2014a) Children’s social work statistics Scotland, 2013–14, Chart 8.

Scottish Government (2014b) Child protection key trends: Last update, March 2014,

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