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Report reveals lack of support for victims of familial sexual abuse

Making Noise

Thu 20th April, 2017

New research has revealed victims of child sexual abuse within families face a postcode lottery for support with many failing to receive the help they need.

Research carried out by the University of Bedfordshire in partnership with the NSPCC has found that professionals are often failing to pick up signs of abuse, leaving many victims having to seek help themselves.

Making Noise: children’s voices for positive change after sexual abuse, commissioned by the Children’s Commissioner for England and published today (Thursday 20 April), reveals significant barriers stopping children accessing help after experiencing child sexual abuse in the family environment. These include the lack of appropriate provision; professionals and other adults continued failure to spot signs of children’s sexual abuse and a range of messages within communities and wider society that silence children from speaking out.

There is also evidence that particular groups of children and young people – including disabled children and young people; those from some minority ethnic communities; boys and young men and care experienced children and young people – are likely to face additional barriers to identification or disclosure, and accessing services.

The study gives a powerful insight into the lives of abuse victims. Using innovative methods, designed in partnership with NSPCC practitioners, researchers interviewed children aged between 5 and 19 across England who were receiving support for experiences of child sexual abuse in their family.

They found:

  • Child sexual abuse in the family environment impacts every area of a child’s life including their families, friendships, schooling and community life.
  • After abuse has been identified many victims of child sexual abuse are waiting months or years before accessing appropriate therapeutic support. The type and availability of support varies significantly across the country.
  • Professionals are often failing to pick up signs of child sexual abuse, unfairly placing responsibility on victims to make sure their abuse is identified
  • Young people are more likely to disclose experiences of sexual abuse to peers than professionals and this appears to be particularly evident for girls and young women. This has significant consequences for routes for accessing support
  • Engagement in criminal justice processes after an experience of CSA in the family environment continues to be experienced as distressing and re-traumatizing – exacerbated by unacceptable delays in these processes.
  • Access to pre-trial therapy for those involved in criminal justice processes continues to be unfairly denied to some children after experiencing child sexual abuse – despite guidance to the contrary. Protecting children from sexual abuse in the family environment– and helping them to recover means society wide changes to how we listen to and talk with children.
  • Challenging cultures of silence surrounding child sexual abuse in the family environment involves a society-wide shift in how we view and listen to children. Recognising the relationship between listening to children, knowing when and how to ask questions, involving them in decision making and protecting children is critical. Without this, efforts to address children’s physical, psychological and relational safety will fall short.

The report ‘includes a number of powerful personal testimonies from the victims of child sexual abuse:

“It started when I was about five and finished when I was about 14 so that’s a very long period of time for it to be going on, without being able to tell anyone.” (Teenage girl, abused by mother’s male partner)

“When abuse is happening to you, you feel very isolated. You know that you need to tell someone, or you may even feel this urge to tell someone, but you know you can’t because that fear will overrun your whole body and your mind.” (Teenage girl aged 13)

“I had to do like the video evidence where they video record everything. I don’t know, that was more traumatising than the actual abuse I went through. Like I said I was very alone and I only had my family. I really wish I knew [the therapeutic service] then... I didn't have the support network that really I should have had in place. .. It’s literally like it's [the abuse] going on again, the whole thing's happening again.” (Teenage girl aged 19 years)

“I think because it’s such a taboo subject in school, you never really talk about it… I think it should be spoke about more openly to children so they know where to get help if they need to because it’s something like one in five people that never tell.” (Teenage girl aged 17 years)

“My family – they abandoned me – told me I was slanderous and destroying my brother’s life.” (Teenager aged 18)

Dr Camille Warrington from the University and lead author of Making Noise said: “We know that child sexual abuse flourishes in cultures of silence. Undertaking the Making Noise research project highlighted only too wellchildren’s own appetite and ability to help break that silence.

“It also emphasises the need for us as adults and professionals to improve the way we listen to and talk with children to prevent and respond to abuse - and the benefits that come from doing so.”

Trish O’Donnell, Development Manager from the NSPCC said: “The Making Noise report allows the voices of children who have experienced familial sexual abuse to be heard. It tells us how they can be let down by systems but when they do find help it can really changes things for them.

“It is crucial that we create a culture where children who have suffered from such a traumatic experience are encouraged to speak out, and when they do that they get all the help they need in dealing with the difficult and upsetting events and emotions that stand in their way before they can hopefully get their lives back on track.”

Members of the making Noise Young people’s advisory group said: “We always hear adults say that young people who are unheard are marginalised in some way. From our experience, young people are not ‘hard to reach’ – they are just never given a voice. A message from the research is that we need to give them that voice, and when they do speak, you need to take notice of it and act. Adults need to listen to children and young people’s wishes and feelings, and young people should feel empowered and encouraged to share these.

“Young people who have been through this experience are more than just the experience; they want to be treated like a whole person with needs and desires and personality.”

The report also set out a number of policy implications for tackling some of the problems facing victims of child sexual abuse:

  • The option to access therapeutic support is critical for children and young people after sexual abuse in the family environment.
  • The need for access to therapeutic support must be matched by consistent provision nationally and reflect the long-term and non-linear nature of children and young people’s ‘recovery’ after sexual abuse in the family environment.
  • Accessibility issues regarding therapeutic support, in relation to disability, gender, ethnicity, care history and other aspects of identify or biography must be addressed.
  • Professionals and other adults in contact with children to be supported to develop the knowledge and skills needed to recognise signs of CSA;
  • Support and response to victims of CSA in the family environment to involve direct support to non-abusing family members and carers;
  • Access to pre-trial therapy to be supported and facilitated by professionals with understanding, experience and confidence about the processes;
  • Professionals working with children to respond to and recognise children’s own resources and resilience and to communicate hope, and support children’s wider identities beyond that of ‘victim’.

Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England, said: “It is clear from this research and the heart-breaking stories told by young people within it, that many child sexual abuse victims are being let down by the system.

“Too much is being expected of victims themselves. Not only do many feel unable to disclose abuse, they are waiting too long to see their abusers charged and jailed. Often they have to wait months and years for therapy following abuse.”

Notes to editors:

  • The Making Noise study was commissioned by the Children’s Commissioner for England and carried out in 2015/16 by staff from the University of Bedfordshire’s International Centre: Researching Child Sexual Exploitation, Violence and Trafficking, in partnership with NSPCC.
  • It sought to research children and young people’s views and experiences of help-seeking and support after child sexual abuse (CSA) in the family environment.
  • The research comprised 53 in-depth qualitative interviews with children aged 5 – 19 who were receiving support for experiences of CSA in the family environment. All interviewees were accessed through one of 14 third sector therapeutic services from across England. This data was supplemented with focus groups and survey data with a more generic cohort of young people exploring possible barriers to disclosure and service access.
  • The University of Bedfordshire in partnership with the NSPCC is releasing a short animation to help practitioners gain insight into the feelings and perspectives of children affected. The film was produced in partnership with a group of young people who advised on the research project and its dissemination. The full report and film can be viewed here

Bedfordshire University

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