THE Jimmy Savile scandal has shocked the nation. It has also highlighted the importance of adults being able to report concerns they have to the relevant authorities.
Research has shown that even when individuals have a concern they often take no action, fearing that they will not be believed or taken seriously. The dynamics of power and secrecy so often present in incidents of abuse are magnified when they happen within an institutional setting.
Those factors, combined with the often hierarchical nature of institutions, make it even more important that there should be strong safeguarding policies alongside a clear culture of communicating with children and listening to them.
Child protection scandals of recent years have generated a great deal of media coverage, putting the sexual abuse of youngsters in the spotlight. However, as we know, this issue is not confined to history, and nor does it only involve celebrities like Jimmy Savile as the perpetrators.
Children are still being abused by family members, by their peers and in institutions that are meant to care for them. As such, the focus for professionals, politicians, the media and the public must be on the children who are suffering now. We must shine a light on what sexual abuse is, where it takes place, what can be done to prevent it and how we can support the children who are being abused.
We know that 90 per cent of children who have suffered sexual abuse have been abused by someone they know, with the vast majority of abuse taking place in the home. In 2012-13, the ChildLine service run by the NSPCC found that nearly half the young people who rang about sexual abuse said the perpetrator was a family member.
One teenage boy said: “I often think about killing myself because of what my brother does to me. He has been physically and sexually abusing me for years. It makes me wish my life would end. I’ve told my parents about what my brother does to me but they’ve done nothing – I don’t understand. I feel so depressed.”
Social workers, teachers and other practitioners must be trained to recognise the indicators of intra-familial sexual abuse, know how to communicate with the child, and give them space and time to explain what has happened.
Abuse in young people’s romantic relationships also appears to be increasing, as does sexual coercion within gangs and groups of young people. The number of reported sex offences by those under 18 has risen by 38 per cent since 2009-10 and two-thirds of sexual abuse is perpetrated by under-18s.
One young girl said: “My boyfriend was really abusive to me and we used to get into massive fights and stuff. The other week it went a bit further and he forced me to do sexual things to him that I didn’t want to do. I’m terrified of him and I don’t want to see him again. I don’t want to tell the police about it because I’m scared of what might happen. I talked to my teacher about it and she just told me she would catch up with me later about it but never did.”
Another child said: “I really struggle to talk to anyone about being sexually abused. It happened for a few years so I feel like it took my childhood away. I feel really ashamed that it happened to me – I’m unable to cope. I want some support but I don’t know what kind of support I need or what will even help. I just can’t carry on like this.” That boy was aged 17.
The heart of the issue is for there to be a greater number of people with an understanding of child abuse and what to look for. A particular aspect of that is not immediately thinking that something is wrong with the child. Sometimes older children are treated as naughty or difficult. The distress and the issues that come up can be indicators that all might not be well within the family.
Last autumn, Parliament’s All-Party Group on Child Protection launched a seminar series on the three areas I have just outlined: intra-familial abuse; peer-to-peer sexual abuse, including young people’s harmful sexual behaviour; and prevention of child sexual abuse within institutions.
We invited experts and frontline practitioners to share their knowledge with parliamentarians so that we could better understand what needs to be done to improve support to children who have experienced sexual abuse and to prevent it from happening in the future. However, the most powerful testimony was listening to the experiences of children who had been sexually abused.
We recognise that there has been welcome progress in recent years, but we are concerned that the Government are not addressing the issue holistically. Our findings show that the complicated relationship between different forms of abuse necessitates a unified response. That is not currently happening.
The fears must be that without a clear, coherent approach that links work across departments, children will not receive the support they require, and that opportunities to prevent problems are being missed.