Probe into scale of child sex abuse

A national inquiry into child sexual abuse is to be launched by the Children’s Commissioner in a bid to find out how widespread the problem is.

Children's Commissioner for England Maggie Atkinson
Children's Commissioner for England Maggie Atkinson

The two-year inquiry by Dr Maggie Atkinson, whose job is to promote and protect children’s rights. will look at sexual abuse within the family environment including forced marriages, since this often leads to child sex abuse.

Questions of how widespread the problem is, what must be done to support the victims and how it can be prevented are to be looked into, after a new report revealed alarming gaps and glaring omissions in the key knowledge needed to tackle the problem.

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Dr Atkinson said: “Society is rightly horrified by child sexual abuse. Most of our children are raised in secure, loving homes but I am sure very many of us will be disturbed by how much abuse within the family environment goes unreported and how little is done to support the children who suffer.

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“As adults we are morally and socially obliged to protect children from harm. As Children’s Commissioner, I also have a legal responsibility to promote their right to protection.”

A newly-published report - It’s a Lonely Journey - ordered by the Children’s Commissioner, examined 57,226 research studies into child sexual abuse.

According to the report, there is “almost no direct reference” in this research to the child’s experiences, which would help prevent other victims, and worryingly little is known about the prevalence of long-term psychological and physical harm.

There was also almost nothing about the economic cost this places on society in the studies done so far.

The researchers from Middlesex University also found most support networks for child sex abuse victims who suffered within a family circle were created to help adults rather than children.

The report also notes: “Despite research indicating that disabled children are around three times more likely to be victims than non-disabled children, they receive even poorer responses from professionals than non-disabled peers.

“Black and minority ethnic children are under-represented in child protection referrals, do not access child protection services with the same frequency as white children, or (when they do) may receive a poorer quality of support from professionals.”

Research that is focused on the convicted male offender was identified as among the “key gaps” in the current literature on child protection.

Deputy Children’s Commissioner and inquiry chairwoman Sue Berelowitz says “substantial” numbers of children are falling through the net because this type of “appalling and deeply traumatising abuse” is not being recognised. She said: “Some studies suggest as many as one in 20 children and young people experience sexual abuse, the majority of it perpetrated by people within the family or family circle.

“We know that at any one time, around 43,000 children have child protection plans, only around five per cent of whom are on a plan for sexual abuse. These figures do not add up.”

The Office of the Children’s Commissioner has vowed that “the experiences and voices of children and young people will be at the heart of this inquiry, and driving all that we do.”