Professionals ‘missing signs of abuse in families’

Anne Longfield, children's commissioner for England.

CHILDREN who are victims of sexual abuse within their families can face “significant barriers” in accessing support, including professionals often missing the signs that something is wrong, according to the Children’s Commissioner.

In three new reports, produced in partnership with the University of Bedfordshire and charity the NSPCC, the commissioner said professionals working with children can unfairly place the responsibility on victims to seek help themselves.

Previous research by the commissioner suggests as few as one in eight victims of child sexual abuse come to the attention of the authorities and that abuse within the family environment accounts for two-thirds of all abuse.

The reports warn that many victims have to wait months or years to access support such as therapy, and children typically have to wait 100 days longer than adults for abuse investigations to go to court.

“It is clear from this research and the heartbreaking stories told by young people within it that many child sexual abuse victims are being let down by the system,” said Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England (pictured).

“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.”

The commissioner is calling for professionals and other adults in contact with children to be supported in developing the knowledge and skills needed to recognise the signs of abuse. Professionals should also respond to and recognise children’s own resources and resilience, communicate hope and support identities beyond that of “victim”.

Furthermore, children of all ages should be taught from an early stage in school to recognise abuse, talk about it and seek help.

The commissioner also said there needs to be more consideration of the ways in which schools can create opportunities for children to seek help and disclose abuse.

In addition, the quality and speed of decision-making in criminal investigations should be speeded up by introducing a licence to practice for professionals working on cases and embedding CPS Rape & Serious Sexual Offence specialists in police child abuse investigation teams.

“Professionals remain dedicated to supporting the victims of abuse, but urgent changes need to be made to the way it is reported, the role of schools in preventing it and the criminal justice process in child sexual abuse cases,” Longfield said.

“The Icelandic ‘Barnahaus’ approach, where services ranging from medical examinations to therapy are provided to victims under one roof, has been proven to be successful in overcoming some of these hurdles and I hope it will be trialled in England.”

Trish O’Donnell, development manager of the NSPCC, added: “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.”