People or Professionals? Preventing child sexual abuse in 2016 and beyond

By Donald Findlater, Director of Research and Development, Lucy Faithfull Foundation

I spent my early adult life  – alongside being a husband and father – working in the probation service. I worked with sex offenders, assessing and managing risk, and designing and delivering treatment programmes, in prison and the community. In 1995 I was privileged to join child protection charity, the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, to extend that work to include work with families and with victims.

Since 2002 we have been banging the drum for prevention, with the creation of the Stop it Now! campaign and its confidential helpline. With Home Office support in 2009 we set up the Parents Protect website – trying to squeeze into one place the lessons that victims, families and, yes, offenders had shared with us over the previous 15 years. What lessons? Well, everything they wish they’d known beforehand, which might have prevented the abuse from happening.

Child sexual abuse is not inevitable. But in addition to providing information, resources and advice to help parents protect their children from abuse, there are additional opportunities for prevention. One of these involves reaching out to adults concerned about their own behaviour and offering them a confidential helpline too.

Since it was set up in 2002, the Stop it Now! helpline has dealt with more than 50,000 confidential calls about child sexual abuse. Calls from women worried about their brother’s, father’s or partner’s behaviour; calls from parents worried about the sexual behaviour of their sons and daughters; calls from men troubled about their own sexual thoughts concerning children. In recent months we’ve seen an increasing number of calls regarding sexual images of children and young people online - some people seemingly not having realised that sexual images of anyone under 18 years are illegal

Our Stop it Now! Helpline staff do an incredible job - providing practical, non-judgemental advice and support for many in extremely vulnerable and difficult situations. The helpline’s role is to prevent children from being sexually abused. With the recent increase in the viewing and sharing of indecent images of children, there is a growing population of women in particular – wives, partners, parents and others – in the excruciating position of wondering whether, or knowing that, a loved one is viewing such material. A number contact us after an arrest, to get help in coping, and in dealing with the aftermath. To get help in making lots of crucial, sometimes seemingly impossible decisions. Others contact us at an earlier stage – maybe it is just a worry; or maybe it is an established fact, but without, at present, the involvement of police. The dilemmas are different, but no less excruciating! With decisions to make that need talking through.

The helpline also offers confidential advice and support to men troubled about their own sexual thoughts or behaviour – whether online or offline. What do we want these people to do? If they know they are a risk, and are troubled or concerned about this, I know I want to be sure there is a place they can go to get help. They are in a very lonely place, which is one of the reasons they might become more dangerous. Our helpline offers someone to talk to, to advise about keeping safe today. It reminds about the harm that sexual abuse causes. It gives practical advice on staying safe. And it directs the caller to ongoing sources of support – yes, to meet their own needs; but always with the thought of what is best for children.. And since the launch of our latest campaign in October we have seen a massive rise in helpline calls and website visits – especially from those offending online and their loved ones.

The Parents Protect website was set up because of the questions parents were asking us on the helpline. Also - years of work in this area had shown us where the biggest risk of child sexual abuse was – the family context.

In Parents Protect we created a website that looks to give adults the information, advice, support and facts they need to help prevent child sexual abuse. In part this is to help parents understand the sexual development of children from birth to adolescence.  What is “normal” or “healthy” sexual development and when should we worry? How should adults respond, for example, to attempts to touch the genitals of other children or, indeed, other adults? When should we worry about a child’s sexual behaviour? Normally, but not always, this will be to do with persistence, aggression , secrecy or sneakiness.

The website also considers the warning signs to look out for in a child that may be being abused. These include becoming unusually secretive or unaccountably afraid of places or people; acting out in inappropriate sexual ways with toys or objects; development of nightmares or sleeping problems.

It also discusses warning signs in potential perpetrators. These include regularly offering to babysit and insisting on time alone with children without interruption; refusing a child privacy in attending to personal matters; insistence on physical contact – hugs, kisses, wrestling – even when the child clearly does not want this; repeatedly walking in on children in the bathroom; and showing an excessive interest in the sexual development of a child.

We offer advice on how parents can keep their children safe both online and offline, in publications such as The Internet and Children – What’s the Problem?   We also make suggestions for creating a Family Safety Plan. This is about knowing the signs, keeping open good lines of communication., educating everyone in the family about normal, healthy sexual behaviours and boundaries, and getting safe adults involved.

In her 2015 report, Protecting Children from Harm, the Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, acknowledged that some two thirds of child sexual abuse occurs within the family context. Perhaps the biggest wake-up call was about the scale of abuse – with an estimated 400,000 to 450,000 children sexually abused over the two years to 2014.

The report calls for a radical overhaul of our child protection system, with far greater attention to prevention. But most of its recommendations concern “recognition and telling” – a seeming resignation to the fact of abuse rather than the opportunities for prevention. And there seems no acknowledgement of the utterly vital role that most parents and grandparents can play in this task of prevention.

Websites such as Parents Protect can help all parents and grandparents find out about the steps they can take to protect their children. Our confidential helpline can also get support to people worried about their own behaviour. Child sexual abuse is not inevitable. In 2016 and beyond, I hope we all play our part in preventing it.