Preventable or inevitable? Stopping child sexual abuse before it starts

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

The field of child protection has been a major topic of public discussion in recent years. And last week saw two important contributions to the debate on how we keep our children safe. BBC Two aired The Truth About Child Sexual Abuse, a programme in which Professor Tanya Byron and Tazeen Ahmad investigated the shocking findings of the most detailed study of child sexual abuse ever conducted in the UK by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner (OCC).

The OCC’s report revealed that the scale of child sexual abuse was far, far greater than many people realised, with over 10 per cent of all children being victims of such abuse before they reached 18. The report also reported that seven out of eight child victims receive no help or protection from statutory agencies – police, children’s services, health - because their abuse is simply not known about. It reveals that police and local authorities recorded around 50,000 cases of child sexual abuse over a two year period up to March 2014, but estimates that between 400,000 and 450,000 children were actually abused over the same period.

These figures underline how urgent it is for us all to wake up to the need for prevention. Of course, we need good service responses after abuse has happened – and the report recognises the dire state of much provision in this regard. But, first and foremost, we need to prevent abuse from happening in the first place.

“Yes, yes, Donald. We can all agree. Prevention. Utterly sensible!” I’ve heard it so often over these past 13 years. And that’s where it mostly seems to stop. Words. No follow-through. No action. No budget. No plan. In fact, no vision. Will this OCC Report make any difference at all? Because it is not the first time we have glimpsed or stared at the scale of abuse – in 2000 the NSPCC completed its major prevalence study on child maltreatment in the UK, with16% of children and young people having been sexually abused. In 2010, the Council of Europe launched its “One in Five” campaign, reckoning that to be the number of children across Europe experiencing sexual abuse. In 2011, NSPCC again reported on a recent study across the UK. Their findings? 11.3% of young adults reported having been sexually abused as children.

New approaches must be taken to respond effectively to the needs of abused children, so they have confidence to come forward; and the harm they have suffered is recognised. Their needs must come first, not the needs of the criminal justice system, of politics, nor any other consideration.  More than that, responsibility for keeping children safe – for preventing abuse – must belong to a wider army of people. This army includes:- protective adults who want the best for children; children and young people themselves; and, perhaps surprisingly, those with the potential to perpetrate abuse.

The Lucy Faithfull Foundation is the only UK-wide charity dedicated solely to preventing child sexual abuse. It is our experience, after decades of working with adults and children affected by abuse, that prompts our call to make parents and carers aware of the warning signs of child sexual abuse and to put them at the heart of prevention work. The OCC Report estimates that two thirds of all child sexual abuse takes place within the family environment, mostly not by mothers and fathers. It is vital that those closest to children, closest to that home environment, are educated about the risk and about the steps they can take to prevent abuse.

Nor should we forget that we can also reduce the vulnerability of children to abuse through the universal provision of decent, age-appropriate "relationships and sex" education - helping them understand about appropriate boundaries, about privacy and about their rights. The Survivors Survey undertaken during preparation of the OCC Report clearly demonstrates that many children are silent about their abuse because they come to believe such behaviour is normal, and not the kind of thing to be talked about. We also know that most perpetrators of sexual abuse are male. They need to learn about respect, consent and how to conduct themselves in relationships. Currently, for far too many, their “education” comes from the Internet and, more precisely, from pornography. I don’t imagine many of us believe issues of respect, consent and appropriate conduct are well represented in this online environment. But what are we doing about it?

Perhaps most importantly, prevention efforts must be targeted at offenders and potential offenders. The Foundation has recently launched a major new campaign, Stop It Now Get-Help, aimed at the tens of thousands of individuals in the UK who are viewing and sharing sexual images of children online. The campaign encourages and challenges them to seek professional and anonymous help to stop.

Here in the UK we have tough laws concerning child sexual abuse. But the scale of the problem, both online and offline, means that we cannot hope to arrest our way out of it. Regarding sexual images of children online - too many men, young and old alike, seem not to understand the letter of the law. Or they do not realise the consequences for themselves and their families if they break the law and get caught. Too many of them do not think about the suffering of the children portrayed in the images. Or, having started viewing such images, now struggle to stop.

Stop It Now! wants to engage with those who realise the illegality of their behaviour and want help to stop. We provide a confidential helpline as well as anonymous, online support, not only for those worried about their own behaviour, but also for others concerned about the behaviour of their loved ones. We know there is real demand for this type of support - since our campaign launch in October, we have seen an unprecedented rise in calls and website visits.

If we care about children's safety, it is time we focused scarce resources on preventing abuse – by better protecting children and by helping those with the potential to offend to lead good lives. Such an approach is better for children, better for families and better for those with the potential to do children harm. It is also better for the public purse.

Child sexual abuse is preventable. It is not inevitable.

Donald Findlater is the Director of Research and Development at the Lucy Faithfull Foundation and was a member of the OCC report’s Inquiry Panel.