PEOPLE in the UK underestimate how widespread child sexual abuse is, according to a new survey by Barnardo’s, as the charity launches a campaign to highlight how some children are particularly vulnerable.
More than half* (55%) of those polled underestimated the prevalence of abuse while almost one in four (19%) weren’t able to guess a figure, the survey conducted by YouGov shows.
Almost a third (31%) of more than 2,000 adults polled across the UK thought that child sexual abuse – including both ‘contact’ and ‘non-contact’ abuse – only affected 5% of children or fewer.
But it is thought more than three times as many children are affected, with research suggesting one-in-six** 11-17 year-olds have experienced sexual abuse at some point in their lives.
Even this is believed to be a conservative estimate, though, with experts believing child sexual abuse is far more prevalent than research suggests.
Abusers now have more opportunities to access children, often in environments like gaming and social media where children’s defences are down as they relax and enjoy time with their peers.
The findings come to light as Barnardo’s launches a new hard-hitting TV campaign aiming to raise awareness of child sexual abuse and how important it is for victims and survivors to get support.
As part of the campaign, called Believe in Me, a cutting-edge advert shows a girl alone in a bedroom while a CGI komodo dragon slithers up beside her, representing the abuse she has suffered and her feelings of powerlessness.
Child sexual abuse often goes unseen and unreported. Rather than adults effectively protecting children, often the burden of responsibility for disclosing abuse remains with victims, meaning many children and young people do not disclose their experiences until they are much older.
Barnardo’s says boys and children under 10, as well as minority groups including BAME, LGBTQ and disabled children and young people, are even more likely to be hidden victims of child sexual abuse and are routinely being missed in safeguarding, risk assessment and prevention work.
Research by the Children’s Commissioner shows that professionals are not always confident in their ability to identify child sexual abuse and levels of knowledge and confidence on how to progress concerns vary.
Coupled with potential communication problems or issues of isolation or stigma it can mean minority groups are more likely to be ‘hidden’.
The charity is calling for these hidden groups to be front and centre of the government’s new Child Sexual Abuse Strategy, due to be published this month (February).
Barnardo’s Chief Executive Javed Khan said:
“Child sexual abuse is a horrific crime, causing trauma that can last a lifetime. This new evidence suggests that adults under-estimate how many children are at risk – and we know that even official figures just scratch the surface. Too many children are unseen, unheard and unsupported.
“Barnardo’s has been tackling child sexual abuse for more than 25 years, and we know that any child from any community or background can be sexually abused, including by perpetrators who groom children online. But some groups are particularly vulnerable and face additional barriers to disclosing their abuse, meaning they are even more likely to miss out on the help they need.
“The government’s upcoming child sexual abuse strategy must include a focus on ‘hidden’ victims, including boys, children under 10, disabled and LGBTQ young people and those from BAME communities.
“At Barnardo’s we believe all children can recover from trauma and go on to achieve a positive future. So to help keep children safe we need better awareness and understanding of child sexual abuse, among parents, professionals, government, and citizens so we can improve identification and make sure children access the support they need.”
In the year ending March 2019, police in England and Wales recorded 73,260 sexual offences against children. As well as offences involving physical contact, child sexual abuse also includes ‘non-contact’ abuse like involving children in looking at sexual images or watching sexual activities.
Around a third of all sexual offences recorded by the police in England and Wales are against children but only one-in-eight child sexual abuse victims come to the attention of the police or a local authority.
Research suggests that children with disabilities are three times more likely to be sexually abused than children without disabilities and previous research by Barnardo’s shows that children with behaviour or conduct disorders are particularly vulnerable.
They can be disadvantaged by not having the same access to sex and relationship education as their non-disabled peers. Sometimes abuse can be missed because behaviour changes or delayed development may be attributed to learning disabilities when they may be a consequence of trauma from sexual abuse.
Victims of sexual abuse come from all ethnic and religious backgrounds. Fear of being stigmatised or labelled can lead to many BAME children not being identified or getting the support they desperately need. They may also be referred to culturally inappropriate services that fail to meet their needs.
Polling for Barnardo’s last year showed that men find the sexual abuse of teenage boys by women less concerning than the abuse of teenage girls by men.
Separate research conducted by Barnardo’s Cymru in 2018 and funded by the Home Office found that boys and young men often miss out on the support they would receive if they were girls because professionals don’t always recognise them as victims.
Director of the Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse Ian Dean said:
“In recent years we have gained better awareness of child sexual abuse and its impact on victims and survivors but we still don’t know how many children are currently experiencing abuse.
“The cases being identified by agencies are most likely the tip of the iceberg; most sexual abuse remains hidden and is only reported years after it occurs, if it is reported at all. Abuse of children who are disabled or from BAME backgrounds is even more likely to be hidden.
“Agencies are making decisions in a fog, using limited or old data that hampers their ability to respond effectively and provide the best possible support for children.
“Without concerted action, we will likely never know the full scale of sexual abuse in this country. The government should commit to a regular prevalence study to shine a light on this horrendous and all too often hidden abuse.”
What is child sexual abuse?
Child sexual abuse involves forcing or persuading a child or young person to take part in sexual activities, whether or not the child is aware of what is happening. This includes acts that involve physical contact such as:
· assault by penetration
· non-penetrative acts (e.g. masturbation, kissing, rubbing and touching).
It also includes:
· involving children in looking at (or making) sexual images
· watching sexual acts
· encouraging children to behave in sexually inappropriate ways
· grooming a child (including via the internet), also called child sexual exploitation (CSE).
What parents can do
The most important thing is to be interested in your child’s life. Celebrate when things are going well. Respond with patience and sensitivity when they’re worried or anxious. Children who know that there is nothing too big and nothing too small to talk about are much more likely to speak up when things feel wrong or unsafe.
Try to talk about feelings as a regular part of your relationship. Speak to them about their safety strategies when they’re out of the house – including how they can contact you in an emergency and who else they could contact. It’s important to talk to them about how they can support their friends and what support they should expect from their friends, too. It’s worth talking to them about their apps and games on their devices, and exploring the safety features together.
You might have specific concerns. For older children and teens, these could be:
· changes in behaviour and mood (especially if they’re becoming more withdrawn)
· late nights out
· new friends who you haven’t met or heard about before
· any unexplained belongings that they might not have bought themselves
· their online activity
· unexplained injuries
· STIs and pregnancy.
For younger children, you may notice comments or elements of “playtime” that are sexual in nature and wonder where they learned this from. Try to discuss these without judgement and reassure them that you’re always there to talk to. When you’re talking about concerns like these, make sure you’ve got time to talk about it. Consider the environment and both your and your child’s potential stress levels when planning this.