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
vulnerable children are slipping through the cracks.
than half* (55%) of respondents underestimated the prevalence of abuse while
almost one in four (19%) weren’t able to guess a figure, the survey conducted
for the UK’s leading children’s charity by YouGov shows.
a third (31%) of respondents to the poll of more than 2,000 adults across the
UK thought that child sexual abuse – including both ‘contact’ and ‘non-contact’
abuse – only affected 5% of children or fewer.
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.
this is believed to be a conservative estimate, though, with experts believing
child sexual abuse is far more prevalent than research suggests.
advancements in technology, abusers have increased mechanisms to access
children, often in environments like gaming and social media where childrens’
defences are down as they relax and enjoy time with their peers.
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.
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.
sexual abuse often goes unseen and unreported, the leading national children’s
charity says. 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
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.
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,
can mean minority groups are more likely to be ‘hidden’.
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
Chief Executive Javed Khan said:
sexual abuse is a horrific crime, causing trauma that can last a lifetime.
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 across the UK are slipping through the cracks – unseen, unheard, and
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
research conducted by Barnardo’s 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.
of the Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse Ian Dean said:
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.
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.
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
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.”
the run up to Emmerdale’s grooming storyline in 2018 and 2019, Barnardo’s
worked with the soap’s to help them tell the story sensitively. The show’s
researchers, story team and actors Louisa Clein, Matthew Wolfenden and
Joe-Warren Plant met Barnardo’s experts and young men who have been supported
by the charity.
Wolfenden plays David Metcalfe in ITV soap-opera Emmerdale. The Barnardo’s
supporter’s on-screen step-son Jacob (Joe-Warren Plant) was groomed and abused
by his teacher Maya Stepney (Louisa Clein).
said: “We saw in
Emmerdale how vulnerable Jacob was to abuse and how isolated from his support
network he became as Maya tightened her grip on him.
can be particularly vulnerable, as professionals are less likely to recognise
them as victims. But as we saw with Jacob, sexual abuse against boys is just as
traumatic as abuse against girls and needs to be taken just as seriously.
a parent, I think Barnardo’s Believe in Me campaign is vitally important; we
need to raise awareness of child sexual abuse so it can be identified and
children can be protected.”
Clein played Maya Stepney in Emmerdale and is a Barnardo’s supporter. Her
character in the ITV soap groomed and abused her teenage pupil Jacob
said: “Working with
Barnardo’s on the Emmerdale grooming storyline gave me an invaluable insight
into how child sexual abuse can be hidden and how isolated children can feel.
met some amazing young people and their support workers who helped me
understand how abusers exploit children’s feelings of guilt and shame and can
make young people believe the abuse is their fault or that they somehow deserve
child should ever be made to feel like that, and raising awareness of child
sexual abuse is a step towards protecting and supporting more children at risk
of child sexual abuse.”
ambassador Nicola Roberts has supported the charity’s work around child sexual
abuse and exploitation for years.
working with Barnardo’s over the years I’ve heard heartbreaking stories and
they’ve helped me understand how lives can be torn apart by sexual abuse and
how difficult they can be to rebuild.
and young people who’ve experienced sexual abuse can suffer deep trauma that
stays with them for life, which is why the work Barnardo’s does to support
survivors is so vitally important.”
What is child sexual abuse?
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).
- 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
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
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
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.
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.
was just over 6 years old when he was referred to Barnardo’s by his school. He
lives with his Nan, who had asked for help from teachers.
Nan was finding it hard to cope. His behaviour was often angry and loud, and
when he was with his friends he would get frustrated and lash out.
found falling asleep really difficult and wanted to stay up late with his Nan
watching TV with her, making her feel tired too. Alfie’s teachers had said he
had recently started to repeatedly talk about sex a lot and some staff had
found this hard to know how to respond to.
Barnardo’s worker started off by spending time with him and getting to know
Alfie. There was time spent playing outside and with toys to help Alfie build
up trust, and his worker would let Alfie decide what games and toys they would
play with; Alfie liked crashing the toy cars together the most and said that
crashing things together helped him with his ‘big feelings’ that made him feel
angry and cross.
project worker spent time visiting his school and talking to his teachers to
start to piece together how Alfie was feeling, as well as chatting to Alfie’s
Nan about how she was coping. Through their time together, Alfie started to
talk about his school, his friends and the adults in his life, including his
one of their sessions, Alfie told his project worker, “I don’t like Uncle
James”, and when they talked about it more, Alfie said that Uncle James had
made him touch his “privates”.
sharing this information with police and Social Care, action was taken to
ensure Alfie’s safety and an investigation started. The continued support of
Barnardo’s was key to Alfie and his family throughout these processes. They
gave Alfie the opportunity to show his feelings and they supported his Nan and
school teachers to find consistent ways of helping him when some of his
feelings got too big for him.
*Alfie’s name has been
changed in order to protect his identity.