Child sexual abuse far more widespread than people believe, says Barnardo’s

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 vulnerable children are slipping through the cracks. 

More 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.

Almost 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.

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.

With 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.

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, 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 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.

This, coupled with potential communication problems or issues of isolation or stigma, 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 across the UK are slipping through the cracks – 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 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.”

In 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.

Matthew 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).

Matthew 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.

“Boys 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.

“As 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.” 

Louisa 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 (Joe-Warren Plant).

Louisa 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.

“I 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 it.

“No 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.”

Barnardo’s ambassador Nicola Roberts has supported the charity’s work around child sexual abuse and exploitation for years.

Nicola said: “Through 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.

“Children 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?

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.

Case study

Alfie 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.

Alfie’s 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.

Alfie 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.

Alfie’s 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.

Alfie’s 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 Uncle James. 

In 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”. 

Through 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.