As a society we don’t like to discuss it, but child-on-child sexual harm is more commonplace than we would like to admit. Whether it is young adolescent or prepubescent abuse; sibling abuse; or sexting and revenge porn among underage teenagers, it remains a taboo subject, and one which the care, education and criminal justice systems can be reluctant to tackle head on.
The scale of the issue
While the majority of sexual abuse is committed by adults, a study in 2003 reported that 20% of convictions for sexual offences in the UK relate to children who are themselves under the age of 18.
There are also high profile cases which have been extensively covered in the media and are often placed within a narrative on ‘poor parenting’, deviance and deprivation. These include the case of a 10- and an 11-year old boy from Doncaster, who were sentenced in 2009 for the beating, torture and sexual abuse of two other boys; and the murder in Liverpool of James Bulger in 1993 by two ten year-olds.
Acknowledging behaviour as harmful
Research by the National Clinical Assessment and Treatment Service (NCats) published in 2010 found that authorities, teachers, social workers and doctors often miss opportunities, or are unsure whether to intervene when they become aware of sexual behaviour.
In many instances the research found that adults were reluctant to acknowledge behaviour as “sexually harmful”, and instead label it as “playful” or “exploratory”. Recognising the difference between these and acting upon it appropriately is vital if children are to be prevented from displaying further harmful sexual behaviour (HSB) in the future.
One doctor commented in a BBC interview that it was not uncommon for a serious teenage sex offender to be referred to a doctor with a complete and detailed history of instances of harmful sexual behaviour, but with no action having been taken in the early years. Research from the NSPCC has also been critical of the provision of support services, both for victims but also for child perpetrators of child sexual abuse, with one academic describing the availability of support services as being a “postcode lottery”. They stress the need for a national strategy to deal with young sex offenders.
In early 2016, the Report of the parliamentary inquiry into support and sanctions for children who display harmful sexual behaviour was published by Barnardo’s. The inquiry found a lack of joined-up working, with different agencies too often dealing with harmful sexual behaviour in isolation from others.
To address this, the NSPCC have produced a framework for assessing harmful sexual behaviour which is designed to provide direction for frontline workers, encourage inter-agency working and help services provide support to families of children who display harmful sexual behaviour.
New challenges in the digital age
Recently professionals are also having to deal with new challenges in relation to the impact of the “digital age”, with online grooming, sexting and revenge porn, and the accessing of online pornography becoming increasingly common among young adolescents and pre-pubescent children.
A survey by one teachers’ union found that children as young as seven were found to be “sexting” at school, while a quarter of teachers who responded to the NASUWT survey said they were aware of 11-year-olds sexting.
In 2012, a qualitative study of children, young people and ‘sexting’ was produced by the NSPCC. It confirmed that even young children are affected, with access to technology and smartphones, making it much easier for them to view, share or produce their own sexual content. It found that in many instances, peers, not older children or adults were the biggest “threat”, particularly to girls.
And a recent campaign by the NSPCC highlighted that one in seven young people have taken a naked or semi-naked picture of themselves, and over half went on to share this picture with someone else.
More action needed
It has been widely acknowledged that the government needs to act to create a specific set of guidelines around child sexual behaviour, and in particular child-on-child abuse. The rise of mobile technology has presented authorities with a new problem and makes it easier than ever for young people to become exposed to, or become victim to, harmful and sexual abuse.
Better guidance and training for different professions is needed on how to recognise and deal with harmful sexual behaviour in children. Similarly, the support networks for victims and perpetrators must be strengthened in order to allow children to feel able to speak up and report instances of abuse, and also to break potential cycles of abuse and prevent children from continuing to project harmful sexual behaviours into adulthood.
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This is a major issue within my field, in residential child care where children are looked after away from home in a group living environment. Many have been abused and neglected, all of them are vulnerable and some are abusers themselves. Yet little if any information is shared about other residents before placing a child in a residential home which can mean those who will potentially harm other children are placed beside those most at risk. Staff training and sufficient numbers of staff on shift is essential if we stand any chance of ensuring high levels of supervision. All of these children need help to recover from the circumstances that led to their admission into care and many need support to understand and change their behaviours. It’s no easy task but it’s the only way to stop the cycle and help those who need it.
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