Child abuse by children: why don’t we talk about it?

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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Who’s who in the UK’s evidence landscape

a4ue ecosytem pic

Last week the Alliance for Useful Evidence and The Social Innovation Partnership published an evidence ecosystem map, designed to give a picture of the diversity of organisations involved in supporting evidence use in the government and public sector.

We were proud that two key Idox products were recognised for making research relevant and accessible to practitioners – not just researchers. The Idox Information Service holds over 200,000 summarised research resources and covers over thirty areas of public policy, including planning, economic development and housing. Idox also contributes data to the Social Policy and Practice database, which focuses on health and social care evidence.

Our research team work every day on creating relevant content for our public policy databases. And for the last forty years our mission has been to improve access to research and evidence for local authorities, government agencies and consultancies.

You might be surprised to hear though that UK-produced databases are now a rarity, despite the desire for evidence-based policy being stronger than ever.

Evolving information needs

Over the last four decades, information services have rapidly evolved, responding to both technology developments and to changes in user expectations. The UK used to be a strong competitor in the provision of databases however there are now very few remaining British social science databases.

One of the problems is that many people are unaware that UK databases exist or why they are important. We wrote earlier this year about why using UK-sourced evidence is part of a good literature searching technique and also means that UK policymakers and practitioners draw on relevant research, case studies and commentary.

UK-produced databases

In the last ten years many UK-produced databases have ceased – funding has stopped, publishers have closed or databases have been taken over by international publishers (which reduces the balance of UK content). Some key databases which every social policy researcher should know about and use are:

  • The Idox Information Service

The Idox Information Service (formerly The Planning Exchange) has been providing information services on public policy and practice to central government, public agencies, councils and universities since its inception in the late 1970’s. Its central aim is to support evidence-based policy, by providing UK-relevant resources and research support. Today it holds over 200,000 resources, increasing by up to 1,000 abstracts every month, across 30 public policy areas. These include planning, regeneration, housing, social policy and economic development. Every item is abstracted specially, rather than re-using publisher abstracts.

  • Ageinfo

Ageinfo is the only UK database covering all aspects of ageing and older age, including research and practice in the social and health issues of older age. It is a bibliographic database of over 55,000 books, articles and reports from the specialist collection held by the Centre for Policy on Ageing, who also undertake commissioned research. Created mainly by volunteers now, the database covers policy, support and services on ageing – including health and social services; residential and community care; living arrangements; financial inclusion; independent living; citizenship; rights and risks.

  • NSPCC Inform

A free resource for those working in the childcare and protection sector, the NSPCC library catalogue, known as NSPCC Inform, is dedicated to child protection, child abuse and child neglect. It includes case reviews,  training resources and practice toolkits, international journals and grey literature.

  • Social Care Online

Previously known as Caredata, Social Care Online is a database produced by the Social Care Institute for Excellence, with over 150,000 abstracts covering all aspects of social care, social welfare and social policy. It is currently free to access. It covers information on people with social care needs; those receiving care services; key issues such as integrated services, safeguarding or legislation; and the social care workforce.

  • ChildData

From the National Children’s Bureau charity, ChildData is a bibliographic database covering all aspects of research and practice in young people’s social care. It is now only available through Social Policy and Practice. Content includes reports, research and resources on early childhood; education and learning; health and wellbeing; involving young people; play; sector improvement; SEN and disability; and vulnerable children.

  • Social Policy and Practice

A one-stop-shop for research, analysis and discussion of health and social care, the Social Policy and Practice database holds over 350,000 abstracts on social policy, and 30% of content is grey literature. The database made up from selected content from the major UK database providers: Idox Information Service, Social Care Institute for Excellence, National Children’s Bureau, the Centre for Policy on Ageing and the NSPCC. It is sold and distributed by Ovid Technologies, primarily to universities and the NHS.

  • Health and medical databases

There are some other specialist UK libraries and database producers in the field of health policy. The Kings Fund produces an online database in the area of health management and policy (not clinical information). The Royal College of Nursing and the Royal Society of Medicine have their library catalogues online.

Why use UK databases

A scoping review in 2005 suggested that people searching for social science evidence tend to neglect the question of geographical and coverage bias within research sources. By using these UK services described above, users know they have taken the quickest path to reviewing relevant evidence, confident that they are up to date,  and focused on best practice within the UK.

The rise of the internet makes it increasingly difficult to assess the quality of evidence and all these databases are produced by teams who specialise in the subejct area.

Sourcing and selection of resources is based on the knowledge, experience and expertise of real people and organisations operating within the policy fields. Keywords  and indexing is also UK-focused, which makes searching easier.

Finally, you can get a fuller picture of a subject area, by looking at valuable grey literature rather than relying on peer reviewed journals. Grey literature is produced directly by organisations, including government departments and agencies, academic research centres, NGOs and think tanks, and commercial consultants, and has been found to be especialy useful for the complex information needs of policy makers.

Disappointing lack of awareness

There are many students and academics who remain unaware of UK databases, and it is disappointing how many commisisoned literature reviews will rely on one or two commercial (American-produced) databases.

To change this, and ensure that the next generation of policymakers and practitioners know the valuable resources that are available to them, we would love to see academic librarians advocate for specialist databases, rather than relying on what the major publishers will bundle in discovery systems.

And we hope the new evidence ecosystem map will raise awareness of the wide variety of organisations and groups who produce and use evidence in the UK.


We are currently offering a free trial of our database to librarians or academics who run courses in social policy, public policy or planning and the built enviornment. Contact us for more information.

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The way forward for mental health services for children and young people

Black and white photo of young girl.

Image courtesy of Flickr user darcyadelaide using a Creative Commons license

By Steven McGinty

“Not fit for purpose” and “stuck in the dark ages”

These are two of the phrases used by the Care Minister, Norman Lamb, to describe mental health services for children and young people in England. The minister admitted that young people are being let down by the current system and has announced that a new taskforce will look into how the system should be improved.  To coincide with this review, I decided to look at the current situation for children and young people with mental illness, as well as highlight some of the main themes from the latest evidence.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reports that one in ten children and young people (aged 5-16) have a clinically diagnosed mental health disorder. This covers a broad range of disorders, including emotional disorders, such as anxiety and depression, as well as less common disorders such as autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and eating disorders. Approximately 2% of these young people will have more than one mental disorder. The most common combinations of disorders are conduct and emotional disorders and conduct and hyperkinetic disorders.

The likelihood of a young person developing a mental disorder is increased depending on a number of individual and family/ social factors. There are a whole range of risk factors, but some of these include:

  • having a parent in prison
  • experiencing abuse or neglect
  • having a parent with a mental health condition
  • having an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD)

It’s important to note that mental illness is complex, and that not everyone in these risk groups will struggle with it. This is particularly true when a young person is in receipt of consistent long-term support from at least one adult.

The impact of mental illness can be particularly difficult for young people. For instance, the National Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) Support Service reported that young people who suffer from anxiety in childhood are 3.5 times more likely to suffer from depression or anxiety in adulthood. There is also an increased chance of young people coming into contact with the criminal justice system, with Young et al highlighting that 43% of young people in prison have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The Centre for Mental Health also suggests that young people with mental health problems struggle to achieve academically, as well as in the employment market.

When a government minister condemns his own department, it’s evident that there are severe problems.  However, this does not have to be the case.

Below I’ve outlined some of the key lessons to come from evidence on what makes a good mental health service for children and young people.

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