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Children’s Experiences of Help-seeking and Support after Sexual Abuse in the Family Environment - An Overview of the Research Paper
The research paper Making Noise: children’s voices for positive change after sexual abuse, (https://www.beds.ac.uk/ic/recently-completed-projects/making-noise) was commissioned by the Children’s Commissioner for England and carried out by the International Centre for Researching Child Sexual Exploitation, Violence and Trafficking at the University of Bedford working with the NSPCC.
The researchers worked with children aged between 5 and 19 from across the UK and the focus of the research was on children’s experience of help-seeking and support following identification of child sexual abuse in the family environment. There has understandably and rightly been an increased focus on children at risk of Child Sexual Exploitation in the past decade. However, we also know that significant numbers of children are at risk of child sexual abuse within the family environment and agencies that work with them often miss the signs that sexual abuse is taking place.
Child sexual abuse is the most difficult type of abuse for a child or young persons to disclose for a whole range of factors. These include their own internal motivations and beliefs arising from what is happening to them; the actions and messages they experience from those around them including the messages from the perpetrators and the wider society around them. These barriers are compounded by the fear of not being believed and other contextual factors such as the perceived absence of support. Their situation is often compounded by the nature of children’s familial ties to the perpetrator and they are often reliant on the safe adults around them to identify what is happening to them.
Sexual abuse by an adult who should be in a position of trust is a particularly traumatising violation which shatters the victim’s sense of physical and psychological safety and security.
Working Together to Safeguard Children 2015 defines sexual abuse as follows:
Child sexual abuse: Involves forcing or enticing a child or young person to take part in sexual activities, not necessarily involving a high level of violence, whether or not the child is aware of what is happening. The activities may involve physical contact, including assault by penetration (for example, rape or oral sex) or non-penetrative acts such as masturbation, kissing, rubbing and touching outside of clothing. They may also include non-contact activities, such as involving children in looking at, or in the production of, sexual images, watching sexual activities, encouraging children to behave in sexually inappropriate ways, or grooming a child in preparation for abuse (including via the internet). Sexual abuse is not solely perpetrated by adult males. Women can also commit acts of sexual abuse, as can other children.
Child sexual abuse in the family environment (also called Intrafamilial Child Sexual Abuse (IFCSA) is defined by the Children’s Commissioner for England as:
’sexual abuse perpetrated or facilitated in or out of the home, against a child under the age of 18, by a family member, or someone otherwise linked to the family context or environment, whether or not they are a family member. Within this definition, perpetrators may be close to the victim (e.g. dad, uncle, stepdad), or less familiar (e.g. family friend, babysitter).’
Crown Prosecution Service Guidelines (2013) on the Sexual Offences Act 2003, say:
These offences reflect the modern family unit and take account of situations where someone is living within the same household as a child and assuming a position of trust or authority over that child, as well as relationships defined by blood ties, adoption, fostering, marriage or living together as partners.
The following diagram from the Children’s Commissioner is a helpful reminder of who is in the child’s world. Finkelhor’s Four Pre Conditions Model (1984) would suggest that the closer to the centre of the diagram the fewer obstacles a potential abuser would have to overcome in order to sexually abuse the child.
(Note: although the framework has some limitations, it does still present a model with both psychological and sociological explanations for understanding why and how sexual abuse occurs.)
The diagram is a useful reminder of the importance for practitioners knowing who is in the child’s world and the role that they play. This can be especially important when the arrival of a new person in this world coincides with a change of behaviour in the child.
The Research focused on a number of areas:
- Identification and disclosure of child sexual abuse in the family environment;
- Impact on (and role of) family and safe carers;
- Access to, and role of, professional welfare support;
- Experiences of criminal justice proceedings;
- Impact on (and role of) wider contexts (peers, schooling, communities);
- Recovering and moving on.
The findings from the research include:
Identification and Disclosure of Child Sexual Abuse in the Family Environment
The experiences of children in the study were that they are most likely to disclose their experiences of abuse to their non-abusing mother, or (in the case of female children a friend especially for older children).
The research suggests that there are likely be additional barriers to identification or disclosure for disabled children and young people; those from some minority ethnic communities; boys and young men and children and young people who have experience of being in care.
The report recommends that in order to support the identification of child sexual abuse in the family environment that we increase children’s knowledge and understanding of what abuse is; that we increase their confidence in being believed and that they can have confidence in the provision of support especially to help address issues of stigma and shame that may arise.
It is important that agencies recognise that the identification and disclosure of child sexual abuse in the family environment often represents the beginning of challenging and difficult processes for children and young people and that recognising the particular vulnerabilities that can arise is vital for professionals wishing to provide effective support.
Impact on (and role of) Family and Safe Carers
The child’s familial ties to the perpetrator often has significant implications for the impacts that child sexual abuse has on families increasing the levels of disruption, division and/or distress following a disclosure.
In some cases children report far reaching impacts on their family life which can include increased division and conflict in the family as well as rejection and blame from some family members. It can also lead to negative impacts on the emotional wellbeing of non- abusing family members and children and young people can hold a real sense of responsibility for the impact the disclosure has on family relationships and family members’ wellbeing. This may prevent children from talking about abuse or expressing the impacts upon them.
However this is not always the case and some children reported that following identification of abuse, they felt physically safer and had been able to access emotional support which had strengthened their relationships with the family.
The report recommends the importance of agencies planning a programme of support to non-abusing family members which addresses the parents’ and carers’ own support needs, helps parents and carers to better understand and respond to their children’s needs. That helps promote family stability and safe positive relationships, and reduces the burden that children and young people may feel for their families’ wellbeing.
The report highlights the additional challenges for children who are removed from the family home following the identification or disclosure of child sexual abuse. These can include a significant sense of loss and dislocation even when children recognise and value the sense of physical safety that results from such a move. The needs of older children (16/17 year olds) can sometimes be poorly responded to when it comes to the need for psychological support to address the trauma and the help required in making the transition to adult services.
Access to, and Role of, Professional Welfare Support
The report recognises that there is no quick fix for the impact on the family environment. There is a need for a proactive response from a range of agencies (including health, social care and the third sector) that can provide a consistent and often long term programme of support for the family and that can meet the needs of wider family and carers as well as those of the child.
Children will often experience variable but significant mental health difficulties as a result of their abuse which can include self-harm, depression, anxiety, flashbacks, dissociation, low self-esteem; aggressive and/or anti-social behaviour, psychosis and suicide attempts. Many of these difficulties are identified by primary aged children as well as older young people.
Children and young people’s experiences of professional responses were experienced as both helpful and supportive but can also subject children to further challenges and distress. Both these dynamics may occur simultaneously and reflect the role of the different agencies in the safeguarding process. This raises important questions about the balance of a criminal justice process and the need to protect the child from future harm running alongside the programme of support to the child.
The report highlights the importance of appropriate therapeutic support post abuse. Interviewees highlighted the significant positive difference that such support had made to them. Key benefits included: a safe space for them to process what had happened; knowing that others have had similar experiences; being believed; countering stigma, isolation and self-blame that they may feel. The therapeutic support also helped them develop coping strategies and improve their confidence and resilience building. The quality of the therapeutic relationship emerges as more significant than the particular model or approach adopted.
The children and young people identified ten key attributes of a good professional response which are explored in more detail in the report (see section 5.6 on page 111) (https://www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/UniBed_MakingNoise-20_4_17-1.pdf).
Experiences of Criminal Justice Proceedings
The key positive experienced by children and young people from police involvement is the potential for physical safety from a perpetrator. ‘Justice’ remained an important concept for the majority of children and young people in the study (despite the potential for conflicting feelings towards the perpetrator). This was despite the many difficulties experienced by them in relation to the criminal justice process.
The report raises lots of questions about children and young people’s experience of the criminal justice process. Although there were examples of good practice, “Achieving Best Evidence” interviews and other formal investigative processes were overwhelmingly described as difficult and distressing as was the court process itself.
The report call for more consistent application of the Crown Prosecution Service guidance and the importance that the barriers that can exist to children accessing pre-trial therapy are addressed in order for children and young people to safely engage in the criminal justice process in a way that minimises the potential for further traumatisation.
Impact on (and role of) Wider Contexts (peers, schooling, communities)
The experiences of child sexual abuse have a significant impact on how children feel about school. Schools can become a place of safety but could also be a difficult place to be. Key issues identified were feeling unable to concentrate or cope with the pressure of schoolwork; anxiety about peers or staff finding out about the abuse; changes to peer dynamics; and managing symptoms of trauma during school time (such as flashbacks, disassociation and impact on memory).
Supportive experiences of school or college were characterised by sensitive, appropriate information sharing with staff and the majority of the children and young people valued at least one member of staff recognising their additional needs and taking responsibility for implementing practical support strategies in consultation with children themselves.
Friends at school can be part of a support network especially for young women but can also present difficulties and risks after disclosure including gossip and bullying, being asked difficult questions and changes to friendship dynamics.
Recovering and Moving On
The report emphasises that while a minority of children and young people’s thoughts about the future appear to be characterised by fatalism and a lack of hope, the majority could recognise the possibility of positive change and growth beyond their experiences and were keen to communicate a sense of hope to other children facing similar circumstances. They also highlighted the importance of optimism in professional interventions.
Professionals and family had an important role in helping children and young people to recognise positive changes that take place following the abuse and this was seen as a key element to future growth and a central part of their narrative of ‘recovery’.
However this picture is set in the context of the continuing challenges to children’s emotional wellbeing and which are complex and often require significant professional support. The children in the research had access to ongoing professional support as part of the ethical nature of the research but this is not the case for all children. The report emphasises the critical importance of therapeutic support being made available for children and young people who have experienced child sexual abuse within the family environment.
The report highlights the importance in challenging the cultures of silence surrounding child sexual abuse in the family environment that we continue to explore how we view and listen to children, recognise the signs of abuse and respond to their experience in a way that allows them to move forward and recover in the future.
Making Noise: Children’s Voices for Positive Change after Sexual Abuse
Preventing Child Sexual Abuse - The Role of schools
Protecting Children from Harm - A Critical Assessment of Child Sexual Abuse in the Family Network in England and Priorities for Action
Investigating Child Sexual Abuse - The Length of Criminal Investigations
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