I am very pleased to share with you our report ‘Responding to child sexual abuse: learning from local authorities in Wales’. This study, commissioned by the Centre of expertise on child sexual abuse (CSA Centre) and the Welsh Government, aimed to build a better understanding of the scale of child sexual abuse (CSA) encountered by local authority children’s services, and to explore how CSA is identified, recorded and responded to. The research involved examination of a sample of electronic social care records relating to children in two Welsh local authorities. Files were drawn from across a range of social work interventions. A total of 44 cases were studied. In addition, two focus groups with 10 social workers were undertaken.
Alongside our report we have published a briefing paper setting out the CSA Centre’s recommendations for local and national policy makers and services in light of the report findings.
Despite its small scale, the study highlights significant issues in the identification, response, recording and reporting of child sexual abuse. We believe that these issues have a major impact on current understandings of the scale and nature of abuse, the way in which services are organised and resources prioritised. Most importantly, they are likely to have a profound impact on the level and quality of support that many sexually abused children receive from local services. Significantly, our wider research and practice activities and discussions with relevant policy makers and professionals confirm that the issues identified are far from unique to Wales, and the findings will be equally relevant to those leading CSA policy and practice in England. The research also contributes directly and indirectly to some of the actions set out in the Welsh Government National Action Plan: Preventing and Responding to Child Sexual Abuse .
The study provides important insights into a range of aspects of identification, recording, response and practice in relation to CSA concerns in child protection social work. Key findings include:
- Scale of CSA in children’s social care records
- Only a small minority (one-fifth) of the children whose records identified CSA concerns in this study sample were on a child protection register for sexual abuse, or multiple forms of abuse including sexual abuse. This demonstrates that child protection registrations are a poor indicator of the scale of CSA concerns in the child protection system, representing only a small proportion of cases involving CSA that come to the attention of children’s services.
- Children’s experiences do not neatly reflect labels such as intra-familial, harmful sexual behavior and child sexual exploitation – the records detailed concerns about multiple forms of abusive behaviour, both inside and outside their family environment.
- Support provided to children in response to CSA concerns
- Participants in focus groups across both local authorities expressed concerns about the lack of support services for children who had experienced forms of CSA other than CSE. Support for families was also perceived as limited. Difficult referral criteria and long waiting lists for specialist service provision were highlighted in the focus groups.
- Among children thought to have experienced intra-familial abuse, two-fifths received no CSA-specific support. In contrast, only one out of seven children did not receive such support where extra-familial abuse(which involved CSE in almost all cases) was suspected.
- Social workers’ support and training needs
- Evidence from the case files and focus groups demonstrated concerning gaps in the knowledge, skills and confidence of social workers in relation to concerns about CSA. It was also evident that social workers relied on a verbal disclosure from the child in order to enact a safeguarding response to such concerns, unless such concerns related to CSE.
- The need for investment in the knowledge, skills and confidence of social workers was highlighted by the fact that social workers appeared hesitant to record CSA concerns where the child had not verbally disclosed – except in cases of suspected CSE, where the approach was to record risk indicators and signs for abuse. This means that some cases of suspected CSA do not appear in case records at all.
In response to the study we have made 10 recommendations:
1. Review is needed of the way that data on CSA in child protection and child in need cases is recorded, collated, used and shared. This review should be undertaken at multiple levels including national government, local children’s safeguarding boards and individual local authorities. This review should include a clear statement about the limitations of the current data.
2. Clarity is needed in guidance about the recording of CSA concerns when a verbal disclosure has not been made. The Welsh Government and the Department for Education should review guidance to ensure that professionals record these concerns.
3. Local safeguarding boards (multi-agency safeguarding arrangements in England) and local authority children’s services teams should consider a regular case file audit to review identification and response of CSA as well as recording of concerns about CSA.
4. We recommend that local authorities and safeguarding partners review the data they currently collect, and adopt the CSA Centre data collection template using the CSA Centre’s practical guide to data improvement and interactive data improvement tool.
5. In order to improve the provision of content relating to all forms of CSA within social work degree courses, regulators Social Work England and Social Care Wales should set clearer expectations of such content.
6. Local safeguarding boards in Wales and multiagency safeguarding arrangements in England should work with local authorities to review and provide leadership and expectations regarding post qualification training and development expectations and provision on CSA; this should focus specifically on developing understanding around the nature of disclosure, recognising the signs and indicators of abuse in the absence of a disclosure, and building the picture of such concerns in order to make appropriate responses (for example, by referring the child for a medical examination).
7. Local authorities should ensure that frontline social workers in child protection teams have access to high-quality supervision and practice leadership on CSA. In recognition of the need to develop practice leadership on CSA within social work.
8. Local safeguarding boards (multi-agency safeguarding arrangements in England) and local authority children’s services teams should consider a regular case file audit to review identification and response as well as recording of concerns of CSA.
9. Local safeguarding boards and multi-agency safeguarding arrangements should review the coverage of the support offer in cases involving CSA concerns, and in particular consider the response in the context of intra-familial abuse concerns and support for non-abusing family members.
10. Training and development of social workers should include content on effective working with children who experience CSA and their non-abusing family members, to ensure that social workers are able to provide support when specialist support is not available.
The CSA Centre is committed to improving our understanding of and response to CSA and this study provides rich insights to support improvements in data collection and storage, training and development and interventions and support for children and families in response to concerns of CSA. Over the coming months we will be working with local and national partners in Wales to support actions in response to the findings of this study and look forward to working with partners in England to do the same.
If you have any reflections or questions about this study or our wider work, please don’t hesitate to get in contact.
Lisa McCrindle, Policy advisor
Centre of expertise on child sexual abuse