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Children displaying HSB often experienced abuse and neglect

Neglect and abuse often features in childhood histories of children displaying harmful sexual behaviour, research has found.

The Children and Young People’s Centre for Justice (CYCJ) has published a report examining the childhoods of children who display Harmful Sexual Behaviour (HSB), finding clear evidence of neglect and abuse.

“When children who display HSB are examined in detail there is clear evidence of neglect and abuse. Their childhoods are characterised by parental separation, domestic violence, parents with additional needs, and frequent places to live,” said the report.

“High numbers of children in the sample had also been diagnosed with additional needs such as learning disabilities, ASD or mental health needs, while even more await formal diagnoses. The children are often described as isolated or socially excluded with many harming themselves, at risk of suicide or at risk of victimisation,” the report added.

Harmful sexual behaviour (HSB) can be defined as ‘sexual behaviours expressed by children and young people under the age of 18 years old that are developmentally inappropriate, may be harmful towards self or others and/or be abusive towards another child, young person or adult’.

Research in 2017 identified a 5% increase in recorded sexual offending in Scotland and indicated this increase was linked to a growth in online sexual offending and was involving younger children, with a large proportion of harmful sexual behaviour towards children being carried out by children. This led to an Expert Group being created by the Scottish Government. The purpose of this Group was to consider the evidence, review current responses and consider potential actions to prevent and respond to these behaviours.

The aim of this study was to start to fill these research gaps. The specific research aims were:

1. To examine and describe the childhood experiences of children referred to the Interventions for Vulnerable Youth (IVY) project who are displaying Harmful Sexual Behaviour (HSB)

2. To explore potential links between childhood experiences and HSB

3. To illustrate potential patterns of childhood experiences and HSB.

The HSB sample was made up of 97 children with documented HSB. This behaviour is both on a continuum of seriousness and ranges in HSB type, from accusations of rape, to concerns around use of extreme pornography, to children putting themselves at risk of harm with risky sexual activity.

The vast majority of the sample were male (89%) and white British (99%) and the majority were living away from home in a residential establishment or secure care (58%), living with family, extended family or foster family (40%) with the remainder in their own tenancy or remanded in custody. The ages of the children ranged from 12 to 18 with a mean of 14. years. The children were referred from 27 local authorities across Scotland.

Five main categories of HSB were identified:

1 Contact

2 Non-contact

3 Online/electronic media forms of HSB

4 Putting self at risk

5 Accessing pornography.

However, in 43 children there were multiple forms of HSB identified, as a result these main categories contain repeat individuals.

Furthermore, some of the HSB displayed did not overtly or intentionally ‘harm’ another individual but instead could be described as placing the child themselves at risk with sexual behaviour such as underage sexual activity, for example with strangers. Non-contact HSB also included incidents of highly sexualised language or actions such as exposing themselves.

The research highlighted potential vulnerabilities including:

  • Mental health and Developmental disorder
  • Sexual abuse
  • Peer Relationship
  • Risky behaviour
  • Involvement with support services and social work
  • Living situation (multiple house moves)
  • Parents (not living with their biological parents, parental mental health and parental substance abuse issues)
  • Not in education
  • Bereavement
  • Police involvement

“The age from which children displaying HSB were involved with statutory services highlights how many of these were born into vulnerability and need, with many families involved with statutory services before the child was born or with statutory service involvement before the age of five years,” said the report.

“As reflected in the literature, for the children in this study, sexual abuse also appeared to play a role in the age at which HSB onset was identified, with those children who had experienced sexual abuse showing HSB at a significantly earlier stage than those who had not. Although again, it is worth reiterating that as a result of their sexual abuse there may have been additional scrutiny on these children, leading to the earlier identification of concerning atypical behaviours.

“In those cases where there was documented intra-familial HSB a large number of those children were recorded as having targeted the family member before external victims. This could suggest that for some children this form of HSB is a ‘first step’ before they progress to other victims or types of HSB, or indeed it might suggest that intra-familial HSB is more likely to be recognised at an early stage and therefore recorded. However, the numbers included within this sample were low and so further research would help clarify this.

“In comparing the childhood experiences of vulnerable children in the two samples there appear to be few identifiable risks that would indicate a child is going to display HSB specifically; yet children who had experienced sexual abuse or physical neglect were disproportionately found within the HSB sample. Both samples had equally high levels of trauma with little to indicate why they had displayed HSB as opposed to other behaviours. In terms of fulfilling the aims of the study, the childhood experiences of children displaying HSB in the sample have been described, and links between some childhood experiences and HSB have been identified. Yet in terms of identifying patterns of multiple childhood experiences, no discerning patterns have been found, although the data constraints may have limited our ability to identify these,” the report concluded.

Harmful Sexual Behaviours by Children

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