Extent of CSE and CSA blurred by data collection: the data collected from children’s services makes it difficult to ascertain the true extent of child sexual abuse and exploitation, the Centre of Expertise CSE on Child Sexual Abuse has warned.
The number of actual victims of Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) and Centre of Expertise (CSE) remains difficult to judge from children’s services data because child protection data shows that only a small proportion of children experiencing CSA are recorded under this category in children’s services data, although a much wider cohort of children is identified as being at risk of CSA/E.
“Analysis also suggests that there has been a change in the way CSA is either identified or recorded over the past two decades, as the decline in the number of identified victims is not borne out by other measurements of scale of CSA in England and Wales,” said the report.
The report explains that children do not generally fall into a single category of need, but current systems require selecting a single category. This means that children where CSA is suspected may be recorded under other categories.
Just 20% of CSA victims known to the police had been registered on grounds of sexual abuse, 32% were registered under neglect, 29% for emotional abuse, 5% for physical abuse and 14% under multiple.
In addition, the Office of the Children’s Commissioner’s report (2015) also suggests that neglect is considered a ‘more straightforward’ designation, since the designation of sexual abuse requires more comprehensive assessment and relationship building by social workers.
Police referrals to children’s services are treated as contacts, with data not collected by the DfE – this only becomes a referral after an assessment has taken place. Sexual abuse may come to light during work with a family on the initial category of need, but the original designation remains the formal record. Further, a child only becomes the subject of a protection plan if there are ongoing concerns as per DfE guidance. If a perpetrator of sexual abuse is removed from the household, for example, the child may be deemed as not requiring intervention.
In its review of the most recent child protection inspections of police forces, HM Inspectorate of Constabulary (2015) found that police referrals to children’s social care were not always investigated. It concluded that "there is likely to be under-recording of abuse and neglect within the child protection system”.
“All of these factors mean that children’s services data tells us less about the scale of CSA in child protection systems and more about recording practices over time,” said the report.
The report adds that one of the key challenges is that data is not collected on the same basis across agencies: the police collect on offences, the CPS and MoJ on defendants and children’s services on children. As a result, the number of actual victims “remains opaque”.
The data available has significant gaps: age, ethnicity, disability in relation to children were noted by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary (2015) as not consistently reported in police data. Limited information about perpetrators, especially multiple perpetrators, and their relationship to the child was noted by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner (Berelowitz, 2013), and has been evident in this review. The forms and contexts of abuse are not always recorded systematically, making tracing patterns over time problematic.
Data about online is largely missing in prevalence studies, the report adds and urges future studies to address this.
“Taking into account the variations in the prevalence studies for England and Wales, the data suggests that some 15% of girls/young women and 5% of boys/young men experience some form of sexual abuse before the age of 16, including abuse by adults and peers,” said the report in its conclusion.
In children’s social care data since 1994/5, a declining number of children are on child protection plans for sexual abuse in England and Wales, although numbers increased slightly in 2015/6 and since 2014/5 CSE risk is recorded at a far higher level – 18,800 in 2016/17. In contrast, police recorded crime, prosecution and court data shows a strong and continued upwards trend of CSA offences, prosecutions and convictions.
The Centre for expertise will urge the UK government to commit to commissioning a regular CSA prevalence study in a bid to understand the scale and nature of CSA and CSE better.