Government urged to launch strategy for preventing harmful sexual behaviour

Parliamentary inquiry recommends national strategy for responding to harmful sexual behaviour is prioritised by government

The government should develop a national strategy for preventing and responding to harmful sexual behaviour in children, a parliamentary inquiry has concluded.

The parliamentary inquiry into support and sanctions for children who display harmful sexual behaviour ‘Now I know it was wrong’, which was supported by Barnardo’s says a national strategy for managing and preventing harmful sexual behaviour (HSB) is imperative and should be prioritised by government.

“A ministerial-led working group should be established, with representation from government departments, voluntary sector and other agencies working with children affected by HSB. The voice of children and young people should also be represented,” said the report. “In developing the strategy, the working group should agree on a clear, universally accepted set of definitions for ‘harmful sexual behaviour’.”

Abuse by children is doubly taboo

Given the complex nature of this issue, clear definitions are a crucial first step, the report says adding that it will help clarify what is meant by HSB, and how it relates to Child Sexual Exploitation and Child Sexual Abuse, as well as to sexual offending and concerning sexual behaviour.

The strategy should aim to establish best practice and improve consistency of approach towards children displaying HSB and consistency in the quality of HSB services.

The Working Group should consider whether to commission new guidance for schools on responding to sexually concerning and harmful behaviour, akin to existing guidelines on sexting. In addition it should oversee the introduction of high quality training for a range of professionals on HSB, including police, social workers, teachers and lawyers.

“It’s only recently that as a society we’ve started to address the horrific crime of child sexual exploitation head on. No-one wants to think about children being sexually abused. Too often adults have turned a blind eye, and children have been silenced by fear and shame. Abuse by adults is taboo, but abuse by children is doubly taboo,” said Javed khan, CEO of Barnardo’s.

Normalisation of sexting

The report stresses that children displaying HSB should be treated as children “first and foremost”. “Too often children displaying HSB are treated as ‘mini sex offenders’. This approach not only fails to pay due consideration to the trauma they may have experienced, but also overlooks that children and young people are more likely than adults to achieve successful rehabilitation,” the report adds.

The Inquiry heard that there is considerable diversity amongst children and young people who display HSB. They include boys and girls of all ages from all socio-economic, cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds and all sexual orientations. However, there are some common characteristics or risk factors:

  • Victims of abuse and neglect

Children who display HSB are more likely to have experienced abuse and neglect, including sexual, physical and emotional abuse themselves. This does not mean however, that all children who have been abused will go on to become perpetrators themselves, but in some cases the child’s behaviour may be a direct consequence of their own experience of being sexualised through abuse.

  • Poor social competences and learning difficulties or disabilities

Children and young people who display HSB can exhibit high levels of general behavioural problems. They often have low social skills, lack of sexual knowledge and high levels of social anxiety. A significant proportion of these children and young people have learning difficulties or disabilities (LDD) and can be on the autistic spectrum (ASD).

  • Age

The peak time for the development of HSB appears to be early adolescence or the onset of puberty. Service providers report that the average age of a child referred to specialist services is falling.

  • Gender

Around 90 per cent of young people who are formally identified as sexually abusing others are male. Even when underreporting is taken into account, this still represents a vast majority and HSB is predominantly a problem affecting boys and young men. However, young women can display HSB too.

  • Children who display concerning sexual behaviour

Research on risk factors has generally focused on sexual behaviour that is abusive, typically associated with adolescents. Less attention has been given to younger children displaying problematic or concerning sexual behaviour. One study found that the average age for children beginning to demonstrate concerning sexual behaviours is 8½ years-old.  65 per cent of such children were found to be boys and 35 per cent girls. A majority of them live at home with their biological parents and more than half directed their concerning behaviour towards a sibling. They were found to have similar histories of abuse and neglect as children displaying more serious forms of HSB.

  • Other harmful behaviours

Children and young people found to display HSB are likely to exhibit other delinquent tendencies too, especially those engaged in high level behaviour.

  • Class and socio-economic status

The Inquiry heard that HSB does not occur more frequently in any particular social-economic group. However, children from lower-economic background are over-represented in clinical samples of children who display HSB.

The report also highlighted that one of the principal triggers for an increased focus on HSB has been the normalisation of sexting. However, while sexting can constitute a criminal offence, it is not necessarily ‘harmful sexual behaviour’, in terms of being inappropriate to a child’s age and development.

A consistent theme of the Inquiry concerned the impact that the emergence of the internet may have had in the increase of HSB – particularly through the ready access to pornography it has facilitated for young people. The committee heard that this does appear to be contributing to the development of HSB in some young people.

Low recidivism rates

However, there is no definitive data on the prevalence of HSB. Figures from police forces in England and Wales show that 4,209 children and young people under 18 were recorded as perpetrators of sexual offences against other children and young people in 2013-14. Research has generally indicated that around a third of incidents of sexual abuse involve children or adolescents as perpetrators. Some UK studies have suggested that the proportion may be significantly higher with one study estimating that up to 65 per cent of sexual abuse experienced by children under 18 is perpetrated by someone under the age of 18.

The Inquiry heard that the success rates for therapeutic programmes working with children and young people exhibiting HSB was extremely good. Professor Simon Hackett stated that meta-analyses looking at different samples and different levels of risk had suggested between 3 and 12 per cent of children treated for HSB sexually reoffend. The report said the low recidivism rate provides a strong incentive for society to look at working therapeutically with young people displaying HSB.

The Inquiry recommends that the government works closely with schools, local government, the voluntary sector and others to improve support for parents in keeping their children safe from HSB, increase children’s knowledge and understanding of safe and healthy relationships and restrict access to inappropriate online content.

The Inquiry report also recommends that the government should work with partners to commission research to further understanding of HSB, in order to:

  1. Improve identification of children at risk
  2. Improve prevention of HSB and CSE/A
  3. Identify gaps in provision
  4. Improve the effectiveness of interventions
  5. Improve outcomes for children who display HSB

“Understanding which children are at risk of HSB is crucial to improving prevention of future sex offending. More research is needed to fully understand the complex network of risk factors which leads children into displaying HSB so that early intervention can be put in place to help these young people,” said the report.

“We believe that this is the time for action. National Government must take the lead, but to tackle this issue effectively everyone involved in children’s welfare must work together,” the report concluded.

Inquiry report


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