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Great variation in recording of suspected sexual abuse between local authorities

There is great variance in the recording of suspected child sexual abuse between local authorities the Centre for Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse has warned.

Across the year 2020-2021, local authority children’s services in England recorded concerns about child sexual abuse in 29,640 assessments of children, and about child sexual exploitation, which is treated differently, in 16,830 assessments. The percentage of assessments recording a risk of child sexual abuse or child sexual exploitation has declined slightly in recent years, and stood at 9% of total assessments in 2020/21.

“Although there is no reason to believe that the prevalence of child sexual abuse differs significantly between different regions of England and Wales, local authorities varied considerably in their identification of child sexual abuse and child sexual exploitation in these assessments,” said the report.

The CSA Centre estimates that at least 15% of girls and 5% of boys are sexually abused before the age of 16, yet the number of child sexual abuse cases recorded in official agency data and summarised in the report is far below these estimates of scale.

The research highlights that two local authorities identified no children for whom they had concerns about sexual abuse. However, five local authorities identified more than 70 for every 10,000 children living in the area.

The highest rates of identification were found in the regions of the North East and of Yorkshire and the Humber, while London councils tended to have lower rates.

There was less regional difference in the recording of child sexual exploitation as a factor in assessments, suggesting a more consistent approach which is likely to be linked to resources, training and the prioritisation of sexual exploitation over the past 10 years, the research suggests.

Just 2,450 children in England – approximately one-twentieth of the number whose initial assessments recorded child sexual abuse or exploitation concerns – were placed on child protection plans under the category of sexual abuse (which includes cases of child sexual exploitation) in 2020/21.

The overall number of new child protection plans has fallen slightly, but the decline in plans under the category of sexual abuse has been steeper. There was a reduction of 6% in 2020/21, following a 12% reduction the previous year and in total, 500 fewer children were placed on child protection plans in 2020/21 because of sexual abuse than two years earlier, and the proportion of protection plans recording sexual abuse concerns fell to a new low of less than 4%.

In Wales, 221 (6%) of all child protection registrations were made under the category of sexual abuse, sometimes alongside other forms of abuse/neglect.

As seen with the recording of sexual abuse concerns in assessments of children, there was considerable regional variation in the placement of children on protection plans or the child protection register. A third of local authorities in England – including the majority of those in Inner London – placed five children or fewer on a plan under the category of sexual abuse, while the highest rates were recorded in the West Midlands and Yorkshire and the Humber regions.

Placements as a proportion of the local child population were higher on average in Wales than in England, although more than two-fifths of Welsh local authorities placed fewer than two children per 10,000 child population on the register because of sexual abuse.

Police forces in England and Wales recorded 89,200 identifiable child sexual abuse offences (including offences involving child sexual abuse images) during the year, slightly more than in 2019/20.

  • More than one-third of these were image offences
  • A further one-third related to rape or sexual assault
  • The remainder related to sexual activity, sexual grooming and abuse through sexual exploitation.
  • Compared to the previous year, there were significant falls in the numbers of recorded sexual offences committed by people in positions of trust, sexual activity offences, and offences of rape or a sexual assault against a male child.
  • Child sexual abuse image offences rose by 18%, the largest single-year increase since 2003/04.

Rates of recorded child sexual offences tended to be lowest in London and the South East, while the North East, the North West and Yorkshire and Humberside were the regions with the highest average recording rates.

The report also found:

  • One in seven police investigations ended in the suspect being charged, summonsed, cautioned or given ‘diversionary or intervention activity’.
  • Almost two-thirds were closed owing to evidential difficulties of some form.
  • Charges were more likely for offences of sexual exploitation and sexual grooming, and least likely for offences relating to sexual activity and rape.
  • Over the past seven years, there has been a sharp decline in the proportion of child sexual abuse offence investigations ending in a charge, from nearly one-third to just 10% in 2018/19, before increasing to 12% in the current year.

Court proceedings were brought against 6,943 defendants for child sexual abuse offences in the year to December 2020, and there were 4,649 convictions. Prosecutions increased by 9%, as a result of courts’ prioritisation of proceedings related to serious offences. Two-thirds of prosecutions ended with a conviction: a drop from three-quarters in the previous year. The conviction ratio was highest for child sexual abuse image offences and lowest for rape offences.

“There continues to be a large – and growing – gap between the estimates of prevalence of child sexual abuse in England and Wales and what is recorded in official data. While the COVID-19 pandemic appears to have had little visible effect on the level of child sexual abuse recorded in official data, the long-term downward trend in child protection figures, and in contact offences reported to the police, is of major concern,” said the report.

“Additionally, there is an urgent need for local leaders to address the large geographical variation in the identification of child sexual abuse, so that where children live does not affect how likely it is that their abuse is identified, detected or responded to,” the report concluded.

Child sexual abuse in 2020/21: Trends in official data

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