Blog: Are social workers really ill-equipped to deal with child sexual abuse in families?

It was an alarming read that a joint inspection of local authorities found that local agencies are often woefully ill-equipped to deal with child sex abuse in families.

Professionals have been dealing with intra-familial sexual abuse for decades and to think that their approach was falling short of expectations from key inspectorates was somewhat disturbing.

Somehow it seems far more understandable that agencies may face difficulties dealing with, in comparison, new types of abuse or exploitation, such as Child Sexual Exploitation, Female Genital Mutilation, trafficking and honour-based killing rather than abuse in families which professionals have been dealing with for years.

However, inspectorates Ofsted, HMICFRS, Care Quality Commission and HMI Probation found that children sexually abused by family members are going unseen and unheard in too many cases, while abusers evade justice. Efforts to prevent abuse are largely absent, while ineffective criminal investigations are, in the worst cases, leaving children at risk.

Familial abuse accounts for some two thirds of all child sex abuse, but the true figure could be even higher due to under-reporting, the Joint Targeted Area inspection of multi agency response to child sexual abuse in the familial environment found. Yet Ofsted’s chief inspector Amanda Spielman said the lack of national and local focus on this issue is deeply concerning and must be addressed.

The report said that child sexual abuse in the family environment should be just as much of a priority as child sexual exploitation and needs long-term national and local strategies to understand and reduce its prevalence.

“The knowledge that agencies have gained and the systems that have been put in place for dealing with child sexual exploitation are not being applied in the context of abuse within the family environment. As a result, frontline professionals are not equipped to know enough about perpetrators of child sexual abuse in the family environment: how to identify them, what their escalation patterns are and how to prevent them from abusing children,” the report added.

Having worked with social workers for many years, I find it difficult to believe that professionals do not have the knowledge to deal with intra-familial abuse. In fact, social workers have been dealing with child abuse within families for decades. I’m not disputing the findings of the report, but maybe, just maybe, social workers and other professionals are faced with so many ‘priorities’ that the basics have taken a back burner while other targets have been aimed for?

Since high profile cases in Rochdale, Oxford and Alexis Jay’s report into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham, the onus has been on social workers to develop strategies to deal with the issue of CSE https://www.rotherham.gov.uk/downloads/download/31/independent-inquiry-into-child-sexual-exploitation-in-rotherham-1997—2013 .

At the same time, guidance on Female Genital Mutilation has encouraged social work professionals to look out for signs of young girls being set up for and experiencing this horrific procedure. And all at a time when the number of children in care is rising and social workers are increasingly faced with families experiencing the ‘toxic trio’ of mental health problems, substance misuse and domestic abuse.

I think yet again social work professionals are fire fighting a plethora of competing demands each with a certain priority attached and are now struggling with the basics that they have been accustomed to dealing with for years while they try and grasp new ways of working to tackle abuse/technology/international elements all while under intense scrutiny and usually while experiencing a lack of staff/specialists to lead in these areas and increased demand.

If we are to truly recognise the full extent of child sexual abuse within or outside of families, the government needs to prioritise children’s services and back this with much-needed funding. Sadly, this usually only ever occurs when there has been a national scandal such as following the death of Victoria Climbie or Baby Peter Connelly.

But is that what we have to wait for to guarantee adequate resourcing of children’s services protecting the most vulnerable children in society?

Victoria Climbie incurred 128 separate injuries to her body before she died and, following Lord Laming’s report, councils a knee-jerk injection of cash to boost children’s services, as was also seen following the death of Baby Peter Connelly. Do we have to wait for a child to die having incurred another 128 injuries for councils to get that much needed financial investment again to invest in preventative services and work efficiently across all types of sexual abuse? I hope ministers in the new government are taking note.

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