Perpetrators of sexual abuse had "easy access" to children in residential care, a report by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse has found.
The report, based on what victims and survivors have shared with the Truth Project about their experiences of child sexual abuse and the institutional context in which it occurred, highlighted that there was a general lack of oversight in residential care contexts.
Participants in the study described the ease with which perpetrators were able to take children off-site, have unquestioned physical contact with children on-site, and easy access to certain locations where they could perpetrate sexual abuse.
"Participants painted a picture of residential care contexts having a general culture of aggression and violence, and where physical and emotional abuse was pervasive. They reported being treated as children generally unworthy of love and care, and finding it difficult to make friends with other children in the same place. They also commonly described feeling isolated," said the report.
Half of participants said they were abused by residential care workers
Six key factors were identified as facilitating the perpetration of sexual abuse in this context:
● an embedded culture of abusive behaviour
● staff being given care responsibilities and trust without sufficient training, qualifications or support
● lack of supervision and professional boundaries
● being able to exploit the physical space
● deflection of concerns or allegations
● children having no trusted person they could talk to.
The report highlighted that sexual abuse in this context was perpetrated by a range of individuals either inside or outside the establishments, sometimes by multiple perpetrators described as operating in collusion. Almost half of participants reported that they were abused by residential care workers, responsible for providing care to children in residential care rather than ancillary staff such as caretakers or gardeners. A quarter of participants reported being abused by a peer or older child, who may or may not have resided in the same place of residential care. There were also some examples of abuse that involved female perpetrators (16 per cent).
Fear of not being believed
Half of participants who were sexually abused in a residential care context reported that they knew of someone else in the same establishment also being abused. This was a higher proportion compared to those abused in other contexts, which was 30 per cent.
Many participants perceived that residential care staff or those working in the social services knew of or suspected instances of sexual abuse had occurred.
The report reveals that less than half of the participants sexually abused in a residential care context disclosed or reported the abuse at the time. The main reason participants failed to disclose the abuse was fear of retribution by the institution or perpetrator. Participants also spoke about the fear of not being believed.
Those who did disclose the abuse at the time often told someone in authority inside the place where they lived. The report says the reasons for this are not always clear, but it could suggest that they may have had limited opportunities to report the abuse outside of their residential care at the time. In most of these cases, participants explained that their claims were denied, minimised or deflected, ultimately describing institutional failings to protect them.
Some of the barriers to disclosing as a child continued into adulthood for some participants. Adults who disclosed abuse mostly reported to the police. A smaller proportion of participants abused in the context of residential care spoke about disclosing the abuse to family members after the abuse had ended compared to those abused in other contexts. They also less frequently disclosed the abuse to mental health professionals than those abused in other contexts.
Running away was a common response to being abused
Participants experienced mixed experiences when dealing with the police and criminal justice system more broadly. While some positive dealings with the police were described, participants’ accounts highlighted inconsistency in case handling, within and across the police and other services.
Participants described the following frustrations:
● being made to feel like they were not telling the truth or were in some way responsible for the abuse they experienced
● the process as lengthy, frustrating and emotional
● the lack of information or conflicting information throughout
● police officers perceived as inexperienced dealing with cases.
Participants spoke about the range of impacts they had experienced following the sexual abuse they had experienced in a residential care context. Many described the negative impact the sexual abuse had on their mental health. There was also a lack of trust in authority (30 per cent) and running away (24 per cent). Running away was reported to be a common response to the experience of sexual abuse at the time amongst other techniques to try to escape it.
Twenty nine per cent of participants abused in this context sometimes reported being involved in various criminal behaviours later in their lives, such as theft and buying illicit drugs.
Other impacts evident in participants’ accounts included: physical injury as a result of the sexual abuse (most notably among female participants); wider issues with trust and intimacy; difficulties with education, employment and housing; substance misuse; and difficulties with sleeping and nightmares. Participants also spoke of the impact of the sexual abuse they observed on other children who were living in the same establishment, including self-harm and attempted suicides.
Participants described receiving little or no support from institutions
Participants also described four coping strategies: ‘just carrying on’ and suppression; facing the past and speaking out; therapy and support; and belief in the greater good and giving something back.
Participants spoke about three key factors which had hindered their recovery or served as ‘triggers’ – poor or inadequate responses from institutions and professionals; a lack of support from family or friends – typically as a result of fractured or non-existent relationships with family members and other negative life events and direct reminders, such as seeing the perpetrator or another child that had lived with them in the particular institution.
The report highlighted how participants described receiving little or no support from institutions, and lack of support more generally. Positive experiences of support were more commonly attributed to the informal support received from other victims and survivors, friends and colleagues, rather than formal support services in the form of counselling, for example.
Participants called for better communication between residential care agencies, and that it should be easier for victims and survivors to access their own information regarding their time in care. Financially, participants thought the assumption that claimants seeking compensation for sexual abuse just want financial compensation needs to be challenged.
Culturally, participants said that there needed to be greater awareness of child sexual abuse amongst children and young people, and that the power around people in positions of authority within residential care contexts needed to be challenged.
"Politically and professionally, participants thought that residential care needed to value and nurture children and that children with disabilities should be better looked after within the system," the report concluded.
Truth Project Thematic Report
Child sexual abuse in the context of children’s homes and residential care
Diane Wills is Consultant Social Worker at WillisPalmer, responsible for quality assuring the forensic risk assessment reports.
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