Special report: JTAI into child sexual abuse in families

Local agencies are often woefully ill-equipped to deal with child sex abuse in families, according to the Inspectorates Ofsted, HMICFRS, Care Quality Commission and HMI Probation.
Children sexually abused by family members are going unseen and unheard in too many cases, while abusers evade justice, the report warned. Efforts to prevent abuse are largely absent, while ineffective criminal investigations are, in the worst cases, leaving children at risk.
Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s Chief Inspector, said: "As a society, we are far too reluctant to talk about sex abuse within the family home. It’s much easier to think of abuse happening elsewhere, to other people. Prevention is the best form of protection. If we are to deal with incest or other abuse involving families or family friends, we must talk openly and honestly about the signs and symptoms – to protect children and to stop abusers in their tracks.
"As it stands, children abused in the home are going unseen and unheard because agencies simply aren’t capable of keeping them safe. The lack of national and local focus on this issue is deeply concerning and must be addressed," she added.
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 report says. Despite the likely extent of the problem, local and national strategies to tackle it are virtually non-existent.
The inspectorates expose a worrying lack of knowledge and focus on familial abuse from all local partners. While agencies have improved their response to child grooming outside the home, the less high-profile issue of familial sex abuse is not getting the priority it needs, the report adds.
While inspectors found pockets of good work, this was inconsistent at best, the research said.
Complex area
The programme of joint targeted area inspections (JTAIs) began in January 2016. Ofsted, the Care Quality Commission, HMI Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services and HMI Probation examine how well agencies are working together in a local area to help and protect children. The inspectorates have previously looked at Child Sexual Exploitation, children living with domestic abuse and older children experiencing neglect.
This JTAI looked at the multi-agency response to child sexual abuse in the family environment. Sexual abuse in the family environment may be carried out by a family member, including a child or adult sibling, or by a person close to, or known to, the family. For example, this could be a family friend, a partner of a parent or other trusted adult.
The six local authorities visited by the inspectorates were Bracknell Forest, Cornwall, Derby City, Islington, Shropshire and York. The 'deep dive' element of the inspection focused on children and young people who children’s social care services had identified as being subject to, or at risk of, child sexual abuse in the family environment.
The report highlighted that child sexual abuse in the family environment is a very complex area and the research highlights significant challenges for agencies, professionals and the government. Therefore, the inspectorates said it is important for professionals working in this area to be well trained and appropriately resourced in order to prevent abuse happening and to identify and protect children at risk.
The research revealed that there is very little reliable data available on the prevalence of child sexual abuse. Latest estimates for 2017–18, suggest that there were an average of eight recorded offences of child sexual abuse including rape, assault, grooming and other non-contact abuse per 1,000 children in England and Wales. The most recent prevalence surveys suggest that around 15–20% of girls and 7–8% of boys have been victim of sexual abuse while the 2019 Crime Survey for England and Wales estimates that around 8% of all adults aged 18 to 74 experienced child sexual abuse before the age of 16.
Key findings include:
Sexual abuse within the family environment needs to be talked about.
Because as a society, we find it difficult to talk about sexual abuse of children within the family environment, it reduces our capability and preparedness to protect children from it. Within families and communities, there remains a disbelief and denial about familial sexual abuse, which means it is less likely to be identified and discussed. When we do talk about sexual abuse, we use language that can minimise the abuse or imply consent.
Child sexual abuse in the family environment is not a high enough priority.
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. While agencies have accrued knowledge and skills around tackling Child Sexual Exploitation, these 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 including how to identify them, what their escalation patterns are and how to prevent them from abusing children.
Professionals find this area of practice very difficult.
The report says that local area leaders across all agencies must provide better training and support for frontline professionals on the issue of sexual abuse in the family environment.
As there are no clear national and local strategies and approaches, professionals across all agencies lack the training and knowledge they need to identify and protect these children.
This is a complex area of work in which there are often multiple risks to children in addition to sexual abuse. The inspections revealed professionals working in a culture of a limited focus on, and knowledge of, this form of abuse.
Preventative work is absent or focused on known offenders.
Where inspectors saw evidence of prevention work, this focused around managing risk related to known sex offenders. There was limited evidence, in the areas visited, of community or parent/child-focused prevention strategies being adopted to aid the identification or prevention of child sexual abuse in the family environment.
Professionals rely too heavily on children to verbally disclose abuse.
Children are unlikely to tell someone that they are being sexually abused, particularly when the perpetrator is known to them. Therefore, it is vital that parents, professionals and the public understands and knows how to respond to the signs and symptoms of child sexual abuse. This means they need to recognise the signs of abusive relationships between an adult and a child, or between two children, and relationships that lack boundaries. Everyone in society needs to know how to recognise the signs of abuse of a child and how best to respond when they suspect a child is being abused.
When children have displayed harmful sexual behaviour, often it is solely their behaviour, not the cause, that professionals respond to.
Children who have been sexually abused may display harmful sexual behaviour towards other children in the family, classmates or other children. In some cases, professionals treated these children as perpetrators of abuse, and focused solely on their harmful behaviours as opposed to the reasons why they may be displayin such behaviour. Professionals did not consider, as they should have, that these children may be a result of having been sexually abused themselves and that they, too, may be victims. The abused children are then re-victimised and their needs as victims of abuse are not addressed.
Practice in this area is too police-led and not sufficiently child-centred while too often, health agencies are not involved at all.
Police often led decision-making in cases of sexual abuse in the family because of a lack of confidence and ability to challenge within the rest of the partnership. There was too much silo working and there was not enough involvement from health professionals due to children’s social care and the police not consistently involving health partners in decision-making. This meant that decisions were made without all of the information and, as a result, children were left at risk and/or without medical treatment.
The lack of appropriate professional challenge among agencies in relation to child sexual abuse was particularly evident. Local partnerships do not always work together to respond to child sexual abuse, information is not shared, and decisions are made that leave children at risk of further harm. Child protection enquiries were too often carried out by just one agency when police and social care agencies should have worked together, supported by health professionals.
The quality of criminal investigations of child sexual abuse in the family environment is sometimes poor.
Too many victims of child abuse are at risk of further harm from suspected perpetrators due to poor-quality criminal investigations which are failing to identify the full extent of the abuse. Investigations take too long and therefore impact on children’s well-being for reasons that include:
- delays in arresting or questioning suspects of sexual abuse
- police accepting voluntary attendance of a potential perpetrator at a police station
- delays in the forensic examination of digital equipment
Children are put at further risk because of police removing bail conditions placed on suspects when the risk they pose to children has not decreased. Professionals do not always investigate whether there are further potential victims, such as brothers and sisters or children in the neighbourhood.
The inspection also found a marked difference in the quality of response from the police, which was very dependent on the level of training and experience of the police officers involved. Sometimes, complex cases were managed by less experienced officers, which in some cases led to suspected perpetrators of child abuse being allowed to remain in the community without restrictions, possibly still offending, for too long.
Children and non-perpetrating parents and family members are not supported well enough.
The inspectorates raised particular concerns about misconceptions they witnessed around what support can be offered and when; for example, whether therapeutic support for victims is available during a police investigation or ongoing trial or not. The best interests of the child are the paramount consideration in decisions about the provision of therapy before the criminal trial.
The inspection also revealed:
- significant delays in support being offered to children
- not all non-offending parents receiving support
- that when support was offered, it was not offered for long enough
When children did receive support, it was often of good quality, which is positive.
The report states that communities, organisations and the media all have important roles to play in tackling the fact that there remains a disbelief and denial that sex abuse can happen at home.Work is needed to create an environment where children and adults can talk about sexual abuse more easily, the inspectorates say.
Wendy Williams, HM Inspector of Constabulary, said: "As detailed in this report, we believe that the police and other agencies do not prioritise this kind of abuse highly enough. This results in missed opportunities to safeguard vulnerable and at-risk children. There needs to be an increased awareness of child sexual abuse in the family environment, with better training and support given to frontline professionals (for example, in how to recognise non-verbal signs of sexual abuse). This will enable those professionals to successfully intervene at the earliest possible stage and to safeguard the child from further harm."
The report urges child sexual abuse in the family environment to be a priority across government departments and local areas. Too often, responses leave children repeatedly victimised, perpetrators unidentified, who therefore remain a risk to children, and known victims not supported well enough.
"We are calling for greater priority to be given to child sexual abuse both locally and nationally. Evidence-based strategies need to be in place to support agencies and professionals in improving the prevention, identification and response in this challenging area of practice," said the report.
Strategies should include:
- a focus on prevalence
- the reasons why perpetrators sexually abuse children in the family
- impact on children
- evidence-based responses
- long-term holistic therapeutic response
Striking variation
Health agencies are important partners. Their involvement should be seen by all as essential in enabling effective assessment and decision-making.
There should also be a greater emphasis on better training, support, supervision and resources for all professionals and a culture of greater professional challenge in the best interests of the child.
While the inspectorates saw some good examples of children being effectively supported through good-quality police investigations when these were carried out by experienced and well-trained police officers, in too many cases seen there were delays and insufficient focus on the child. Police need to have a greater focus on:
- ensuring that investigations are timely
- all children who are potential victims or at risk
- effective action being taken to put the necessary safeguards in place, working together with other agencies
The variation in practice in relation to children and young people who have displayed harmful sexual behaviour towards others was striking. In the poor cases, we saw delays in assessment and a sole focus on the harmful sexual behaviour. We saw good practice when there was a holistic assessment to identify the child’s needs and risks and take action to help and support that child. We need to ensure much greater consistency in our response to these children, who in the majority of cases are themselves victims of abuse and neglect.
Too often, risks to all children from perpetrators were not considered. Better training, supervision and support for professionals is needed to address this, as well as implementing the learning from other forms of child exploitation, the report added.
Programmes for sex offenders are not always effectively evaluated in terms of their impact in preventing further offending and there should be better use of evidenced-based approaches to working with offenders. Practice was too inconsistent when managing known sex offenders in the community, and the risks they pose to children on their release.
"In conclusion, we can no longer stay silent on this issue. We have to talk about it and act. Everyone needs to play their part in identifying, preventing and tackling child sexual abuse in the family environment," the report concluded.
Multi-agency response to child sexual abuse in the family environment: joint targeted area inspections

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