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Victims and survivors report lack of support services

Nearly three-quarters of victims and survivors of non-recent child sexual abuse have not accessed any support services, according to research commissioned by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.

Only just over a quarter of survivors have received some form of support, advice or treatment due to their experience of child sexual abuse, the research found. The average time between first child sexual abuse victimisation and contact with a support service was 19 years and there was a substantial variation in time between sexual abuse and access to support services (0–58 years). The average ‘helpfulness’ rating across all support services was 5.3 (on a scale of 0–10 with 0 being ‘Not helpful at all’ and 10 being ‘Extremely helpful’).

Dr Anna Gekoski, principal investigator and qualitative lead, from Broome|Gekoski, which was commissioned by the Inquiry in conjunction with the University of Hertfordshire to carry out by independent research, said: “As researchers in the field of child sexual abuse, one of the most surprising findings for us was that nearly three quarters of the victims and survivors surveyed had not accessed support services. The reasons given for this were numerous, including fear of not being believed, feeling to blame, long waiting times to access services, and difficulty finding specialist support.

“However, perhaps the most thought-provoking finding here was that many victims and survivors said that they did not feel that they needed or wanted support. Those who spoke to us during in-depth interviews often stressed their levels of personal resilience, which is a phenomenon often overlooked in the research in this area," she added.

While support services may mean different things to different people at different times, for the purposes of this report support services are defined as any service, organisation or intervention that provides support, advice or treatment to victims, survivors and their families to reduce the impact of having experienced child sexual abuse. Specifically, the report explores three broad forms of services: justice, recovery and health.

Across all support services, the most highly rated by survey respondents were counselling provided by a charity/voluntary organisation specialising in child sexual abuse and sexual abuse and/or rape support services provided by a specialist charity/voluntary organisation. Interview participants also stressed the importance of such specialist support being from counsellors/ therapists with training in, and particular knowledge of, trauma generally, and child sexual abuse specifically.

Survey respondents, who were aged between 19 to 74 years, with an average of 47 years, were asked what one service was the most helpful overall. The service selected by the highest number of respondents was counselling provided through health services like a GP or hospital. However, it is notable that when survey respondents were asked which one service was the least helpful overall, counselling provided through health services was again selected by the highest number of respondents.

While the finding that counselling provided through health services was named as both the most and least helpful form of support may seem contradictory, there are a number of potential explanations. Firstly, this form of support is the most commonly accessed. Therefore, more respondents had experience of the service on which to judge it. Secondly, there are many different factors that might impact on how different individuals perceive the helpfulness of services and these can vary between services of the same ‘type’. These include the individual needs and preferences of the respondent, where and when they accessed the service, and the reason for accessing the support service. In addition, respondents’ relationships with individual counsellors may have differed, as might the type of counselling (eg trauma-informed versus generic mental health), and the number of sessions offered and attended.

Victims and survivors stressed the importance of being heard, listened to, understood, believed, and not judged, by caring and empathetic professionals. However, the vast majority of victims and survivors reported at least one barrier to support. More than four in five (84%) survey respondents identified at least one form of barrier to support, such as personal (67%), service-specific (53%), family or community (48%), practical (33%) or financial (29%) issues.

A key personal issue or reason for not accessing support was victims and survivors not feeling they needed it. There are different ways to interpret this finding. It could be argued that victims may benefit from support even if they do not think that they need it. However, such arguments can be seen as paternalistic and it may be that some victims and survivors have higher levels of resilience than is commonly supposed, the report added.

Two in five (43%) respondents reported currently having unmet needs linked to their experiences of child sexual abuse. The most commonly mentioned type of support desired (but not available or offered) was counselling provided by a specialist organisation.

Female respondents were significantly more likely than males to report having experienced child sexual abuse in a family setting, but were less likely to have done so in an institutional setting. Those respondents who tried to get support but were unable to, and those who had unmet needs, were significantly younger in age. Those respondents experiencing child sexual abuse within family and/or institutional contexts were significantly more likely to report experiencing barriers to accessing support services than those who experienced child sexual abuse in other settings. Those who experienced child sexual abuse within the family were, however, significantly more likely than others to have accessed support.

Dr Tim McSweeney, quantitative lead, from the University of Hertfordshire said: "Few of the victims and survivors of childhood sexual abuse who spoke to us as part of the study – around one in four of them – had accessed any form of support linked to their experiences. Those that did typically took a long time to access this help - on average almost two decades after first being sexually abused as a child. And when they did get help, on balance they rated the support as being mediocre in terms of its helpfulness.

“Regardless of the type of support accessed, the victims and survivors we spoke to through the survey and in-depth interviews emphasised the importance of being heard and listened to, having timely access to a professional who understood and believed them, and being supported by a non-judgemental, caring and empathetic professional,” he concluded

Survivors of child sexual abuse can share their experiences with the Inquiry's Truth Project in writing, over the phone or by video call. The Truth Project is drawing to a close next year so that all of the experiences shared can be used to inform the Inquiry’s Final Report and recommendations, due for publication in 2022, so children are better protected in the future. Visit www.truthproject.org.uk for more information or email share@iicsa.org.uk.

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