by Sarah Nelson
20th November 2020

Sarah Nelson, author of Tackling Child Sexual Abuse: Radical Approaches to Prevention, Protection and Support, has been awarded an OBE for services to survivors of sexual abuse. Here she looks at how COVID-19 has increased the urgency for action against child sexual abuse and examines reasons for failure and models of practice as identified in the book.

Childhood sexual abuse (CSA) has increased during the COVID-19 crisis, in both online and offline worlds. Yet its identification through the child protection system remains minimal, despite continuing growth in police reports of sexual crimes against children. Why is this? And can it be changed?

As one English support charity experiencing a surge in children’s referrals since lockdown wrote, the mantra ‘Stay home, stay safe’ has tragically been, for many children, the exact opposite: “they were more vulnerable, more isolated and more alone”. Scottish support charities have also reported a rise in referrals to the Scottish Parliament’s Cross Party Group on Survivors of CSA.

The Internet Watch Foundation revealed that in a single month since lockdown, three major companies logged 8.8 million hits to CSA imagery from the UK alone. Reports of such imagery increased by almost 50 per cent during lockdown as offenders spent longer online, while many more children were virtually imprisoned with domestic perpetrators. Interpol’s research also strongly indicates increased CSA, particularly via the surface web, in peer-to-peer forums and on the dark web.

Yet in Britain, numbers on child protection registers or child protection plans for sexual abuse concerns remain tiny. Based on police figures in England and Wales, in 2018–19 there were more than 73,200 reported sexual offences against children, yet fewer than 2,250 children, or 2 per 10,000, were subject to a child protection plan for sexual abuse.

Scotland saw more than 5,300 recorded offences in 2019, including rape, online grooming and sexual assault, up 30 per cent in the five years since 2014–15. Yet fewer than 250 children were on the register for sexual abuse issues, and CSA concerns were a tiny percentage compared with concerns for emotional abuse or neglect.

Reasons for failures

I believe some reasons for these failures, discussed in more detail in my book, are the following:

  • The continuing influence of a powerful backlash from the 1990s – when these protection figures began to decline – against the credibility of social work investigation and CSA survivors has fostered timidity, rather than assertive action. Waiting for children to verbally disclose abuse, as a recent Welsh research study of social work revealed, is pointless when most children will not.
  • Although child sexual exploitation (CSE) is belatedly receiving attention, the fact that older children most vulnerable to CSE have already been victims of CSA when younger is little addressed.
  • The growing tendency to concentrate child protection resources on the under-fives and even pre-birth, with its implicit mother-blaming, militates against detection of sexual abuse in the over-fives, where the majority of CSA – mainly by males – will take place.
  • Trauma training, which includes sexual abuse identification, remains inadequate and insufficiently supportive for professionals such as social workers and teachers, who are the ones in whom children are encouraged to confide. Support and referral pathways are lacking for those who are more often approached by abused children: their mothers and their friends.
  • If disclosures do happen, these have often led to authorities rushing in before evidence is available, with a child’s return to their abuser one cruel result. Yet involving that young person, addressing their fears, keeping them physically safe, meticulously collecting evidence, has the potential to improve outcomes for them even within a few weeks.

Some models for practice

My book provides models for practice which can moderate this inadequacy in the detection and identification of abused children. They include:

  • Models which increase disclosures and reduce the trauma of investigation in child-centred ways, drawing especially on the work of Liz Davies in London and Harrow; cooperating with confidential third-sector support projects; and evolving initiatives such as the Barnahus Children’s Houses and the Stop to Listen projects in three Scottish local authority areas. These have aimed to increase expertise, and give children more control over the pace and timing of investigations.
  • A model for proactive perpetrator-focused strategies. Imaginative joint social work-police investigations, working with the third sector, are being revived against CSE, for instance in Oxford and Renfrewshire. Mapping, surveillance, monitoring of communications and meticulous evidence-gathering can equally be deployed against all types of abuser.
  • A model for important community-wide approaches to prevention, with relevance to the wider local environment for young people. These issues have since been further highlighted through Carlene Firmin’s model of Contextual Safeguarding.

A national strategy – and assertive action online

The Welsh Government has now produced a National Action Plan against CSA. The NSPCC in both England and Scotland has called on their governments to do likewise. They echo the frustration of Matt Forde, NSPCC Scotland’s head of service, that numerous plans and initiatives exist to deal with issues such as child sexual exploitation, trafficking and harmful sexual behaviour. Yet ‘we believe it is crucial to have a joined-up approach… and want to see a strategy which puts the experiences and needs of children at the heart of it’.

Finally, on online issues which are now so significant in the battle against CSA: Andy Burrows, head of child safety online at the NSPCC has been one among many to have called out the failure of a regulator to legally require social networks to do ‘a better job of investing in technology, investing in safer design features heading into this crisis.’

Interpol has called for specific measures to address extra threats from the pandemic, including additional prevention and awareness campaigns for children and their carers. They want to ensure that hotlines remain open and properly staffed, with extra ways for offences to be flagged, such as free texting services and integrated reporting channels for children through gaming, social media and messaging.

Demands to regulate internet providers and invest far more resources and staffing echo the conclusion of my own book:

We need governments to say clearly that what individual parents try to do will not be nearly as influential as the holding of internet providers to closer account. Government-led strategies and priorities will not stop these massive trades, but will dent them. They will give top-level, coherent leadership on issues which leave many people in child protection feeling helpless and horrified at developments which have spiralled out of control; which, although child sexual abuse has probably existed for millennia, constitute a genuinely new and intimidating challenge.

Dr Sarah Nelson OBE has written and presented widely for decades on sexual abuse issues. Her research includes the voices of young survivors, critiques of current child protection systems and community prevention, media representations of abuse cases, and adult survivors’ experiences of mental health services. She is a former Scottish Government and Scottish Parliamentary Adviser.


Tackling Child Sexual Abuse: Radical Approaches to Prevention, Protection and Support by Sarah Nelson is available on the Policy Press website. Order here for £19.19.

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