The National Crime Agency’s most recent assessment of the threat posed by child sexual abuse estimated that between 550,000 and 850,000 individuals in the UK present “varying degrees of sexual risk to children”, either online or offline (NCA, 2021), with the figure skewed toward online offending. Moderate estimates from the CSA Centre suggest one in ten children and young people will experience some form of sexual abuse before the age of 16.

Disruption is a powerful weapon for combatting crime and is key to the UK Government’s 2021 Strategy for tackling child sexual abuse. Our latest research is presented in two parts: a new study highlighting police perspectives on the disruption of child sexual abuse, its effectiveness and practice experiences; and a supporting scoping review of the existing literature on the subject

What is disruption?

Disruption, alongside enforcement and prevention, is one of the principal ways in which police respond to criminality and criminal activity. While enforcement focuses on the prosecution of past crimes, and prevention aims to stop whole groups of suspects or protect potential victims, disruption is a more flexible and dynamic approach which seeks to interfere with offenders' networks, lifestyles, and routines so that it is harder for them to commit crime.

Police disruption of child sexual abuse: Findings from a national survey of frontline personnel and strategic leads for safeguarding

By Nadia Wager, Alexandra Myers and Diana Parkinson

The aim of the research was to identify and better understand current police practice, challenges and enablers in disrupting child sexual abuse. To explore this, we conducted an online survey of frontline officers and staff across 32 police force areas in England and Wales, and strategic leads across 20 forces.

Key findings include:

  • Two-thirds of frontline personnel surveyed said they had been involved in disrupting child sexual abuse, with Detective Inspectors and members of safeguarding teams most likely to have done so
  • One quarter had received no specific training in relation to child sexual abuse
  • Some frontline personnel felt that their forces took a reactive approach to child sexual abuse, driven by a risk-averse culture to child sexual abuse
  • Participants stressed the time and resources needed to support the disruption of child sexual abuse, but many felt that their forces’ capacity for this work had been reduced
  • Overall, police at all levels highlighted a need for greater prioritisation of child sexual abuse, including a greater focus on the use of disruption measures and broader cooperation between policing and other organisations

Police disruption of child sexual abuse: survey findings (PDF, 2.1MB)

Police disruption of child sexual abuse: survey findings – Welsh Summary (PDF, 1.3MB)

Police disruption of child sexual abuse: A scoping review

By Nadia Wager, Alexandra Myers and Diana Parkinson

Like our survey of police personnel, this scoping review of existing literature on the subject found that disruption measures have been used mostly to prevent or interfere with child sexual exploitation outside the family or home environment, or the sharing of child sexual abuse images online, rather than other forms of child sexual abuse.

Key findings include:

  • Disruption measures are widely recognised as necessary and useful tools for proactively safeguarding children, but the range of measures if vast and difficult to navigate
  • There is very little published literature on the impact of some disruption measures, and none on the disruption of any forms of child sexual abuse other than child sexual exploitation and online imagery-related offences
  • It is difficult to assess the effectiveness of some measures because of limitations in police data recording practices and systems
  • Published research has identified the value of multi-agency working in child sexual exploitation disruption

Police disruption of child sexual abuse: scoping review (PDF, 1.5MB)

Police disruption of child sexual abuse: scoping review – Welsh Summary (PDF, 1.2MB)