Identifying and responding to concerns of child sexual abuse (CSA) is challenging for practitioners. It remains the case that the majority of CSA goes unidentified and unreported in childhood. We cannot expect children to disclose abuse in order for it to be identified and responded to. We need to ensure that professionals working with children have the knowledge, confidence and support to be professionally curious and act appropriately in order to safeguard and support children where there are concerns of sexual abuse. The CSA Centre seeks to build confidence in the workforce to address CSA by improving the access to, and embedding of, evidence within practice.
In 2018 the CSA Centre developed the CSA Practice Leads Programme, an intensive programme of training and development which sought to build practitioners’ understanding and confidence in identifying and responding to CSA, and support them to cascade their learning within their services. Between October 2018 and January 2020 it was piloted in three local authorities and in a national charity supporting adults primarily with substance misuse support needs, who are likely to be survivors of child sexual abuse.
Testing and development so far, and next steps
Below we summarise the findings of the evaluations of the pilots with local authority social workers and adult substance misuse services.
The CSA Centre is now further testing delivery of the CSA Practice Leads programme in two different contexts: delivering to social workers in more than one local authority in a region, and to groups of multi-agency professionals (social workers, health practitioners and police) in individual localities. In both cases we will be delivering the programmes remotely, and both programmes will be evaluated.
Improving the social work response to child sexual abuse is essential in terms of reducing the long-term impact of sexual abuse on individuals and their families, and also on public services and society as a whole. Research has shown that many social workers lack training on CSA and therefore do not have the knowledge, skills and confidence to work effectively with cases where there are concerns of CSA. By establishing an evidence-informed understanding of sexual abuse and offending among social workers, team managers and early help services, we can increase safe, confident, competent and proportionate responses to such cases.
The pilot programme to develop 'CSA Practice Leads' in the field of social work comprised 10 days of small-group learning sessions, held over 10 months, in three local authority children's services. The sessions included half-day reflective case discussions connecting evidence to ‘on the ground’ practice experiences. The programme covered key areas for understanding and addressing CSA identified through the CSA Centre’s research, scoping work and engagement with the sector:
- the scale, nature and impact of CSA
- disclosures and the social work role
- CSA in different contexts (intra-familial, online-facilitated, CSE)
- working with children and non-offending parents/carers
- working with children and young people who display harmful sexual behaviour
- women who sexually abuse children
- working with survivors
- child wellbeing and the child protection process.
A final evaluation of the pilot programme was carried out by the CSA Centre’s research and evaluation team at the end of the programme. It sought to explore the programme's implementation and assess the extent to which it achieved its intended outcomes. This evaluation report provides strong evidence of the programme’s quality and value in enabling local authorities to improve their identification and response to concerns around CSA. Key findings include:
- There was strong evidence of the programme’s impact on participants’ knowledge, skills and confidence in identifying and responding to CSA concerns; this had enhanced their practice and enabled them to develop as specialists within their teams and wider organisations.
- The quality of the programme’s delivery emerged strongly in participants’ feedback; they had particularly valued the way that such a sensitive and complex subject had been approached in a manner that felt both positive and safe.
- CSA Practice Leads were disseminating their learning by sharing resources and delivering presentations to wider teams. They were also starting to support colleagues to overcome the fear and uncertainty that surrounds concerns about CSA, and, at times, were challenging colleagues to ask direct questions and not let CSA concerns be put aside owing to lack of proof.
Improving the professional response to child sexual abuse across all agencies and services is essential in terms of reducing the long term impact of sexual abuse on individuals and their families, and also on society as a whole.
The pilot programme to develop 'CSA Practice Leads' among professionals in adult substance misuse services was developed in conjunction with Change Grow Live (CGL) – a large, national charity which primarily supports adults with drug and/or alcohol dependency support needs. CGL was keen to be part of this programme in order to further improve services for people beyond its core offer; it saw this as an opportunity to learn what was needed to do things better.
There are strong links between being sexually abused as a child and experiencing numerous physical, mental and emotional health difficulties as an adult. Experiencing CSA often has pervasive and enduring negative outcomes extending over the lifetime of a victim. Research with adult survivors of CSA has demonstrated frustration that, even in adulthood, services often don’t ask about whether they have experienced abuse.
The CSA Practice Leads Programme delivered at CGL comprised two main strands: in-depth training for selected CGL staff over five one-day sessions, and support for these staff to apply their learning to their own practice and cascade that learning to their colleague’s teams and managers. The sessions covered key areas for understanding and addressing CSA, identified through the CSA Centre’s research, scoping work and engagement with the sector and discussion with CGL; topics included the scale and nature of CSA, what is known about perpetrators, the relationship between CSA and substance misuse, barriers and enablers to disclosure, approaches to asking about CSA, supporting disclosure and responding to disclosure.
This evaluation report provides strong evidence of the programme’s fit with an organisation like CGL, working primarily with adults who have drugs or alcohol support needs and/or mental health issues. It provides considerable evidence of the programme’s quality and value in enabling CGL staff to take a proactive approach to CSA identification and response. Key findings include:
- There was considerable evidence of the programme’s impact on participants’ knowledge, skills and confidence in talking to service users about CSA, as well as changes in their attitude and skills.
- The CSA Practice Leads reported receiving an increased number of disclosures of CSA, including from people who had used the service for years and had not previously disclosed. This increase in disclosure follows substantial changes in practice as a result of the programme, particularly among the CSA Practice Leads themselves but also among the staff around them – who, by the end of the programme, were beginning to ask service users routinely about CSA.