To understand what data tells us about child sexual abuse (CSA), we need to understand how data on CSA is generated. Building on our work exploring current trends and variations in official data on CSA, the CSA Centre and the Welsh Government commissioned a study to build a better understanding of the scale of CSA encountered by local authority children’s services.
It remains the case that most CSA is neither reported nor identified during childhood and so will not appear in official agency data. However, the extent to which agencies recognise, respond to and record concerns of CSA is important.
This study highlights significant issues, which we believe have a major impact on current understandings of the scale and nature of abuse, and the way in which services are organised and resources prioritised. Most importantly, they are likely to have a profound impact on the level and quality of support that many sexually abused children receive from local services. Significantly, our wider research and practice activities and discussions with relevant policymakers and professionals confirm that the issues identified are far from unique to Wales, and the findings will be equally relevant to those leading CSA policy and practice in England.
The research involved examination of a sample of electronic social care records relating to children in two Welsh local authorities. A total of 44 case files, drawn from across a range of social work interventions, were studied. In addition, two focus groups were undertaken with 10 social workers from the two local authorities. The research contributes directly and indirectly to some of the actions set out in the Welsh Government's National Action Plan: Preventing and Responding to Child Sexual Abuse.
The scale of CSA concerns encountered by local authority children’s services is significantly under-reported in official data
- Official data on the scale of CSA within children’s services caseloads significantly under-represents the reality of these concerns.
- The study found that concerns relating to CSA were recorded in many of the case files, including those where CSA was not identified as a key concern. Only a small minority (one-fifth) of the 30 children whose records identified CSA concerns were on the child protection register for sexual abuse, or multiple forms of abuse including sexual abuse.
- This demonstrates that child protection registrations are a poor indicator of the overall scale of CSA concerns in the child protection system, as they represent only a small proportion of cases involving CSA that come to the attention of children’s services.
- Additionally, social workers appeared hesitant to record CSA concerns where the child had not verbally disclosed (although no such concerns were expressed about cases of suspected child sexual exploitation (CSE), where the approach was to record risk indicators and signs of abuse). This means that some cases of suspected CSA do not appear in case records at all
- Children’s experiences do not neatly reflect labels such as intra-familial abuse, harmful sexual behaviour and CSE – the records detailed concerns about multiple forms of abusive behaviour, both inside and outside their family environment.
While much information is recorded about the nature and context of CSA, important details are often missing and data is difficult to access and analyse
- Information about the victim profile (age, gender, ethnicity) and some aspects of the suspected perpetrator’s profile (gender, relationship to victim) was generally found in children’s files. Information about the duration of abuse and about the suspected perpetrator’s age and ethnicity were less commonly recorded.
- While information on CSA was evident in many case files, it was not ordered in the most effective way to enable understanding of an individual case. Information on CSA was spread across a number of documents to varying levels of detail, and was mostly recorded in narrative text.
- Although this data was evident within the narrative files, it was not available in extractable format to enable analysis and reporting.
Social workers highlighted gaps in their knowledge, skills and confidence in relation to identifying, recording and responding to CSA concerns
- Evidence from the case files and focus groups demonstrated concerning gaps in social workers' knowledge, skills and confidence in relation to concerns about CSA.
- It was also evident that social workers relied on a verbal disclosure from the child in order to enact a safeguarding response to such concerns, unless they related to CSE.
Children and families receive variable support in response to concerns of CSA
- Participants in focus groups across both local authorities expressed concerns about the lack of support services for children who had experienced forms of CSA other than CSE. Support for families was also perceived as limited. Difficult referral criteria and long waiting lists for specialist service provision were highlighted in the focus groups.
- Among children thought to have experienced intra-familial abuse, two-fifths received no CSA-specific support. In contrast, only one out of seven children did not receive such support where extra-familial abuse (which involved CSE in almost all cases) was suspected.
This study has provided rich insights into the nature of CSA concerns that are and are not recorded in official social care data, and the factors that influence that recording. In response, the CSA Centre has made 10 recommendations for changes to local and national policy and practice in response.