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24.11.15

Councils, schools and police must improve as true figures of child abuse see nine-fold rise

Only one in eight children who are sexually abuse are identified and supported because social services are largely geared towards people who self-refer or report abuse, the Children’s Commissioner and the co-chair of the Inquiry panel have claimed.

Because of this, the true scale of child sex abuse in England over the two years to March 2014 is now estimated to include as many as 450,000 children, instead of the 50,000 recorded by local authorities and police.

The Commissioner, Anne Longfield, claimed that children cannot even recognise that they have been abused until they are much older, meaning local authorities’ current model for tackling the issue is flawed.

“We all have a duty to keep children safe. This damaging crime will not go away – it needs constant and concerted effort by all those responsible for, or who have contact with, children.

“We must get better at preventing child abuse from occurring, identifying the victims when it does, and helping children who have been abused to recover. A system which waits for children to tell someone cannot be effective.

“It is clear that professionals working with children and the systems they work with must be better equipped to identify and act on the signs of symptoms and abuse,” she added.

In light of these findings, Longfield called on the government to develop a preventative strategy for child sexual abuse in all its forms. It should be designed and implemented by all relevant departments, including those of education, health and the Home Office.

Whitehall must also explore ways of strengthening the statutory responsibilities of organisations and social workers involved with children as part of their core duty, ensuring all professionals collaborate more effectively.

Similarly, schools should be forced to equip children to understand healthy and safe relationships while also implementing a whole-school approach to child protection. All staff should be able to spot signs and symptoms of abuse and know how to respond accordingly.

The Commissioner also floated the idea of a new role in schools, or embedded social worker, to specifically focus on tackling abuse.

The government’s Troubled Families programme could also be used to coordinate sources of support for children where there is a particular risk of sex abuse.

Importantly, Longfield recommended that Whitehall review the way agencies investigate child sex abuse collaboratively, including the role of the police and social workers.

The process should minimise the risks for re-traumatisation and maximises tailored support. This was not the case with the series of national scandals in recent years, with the chair of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse claiming that it had left permanent scars on the victims.

The Commissioner will be investigating over the next year how all agencies can respond more effectively, and what is needed to support this effort.

But she noted that every organisation working with children must already review their practices and put safe spaces and trained adults in place, if they have not already done so.

‘Only the tip of the iceberg’

LGA’s children and young people board chairman, Cllr Roy Perry, said councils do play a part in this effort, but cannot spark change alone.

“We need support from a million eyes and ears amongst the public, and the figures highlighted in this report emphasise the need for everyone to be alert to the signs and symptoms of child abuse and report anything suspicious to children’s social care,” he continued.

While the rising number of cases reported to councils in recent years is encouraging – because it suggests more abuse is being identified – it is still vital to ensure victims receive appropriate support after identification, Perry said.

“Councils are now supporting over 20,000 more children on child protection plans than seven years ago, and it is vital that councils and partner agencies have the resources they need to deal with this huge increase in demand,” he concluded.

Norfolk’s chief constable Simon Bailey, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for the child protection and abuse investigation, echoed Perry’s call, saying that all services must work together to stop abuse from occurring in the first place.

He said: “If we are to do this, there has to be a fundamental rethink about partnership working which ensures that the indicators that abuse might be taking place are identified, shared and acted upon.”

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