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Gap between CSA cases and response by statutory agencies ‘remains far too wide’

New analysis by the Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) finds that the number of children placed on child protection plans has decreased despite levels of CSA remaining broadly similar to previous years.

19/02/24

Gap between CSA cases and response by statutory agencies ‘remains far too wide’

Experts have warned of a troubling gap in the levels of child sexual abuse and responses by statutory agencies in England and Wales.

New analysis of official data by the Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse (CSA Centre) finds that in 2022/23, child protection plans for sexual abuse were at the lowest levels in 14 years.

The analysis highlights that whilst there have been small improvements, the level of child sexual abuse identified by official agencies remains broadly similar to the previous year and some elements of the response, such as numbers of children placed on child protection plans, appears to be getting worse.

Young people on child protection plans dropped to 2,290, with sexual abuse making up the lowest proportion of new child protection plans since records began – just 3.6% in 2022/23, compared with 23% in 1993/4. This is despite surveys indicating that children are just as likely to experience sexual abuse as other forms of abuse, such as emotional or physical abuse.

The analysis also found that children are the victims in 40% of all sexual offences – including rape and sexual assault – despite making up just 20% of the population in England & Wales.

The CSA Centre says it ‘conservatively estimates’ that half a million children will experience some form of sexual abuse every year in England & Wales.

“Ultimately this means that the gap between the number of children being sexually abused and the identification and response by statutory agencies remains far too wide,” the report said.

The CSA Centre’s report, ‘Trends in official data’, found a 1% drop in the overall number of child protection plans across all categories in 2022/23, yet the number of children supported through plans for the category of sexual abuse fell by 9% compared with the previous year.

“This means that fewer than one in 20 children whose initial social work assessment recorded child sexual abuse concerns were placed on a child protection plan,” the report said.

Local authority children’s services in England recorded concerns about child sexual abuse in 33,760 assessments of children, also 1% fewer than in the previous year.

Most concerningly, four local authorities placed no children on child protection plans under the primary category of sexual abuse, and a further 43 placed fewer than two children per 10,000 child population. Authors say this is ‘especially concerning’, as they estimate that at least 1,223 children in even the smallest typical local authority would experience sexual abuse each year.

In a third of English local authorities (54 out of 152), the information was ‘suppressed’, meaning that each placed between one and five children in total on child protection plans because of sexual abuse.

“This too generally signifies a low level of child protection plans as a proportion of the child population,” the report’s authors said.

The report brings together official data from children’s social care, policing, criminal justice and health to build a picture of how agencies identify and respond to child sexual abuse and provide a unique insight into the changing trends in practice.

“Fundamentally, the number of children identified continues to be a long way off the true scale of children likely to be experiencing abuse, as highlighted by wider research and evidence,” Ian Dean, the CSA Centre’s Director, said.

“We conservatively estimate that one in ten children will experience some form of sexual abuse by the time they are 16. That’s three children in every year 11 classroom.

“Despite a wealth of research and survey data highlighting how prevalent child sexual abuse is, levels of identification – and therefore likelihood of a child being protected and supported – are simply not improving fast enough. Half a million children are estimated to be abused every single year in England and Wales, yet we are seeing fewer than one in ten of those children identified as even being at risk in local authority assessments."

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