New data shows highest yearly increase in reported cases of child sexual abuse
Analysis of local authority and police data in 2021/22 shows a 15% rise in the identification of child sexual abuse, the highest yearly increase since that information was collected.
More instances of child sexual abuse are being recorded but across England and Wales, under-reporting is still a major concern.
In its latest analysis, the Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse says that data from local authority children’s services in England for 2021/22 show the highest yearly increase in reported cases of child sexual abuse since that information was first collected in 2014/15.
In England, there was a 15% rise in the identification of child sexual abuse by police and children’s services, and referrals to Sexual Abuse Referrals Centres also increased.
Overall, in the timespan covered by the report, local authority children’s services in England recorded concerns about child sexual abuse in 33,990 assessments.
Kairika Karsna and Paige Bromley, the authors of the report say, ‘Although there is no evidence to suggest that the prevalence of child sexual abuse differs significantly between different regions of England and Wales, local authorities varied considerably in their identification of child sexual abuse concerns in these assessments. This suggests that children receive a different response to their sexual abuse according to where they live.
‘Five local authorities did not record any concerns about the sexual abuse of children over the entire year; seven local authorities recorded such concerns about more than 70 children for every 10,000 children living in the area. The highest identification rates were in North East and Yorkshire and the Humber, while local authorities in London and the East of England tended to have lower rates.’
They add that many more children are sexually abused than are known to official agencies. Agency statistics are drawn from cases of suspected or identified child sexual abuse from local authority children’s services, sexual assault referral centres, or the police. However, earlier research has shown that ‘few children are able to recognise and tell someone about their abuse. Sexually abused children are more likely to exhibit signs that something is wrong than to tell someone verbally about their abuse – and yet professionals across the multi-agency workforce continue to rely heavily on children to disclose sexual abuse verbally.’
Other factors include variations in the ways information is collected and recorded. ‘Social services are a devolved responsibility, whereas policing and criminal justice systems are not; consequently, there are differences between social services data gathering and reporting in Wales and in England. Equivalent data for Wales is not published,’ the report says.
Also, local authorities do not include children at risk of child sexual exploitation within the numbers of children at risk of child sexual abuse. ‘Research has shown that social workers tend to categorise intra-familial child sexual abuse as ‘child sexual abuse’ and extra-familial child sexual abuse as ‘child sexual exploitation’.
They added that there was less local and regional difference in the identification of child sexual exploitation concerns in assessments. This suggested a more consistent approach which they said could be linked to the resources, training and prioritisation given to this aspect of child protection in the last ten years.
‘Based on the available survey evidence, we estimate that at least one in 10 children in England and Wales are sexually abused before the age of 16 (Karsna and Kelly, 2021). At a conservative estimate, the number of children abused in a single year is around 500,000.’
The report says that there are several reasons behind the increase in identification:
- heightened awareness following campaigns such as ‘Everyone’s Invited’,
- greater awareness of hidden harms during the Covid-19 lockdowns, and
- the greater priority given to identifying child sexual abuse following the end of the pandemic lockdowns.
‘Concerningly, the rise in the number of recorded child sexual abuse offences was accompanied by a significant increase in the time it took for investigations and prosecutions to proceed through the criminal justice system. Further, large geographical variation in the identification of and response to child sexual abuse remained prominent in 2021/22. There is an urgent need for local and national leaders to address these issues,’ the authors conclude.
Child sexual abuse in 2021/22: Trends in official data by Kairika Karsna and Paige Bromley
£38,223 to £40,221
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