The centre of expertise on child sexual abuse (the ‘CSA Centre’) published a guide in February 2022 on how to communicate with children who have or may have been sexually abused (the ‘Guide’). The Guide is addressed to anyone whose role brings them into contact with children.
The Guide references studies in England and Wales which found that 15% of girls and 5% of boys experience some form of sexual abuse before age 16 and that in many cases the abuse remains a hidden crime until many years later if ever reported. This highlights a gap in knowledge on the part of many professionals who work with children, which the Guide is trying to address.
The Guide is divided into 3 parts, which are summarised below.
This part of the Guide considers how the consequences of sexual abuse may manifest in children and the barriers they face to telling someone about the abuse.
Sexual abuse may affect every area of children’s development, including cognitive, social, emotional and physical. It is important to intervene as soon as possible to mitigate the harm to children’s mental and physical health.
Even though a number of signs are identified in the Guide (page 8), it is acknowledged that identifying child sexual abuse is not an exact science, as many children may not show any signs of abuse or only a few. It is therefore important for professionals to keep accurate records – see the CSA Centre’s Signs and Indicators Template.
There is no exhaustive list of reasons why a child does not want to tell, but common reasons include feeling ashamed of the abuse or responsible for the abuse, or fearing that they will not be believed.
The second part of the Guide focuses on actions, skills and knowledge which may support a child to tell about the sexual abuse. It is important to note that many children may not recognise what they are experiencing as being abusive.
When speaking with a child, ensuring that the conversation takes place with as much privacy as possible is very important. The Guide contains a number of specific recommendations with respect to how professionals should communicate with the child (page 27).
It is important that at the end of a conversation the professional explains to the child what will happen next and keeps the child informed at every step of the process.
The last part of the Guide gives some practical guidance for instances when the sexual abuse is apparent from the child’s file or when the child has told a professional or someone else about the sexual abuse.
The recommended approach for a conversation with the child, when concerns arise but the child has not told anyone, is to start with open questions and take a graduated approach. In situations where a child has expressly told someone about being or having been sexually abused, the primary and paramount concern should be to ensure the child’s safety.
After such a conversation, the professional should reflect on the information received and assess whether the level of concern has changed. If required, consideration should be given to communicating with the child’s parents or carers - the CSA Centre’s guide on Supporting Parents and Carers is a useful resource.
Professionals working with children should be empowered with the necessary skills, knowledge and confidence to recognise signs of sexual abuse in children and take the necessary steps to ensure the child’s safety. The Guide is a helpful resource which should be read in full by all professionals who work with children. It is the responsibility of professionals to give children the opportunity to communicate in a way that feels safe for them, as waiting for the child to share is putting the burden on the child to recognise the abuse and to protect themselves.
Hopefully, through education and positive action, the number of child sexual abuse instances will decrease dramatically, and the number of children who have suffered sexual abuse and receive the required support will increase considerably.
Written by Cristiana Mitrofan, Associate, Paul Hastings (Europe) LLP