Familial sexual abuse: rarely the topic of choice around the dinner table. But the inspectorates including Ofsted have chosen to shine a light on this – to paraphrase - under-researched, insufficiently understood, and inconsistently provided-for aspect of child protection.
There is, as always, a number of reasons that together contribute to the situation that the regulators describe. And this complexity in itself can be an issue in a political and societal environment wherein simplicity is the default craving. But, as with safeguarding generally, so with child sexual abuse specifically. No apology should be offered for saying that it’s not a straightforward case of here’s the problem and here’s the answer.
The sexual abuse of children by family members or someone otherwise linked to the family continues to be among the taboo subjects from which society tries its best to hide. It rarely secures centre-stage in political narrative or public policy: it is far more straightforward to focus, for example, on physical abuse, neglect or even emotional abuse because we find it easier to comprehend how these might come about. And, as Ofsted points out, we don’t even really have a picture of prevalence anyway as a starting point; only recently has the ONS been commissioned to work out a way of finding out. When thinking about all of the other things that are measured to within a micron of their life, this fact alone is remarkable, alarming and supports a call to action.
The Multi-agency response to child sexual abuse in the family environment report from the four inspectorates further highlights what educators and practitioners in the field already know well enough: that compared to other areas of abuse, there is a paucity of longitudinal, systematic, deep and wide research in this area. Our understanding, for example, of the backgrounds of offenders and what triggers and escalates their intent to abuse is patchy and, too often it seems, sexual abuse gets neglected in the political and media driven waves of (sometimes justifiable) outrage at less incomprehensible forms of serious mistreatment and the controversies that, from time-to-time, surface. A decade or more ago, professionals’ knowledge of child sexual exploitation and what to do about it was in the foothills. However, as a result of high-profile investigations into this area – Oxfordshire and Rotherham as examples – there is now much more developed policy and practice in this field and an acceptance that CSE can occur in every city, town and village.
But, whilst the data is not yet secure, if it is anything like the case that up to 8% of boys and 20% of girls have been the victim of some form of sexual abuse, then surely to goodness we do not need to wait for a calamity – real or sometimes manufactured - to hit the headlines.
So, in a proactive and solution-focused mode, what’s the learning from this report? Well, pretty much the same themes as every other aspect of safeguarding. Tackling this form of abuse requires informed, committed and resourced leadership and delivery over time; and the self-defeating cycle of events-driven policy-making and investment needs to fall away in favour of a sustained and evidence-informed approach to understanding and tackling the issue.
From increased investment in research to the embedding of understanding, knowledge and skills into the initial training and continued learning and development of professionals; from taking a child-centred view of the nature, impact and amelioration of abuse to the demonstrating of a commitment to prevention and early intervention; from supporting non-abusing family members to the ensuring of the highest quality of trauma-informed evidence-giving. All these approaches and more need to find their way into the safeguarding DNA of legislators, policy makers, service delivers and regulators.
But of all the above, it is the importance of leadership that needs emphasising. The single most influential factor that drives and sustains prioritisation and improvement is a passion and commitment that transcends policy fashion and truly puts – and keeps – children first.
The most significant paragraph in the report reflects this point: in the closing remarks the inspectorates state starkly that no longer can there be silence on this issue. ‘We have to talk about it and act. Everyone needs to play their part in identifying, preventing and tackling child sexual abuse in the family environment.’ This means all of us, but most especially Government. It has been looking in other directions for far too long.
Mark Rogers is director general for children, young people, education and skills at the Government of Jersey