Children more likely than adults to be victims of sexual offences, report finds

Children are the victims in 40 per cent of all police recorded sexual offences, including rape and sexual assault, according to new analysis released on Wednesday (February 14).

Feb 14, 2024
By Paul Jacques

This is despite children making up just 20 per cent of the population in England and Wales.

The report from the Centre of expertise on child sexual abuse (CSA Centre) warns that the gap between the number of children being sexually abused and the identification and response by statutory agencies remains far too wide.

It conservatively estimates that half a million children will experience some form of sexual abuse every year in England and Wales

Despite clear need, local authority child protection plans for child sexual abuse dropped to the lowest level in 14 years in 2022/23, with just 2,290 children supported through such plans.

In fact, the report found sexual abuse made up the lowest proportion of new child protection plans since records began – just 3.6 per cent compared with 23 per cent 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 CSA Centre is the only organisation to collate the latest data across local authorities, policing, criminal justice and sexual assault referral centres (SARCs) to explore how child sexual abuse is being identified and responded to in England and Wales.

Its report, Trends in official data, found there was a one per cent drop in the overall number of child protection plans across categories in 2022/23, yet for the category of sexual abuse the number of children supported through these plans fell by nine per cent 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,” said the report.

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

Worryingly, four local authorities in England identified no children at risk of child sexual abuse across the entire year, said the CSA Centre.

It says this is “especially concerning”, as it conservatively estimates that at least 1,223 children in even the smallest ‘typical ’ local authority would experience sexual abuse each year.

In policing, forces in England and Wales recorded 105,286 child sexual abuse offences during the year, an uplift of two per cent more offences being recorded than in the previous year.

In the same year, 100,379 police investigations into child sexual abuse offences were concluded. Of these, a suspect was charged in 11 per cent of offences (11,416), four per cent (3,640) ended with a caution, community resolution or ‘intervention activity’, but – as in previous years – almost two-thirds were closed with no further action because of evidential issues.

It took more than two years between child sexual abuse being reported to the police and the case concluding in court – and a significantly longer for rape offences. In total, court proceedings were brought against 8,024 defendants for child sexual abuse offences in the year to December 2022, six per cent more than the year prior.

Looking at health data, there was an increase in the number of children seen by a SARC. In England SARCs made initial contact with three per cent more children in 2022/23, reaching 8,465 children. In Wales, 1,036 children were seen. Notably, 59 per cent of all first contacts with children in SARCs in England took place remotely rather than face-to-face. This has risen nearly fourfold in as many years and suggests some Covid-19 measures have been embedded post-pandemic, says the report

The CSA Centre said it is concerned that while 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.

“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,” it said.

Ian Dean, director of the CSA Centre, 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.

“We also want to stress that, whilst we are the only organisation to show the extent of child sexual abuse being identified across statutory services, there is no published data to tell us what happened to those children as a result of those concerns. But we do know that they very rarely progressed into protection plans, police charges or indeed further assessment and support from SARCs.”

He added: “Identification is fundamental in being able to intervene and give children who may have experienced sexual abuse the protection, care and help they need. But we need more detail in official data: from local authorities, policing, criminal justice and health agencies, to understand what happened next. So that policymakers, practitioners and those seeking to tackle child sexual abuse can better understand what happened to the 19 children out of 20 who whose abuse was identified but who didn’t progress to a child protection plan. And to ensure that the necessary measures are there, in place, to help.”

As the UK enters a General Election year, the CSA Centre (hosted by Barnardo’s) is asking the Government to acknowledge children as disproportionately more likely to be a victim of sexual offences than adults, and to ensure that professionals are equipped with the knowledge, skills and confidence to ensure that the needs of children for whom there are concerns of child sexual abuse are identified and responded to across statutory agencies.

Lynn Perry MBE, chief executive officer of Barnardo’s, said: “One in ten children will experience sexual abuse by the time they’re 16.

“To make matters worse, thousands of those children are then being left alone to cope without proper support.

“We urge the Government to use the Victims and Prisoners Bill to guarantee that all children can access the support they need after experiencing these terrible crimes.

“The Government must also provide a package of funding for local areas to pay for this much-needed service.”

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