I love my family. Most of us do. But for some children, family is far more complex than it should be.

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/lovleah

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/lovleah

When sexual abuse is part of children’s family experience, it complicates matters incredibly. They love their family, too. But then there’s the other stuff…

What do we know about intra-familial child sexual abuse?…

In a recent study, the office for the Children’s Commissioner in England researched sexual abuse within the family.
This post contains information that is quoted verbatim from the report itself. To access the full report, click here.

What is it?…

There is a broad definition, in accordance with Crown Prosecution Service Guidelines (2013) on the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which states:

“These offences reflect the modern family unit and take account of situations where someone is living within the same household as a child and assuming a position of trust or authority over that child, as well as relationships defined by blood ties, adoption, fostering, marriage or living together as partners.”

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For a number of reasons, sexual abuse is very difficult to measure:

  • Different definitions are used in different studies and in different countries
  • Official figures differ from victim survey results
  • Victims understandably often don’t say what’s happened to them
  • When the abuser is inside the family, it’s particularly hard for victims to come forward

According to 2012-13 figures, there are around 2,000 children (in England) with child protection plans relating to child sexual abuse. Given the issues above, it’s likely that this is a significant underestimate of the true picture.

Key findings…

Notwithstanding these difficulties, here are the key findings of the study into the intra-familial sexual abuse of children:

1.  Nature, scale, scope, impact & gaps in knowledge – the voice of child victims is largely absent from research and prevalence is difficult to estimate.

2. Child protection and other action in response to victims and perpetrators of intra-familial child sexual abuse and gaps in approaches – we know a lot about convicted male child sexual abusers but we know little about child victims and theirexperiences

3. The effectiveness of child protection activity and legislation in tackling intra-familial child sexual abuse – the UK child protection system is far from child-centred and is concerned with meeting targets at the expense of listening to and protecting children. The criminal justice system may subject victims of child sexual abuse to secondary victimisation.

What DO we know?…

  • It is difficult to know the national and international prevalence of intra-familial child sexual abuse (including fluctuations over time). There is considerable evidence to suggest that a substantial amount of child sexual abuse is committed by close relatives or those known to the victim. Victims can be both boys and girls, but the majority of victims are known to be girls.
  • The term ‘intra-familial’ covers a variety of behaviours labelled within the literature as ‘intra-familial’/’incest’ dynamics and sexually abusive or assaultive behaviours.
    Image - girl worries

    Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/VeryOlive

  • Perpetrators of child sexual abuse are likely to have childhood backgrounds of maltreatment and/or sexual abuse, and/or challenging family circumstances. Research demonstrates that perpetrators are likely to have experienced some form of childhood abuse. This is not to say that all perpetrators will have had this experience and it is acknowledged that research in this area has relied largely upon offender self-report and psychometric testing the validity of which can be questioned. Perpetrators can be both male and female, but the vast majority are male.
  • Female perpetrators of child sexual abuse have broadly similar characteristics to males but may differ in the extreme nature of the abuse they may have experienced as children and the seriousness of their mental health problems as adults.
  • Children and young people who display harmful sexual behaviours often have poor social skills, histories of abuse, mental health issues, and/or learning difficulties.
  • Aetiological (knowledge of causes) models of sexual offending which integrate numerous social, biological, cognitive, psychological, cultural, and interpersonal factors can help us to understand how child sexual abuse develops and is maintained.
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  • There is some evidence for good practice in the child protection system. However, it is clear from the Munro Review, the recent Ofsted inspection, and other literature, that the child protection system has become overly bureaucratic and target-centred.This is at the expense of forming good relationships with, listening to, and ultimately protecting, children.
  • Child runaway image

    Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/mandygodbehear

    Despite considerable police efforts in investigating cases, a large number are closed and not sent to the Crown Prosecution Service. This may be for a number of reasons, including: the retrospective nature of the offence (meaning that there is generally a lack of forensic evidence); the absence of the perpetrator; and failure to follow good practice guidance on Achieving Best Evidence interviews.
  • Child protection systems may subject victims of CSA to secondary victimisation. Legal processes are re-traumatising victims, both pre-and post-trial. Issues include children not receiving court familiarisation visits, long delays in waiting for trial, low use of special measures to help children give best evidence, and aggressive cross-examination techniques. 
  • Interventions that focus on the family, rather than the individual victim of abuse, are more effective in dealing with both short-term and long-term impacts of intra-familial child sexual abuse. However, these must be implemented with skill and nuance to ensure that differentiation is made between abusing and non-abusing parents and to engage with, and respect, the needs and wishes of the young people themselves.
  • The English, Welsh and European policy and legislative contexts provide an adequate framework concerning child sexual abuse in general but are more limited regarding intra-familial child sexual abuse.
  • English and Welsh legislation has developed in recent years to highlight child sexual abuse within the family environment specifically (e.g. section 25 of the Sexual Offences Act, 2003) and subsequent amendments (e.g. Children and Young Persons Act, 2008 c23) have begun to recognise the aggravating nature of violation of trust linked to the family environment. 

So, it’s a mixed picture. Improvements have been made but there’s a way to go yet to make the system fully effective.

Final thought…

Sexual abuse is always bad. Obviously. But when it occurs inside the family, there are added complexities.
Staying mindful of the issues relating to intra-familial abuse will help us to help young people in these situations.

Your thoughts…

  • What does your experience tell you about intra-familial sexual abuse?

Please add your views in the comments section below, or by clicking here.

Related previous posts…

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© Jonny Matthew 2014

The source for this post is:

 “It’s a lonely journey” A Rapid Evidence Assessment on Intrafamilial Child Sexual Abuse.” Office of the children’s Commissioner for England.