For many parents or carers even considering the possibility that your child could become a victim of sexual abuse could be almost unimaginable, but one of the best ways to protect your child from abuse is to recognise that it can sometimes happen and to take active steps to understand the risks and regularly share age-appropriate strategies with your child to help keep them safe.
This guide aims to help you:
- understand what child sexual abuse is
- keep your child or young person safe
- support your child and family if they are affected by sexual abuse
It is important to remember that most children grow up without experiencing abuse.
This is when a child or young person under the age of 18 years is forced or persuaded to take part in sexual activities. This could be through face to face contact or it could be “on line” or through a mobile phone contact. It could involve physical activity (from touching through to full sexual contact) or it might involve sending or viewing sexual images.
- The abuser could be an adult or a child themselves; they could be male or female, young or old.
- Both boys and girls can be victims of abuse.
- Abuse can sometimes happen from a very early age.
Child sexual abuse, particularly if this is repeated, usually involves the abuser using coercive control to manipulate a child or young person into keeping “the secret” of what they are doing to them.
In recent years there has been more publicity about a particular type of sexual abuse, Child Sexual Exploitation. This usually involves a child or young person receiving some kind of reward (e.g. gifts, money, treats) for sexual activity or they may be threatened to make them comply.
More detailed information on Child Sexual Abuse or Exploitation can be found on the NSPCC website https://www.nspcc.org.uk/preventing-abuse/child-abuse-and-neglect/child-sexual-abuse/
While parents/carers may worry about their child being abused by a stranger, research shows that children are far more likely to be abused by someone they know, including family members or family friends or a person they know within their community; perhaps someone in a “position of power.” This could be someone who works or has a voluntary role with children and young people; someone who is trusted by adults and children.
There is no “typical” perpetrator of child sexual abuse. They look and behave in the same way as other people. They can come from any background and may hold positions of influence in their jobs or within the community. Some people will find ways to become a trusted adult in families or in the community to reduce suspicion about their motives and behaviours.
Those who abuse children within their own family networks can include parents (birth parents and step parents), carers, live-in partners, boyfriends, girlfriends, uncles, aunties, grandparents, close family friends, neighbours or other children or young people within or connected to the family.
Abusers can appear kind, caring and fun to children and children may enjoy their company. Developing this close relationship with the child and their family or friends is a way of appearing beyond suspicion and trusted by their victims and their families. This process is often referred to as “grooming” and it can involve grooming both the potential victim and those around them, such as family and friends, in order to stop them suspecting their motives. Many perpetrators also convince themselves that they are doing no harm to the child.
In the case of older children or adolescents, sometimes an abuser may initially present themselves as an older boyfriend/girlfriend and they may invest time in making their intentions appear genuine. Their victim may be led to believe that they are a genuine partner and that they are in a mutual relationship with this person. This is often how cases of child sexual exploitation can develop, with the abuser later making demands, controlling or even passing on the victim to other associates who may also abuse them.
On line Abuse
On line abuse is a growing issue as many children and young people spend time on their devices, often away from the view of parents and carers. Chat rooms, gaming platforms and apps such as Snapchat and What’s App are easy tools for abusers to hide their identity and make contact with children and young people. These apps and sites provide simple routes for the exchange of indecent images. Again, the abuser will build a trusting relationship and later makes demands or threats to control their victim, often once intimate images have been passed on. New apps and sites come into use on a regular basis and parents and carers are advised to keep abreast of apps their children’s internet use. A number of reliable, on line guides are available to provide parents and carers with advice on this.
“Staying safe on line” guidance is included in the final section of this guide.
There are no definitive signs but there are a number of signs of possible sexual abuse that should be explored further. Signs may vary for younger children and older adolescents. Recognising signs is another way of seeing an opportunity for prevention – a chance for a caring adult to spot possible risks and take action to protect a child from harm.
Unfortunately, many of these signs can be normal developmental changes through different stages of childhood and adolescence, so caution should be taken in assuming that any of these behaviours are definitively because of sexual abuse. They may also indicate that a child is worried about or has had a negative experience of something other than sexual abuse.
Physical signs needing important medical follow up include:
- Pain, discoloration, bleeding or discharge in the genitals, bottom or mouth
- Persistent or recurring pain when using the toilet
- Wetting and soiling accidents unrelated to toilet training
Some of the behavioural signs can also come about as a result of other significant, stressful events in a child’s life such as parental separation, bereavement, problems at school or with friends or other anxiety-inducing or traumatic events. So, such factors may also need to be considered as possible causes of these signs, as well as potential indicators of sexual abuse.
Possible behavioural signs in a younger child:
- An older child behaving like a younger child – e.g. going back to thumb sucking or bed wetting, baby words, sounds or behaviours;
- using new words to describe body parts to those usually used by the child or their parent or carer;
- reluctance to remove clothes at appropriate times such as bath, toilet or nappy change, bedtime;
- mimicking adult-like sexualised behaviours with dolls or soft toys or pictures;
- wetting or soiling accidents that are out of the ordinary or fear of using the toilet;
- playing sexualised games with toys or other children or sexualised body; movements such as dancing, rocking or touching;
- fear of bed time or bedroom time;
- withdrawn behaviour, loss of speech or language;
- reluctance of being left by parents or carers.
Possible behavioural signs in an older child
- Significant changes to behaviour patterns;
- sleep disturbance without an explanation;
- distant or distracted;
- sudden change in eating patterns
- sudden mood swings;
- new or unusual fears of certain people, places, activities;
- writing, drawing, playing or dreaming about sexualised or frightening images;
- thinking of their body or self as dirty or bad;
- excessive washing of body or clothes;
- inexplicable money, gifts or toys;
- becoming secretive about friends, time or activities;
- giving “clues” to provoke discussion about sexual issues;
- showing adult-like sexual behaviours, movements, language or knowledge
Possible behavioural signs in an adolescent
- Self- harming (cutting, burns, scratching) or suicide attempts;
- compulsive eating or dieting;
- poor personal hygiene;
- drug or alcohol abuse;
- running away from home or staying out for long periods;
- depression and anxiety;
- fear of intimacy or closeness
- having to immediately answer their phone and fear of not being able to do so;
- new “friends” or a “controlling” partner;
- expensive gifts or frequent trips away or parties;
- Evasive when asked questions.
Children who are disabled or who have a learning difficulty may find it hard to communicate that they are uncomfortable with something happening to them or may not understand the actions of another person are abusive. Indicators that something is wrong may include changes in behaviour or increased levels of anxiety.
Talk with your child…. and listen to their chat
- Gather together and make a note of the signs that have led you to have these worries. Think about your child’s experiences and whether there is a pattern or starting point for the behaviours.
- Think about how best you can begin a conversation with your child about your worries in an age-appropriate way and in a place and time you won’t be interrupted (maybe on a journey in the car where they may feel more at their ease and not having to make eye contact).
- Build on the communication channels you have, reassuring them that they can share any of their worries with you and say anything to you. Give them a sense that you can cope with anything they have to tell you.
- Explain why you are worried about them (the signs you have noticed) and ask them if they can talk about these with you.
- They might not be ready to talk but reassure them that you are willing to talk to them at any time and give them any help they may need.
- Suggest that they might want to talk to someone else – another family member, or someone at school or maybe on the telephone to a support service, if they would feel more comfortable with any of these. Ask them who they would want to talk to if they had things that were worrying them.
- Tell them you love and care for them and are there to help and that you don’t want them to feel worried or scared on their own.
- Contact school or their childcare setting (if appropriate) to see if they have any concerns or have noticed changes of behaviour.
- If your child begins to talk about sexual abuse at any point, you should reassure them that they have done the right thing to talk about this and that there are people (including yourself) who can help them and stop what is happening to them.
- You should avoid asking them detailed questions, just listen and note any facts and you should then seek professional support as described below.
- Try to reassure the child that it is OK for them to have told you and that will help them. If you are upset by what you hear, make sure that the child knows that this is not because you are not angry or sad with them, but because they have been harmed.
- Sexual abuse/activity with a child by anyone of any age is against the law in any circumstances and needs to be reported. Your child will need professional support to deal with this and there will be support for you and other family members too.
IT IS VERY IMPORTANT THAT YOU DO NOT CONFRONT AN ALLEGED ABUSER. IT MAY GIVE THEM THE CHANCE TO SILENCE, CONFUSE OR THREATEN VICTIMS (POSSIBLY NOT ONLY YOUR CHILD) TO SILENCE THEM AND IT MAY INTERFERE WITH A POTENTIAL PROSECUTION.
The route you may take depends on the level of concerns and urgency of actions required:
- In an emergency (when you are not able to protect the child yourself or when you are concerned that abuse is happening or about to happen) you should contact the Police on 999
- Police can be contacted on 101 if not an emergency
- Contact the Children’s Social Care, Multi Agency Safeguarding Hub (MASH) according to where the child normally lives:
- Bournemouth, Christchurch & Poole MASH – 01202 735046 or email MASH@bcpcouncil.gov.uk
- Dorset MASH – 01202 228866 or email MASH@dorsetcouncil.gov.uk
- Seek advice from the NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 5000 or e mail them - firstname.lastname@example.org or
- Contact a professional who has already been in contact with your child – e.g. your GP, health visitor, school nurse or Designated Safeguarding Lead at their school or childcare setting
Staff working in the MASH deal with all initial child safeguarding referrals and can offer advice and support, as well as following established processes to protect children. The MASH teams are all based together, along with colleagues from health and police services and can review records and collectively agree actions required according to the nature of the concerns you have. They will probably arrange to visit you and your child in your home or ask you to meet with them elsewhere if this is preferable.
If it seems as if your child has been a victim of very recent sexual abuse, the Police may want them to go to The Shores (a specialist service dealing with sexual assaults, based in Bournemouth but covering all of Dorset)) for a medical examination to gather any physical evidence that may be vital if there is to be a prosecution. Staff at The Shores are highly trained and supportive and will take care of your child and support you in coping with what has happened. They can refer both you and your child to an organisation that can provide you with on-going counselling and support which may be needed for some time.
Specialist police officers and a social worker will also want to interview your child to prepare for any future prosecution. They have considerable experience in this area of work and will do all they can to build a trusting relationship with you and your child and to ask their questions in as gentle and age-appropriate way as possible to gather the facts of the case. You will be able to be close by to provide reassurance to your child.
Depending on the nature of the abuse, the Police will want to ensure that the suspected abuser can quickly be brought into the police station for questioning and to make a statement that may later be used in court. They will want to ensure that no other child is placed at risk, such as siblings or the abuser’s own children.
If the alleged abuser is someone who has a job or volunteer role working with children or adults who may be vulnerable, the case will also be referred to the Local Authority Designated Officer (called the LADO) to look at whether steps need to be taken to protect children or adults who they would come into contact with in their work and/or volunteer roles.
Parents and carers can sometimes worry that involving the authorities could lead to their child immediately being taken into care. This would only happen in a very worse-case scenario, where no-one within the family can protect the child from further harm.
Where a professional assessment finds that children are at significant risk of harm, a Child Protection Plan may be developed to work with children and their families to reduce risks and provide protection to children in the family. Most child protection plans do not lead to children being taken into care, they are intended to support families in improving things so that plans can be ended safely.
Preparing for any potential criminal prosecution can take time and, in the meantime, your child and your family will benefit from specialist support. It will help if life can return to or be maintained as “normal functioning” as soon as the child is ready, but they are helped to feel that they can talk about what happened or any further worries whenever they need to.
It will help if life can return to “normal functioning” as soon as the child is ready but that they are helped to feel that they can talk about what happened or any further worries whenever they need to.
Your child will need help to feel that:
- they have done the right thing to talk about what has happened
- it’s not their fault, they didn’t cause it and the abuser was wrong to do it
- they are safe now and you will keep them safe
- they will be helped to feel better and that “normal life” will return
- they have been listened to and believed (even if a prosecution does not go ahead or is not successful)
As children often feel guilt and worry about their families, they can find talking to a professional outside the family helps. An Independent Sexual Violence Adviser can really help in these cases. They will work with the child to cope with their feelings and get back towards some of life’s normal routines, such as school or nursery.
In time, longer term counselling will also help the child or young person deal with the impact of trauma caused by sexual abuse.
A traumatic family event such as this will lead to high levels of stress and distress for parents or carers and other family members such as siblings or other relatives and friends.
When the abuser is believed to be a member of the family network, the impact is even greater and has been described by those affected as like “a bomb going off in our family."
Family members affected will react and behave in different ways to try and release the emotions caused, their underlying feelings may include:
- Grief and loss
- Guilt for not being able to protect their child or for “allowing” an abuser into their family or home
- Anger for the harm caused, which can be as extreme as wanting to physically assault the alleged perpetrator
- Anger at the “authorities” for not protecting their child or not being able to punish the abuser in the way they would like to see this happen
- Shock and paralysis in terms of how to deal with the situation
- Physical stress manifested by inability to think, sleep, eat, communicate.
The feelings described above are all expected reactions to the situation the family is experiencing and will ease in time and with professional support. In their extreme, these feelings can be diagnosed as “trauma” or even “post-traumatic stress.” Prescribed medication, from a doctor and specialist counselling provided by local support services such as Dorset Rape Crisis or Acts Fast (see contact details at the end of this guide) will help ease these feelings. As a parent, carer or family member it’s important that you seek help with how you are feeling so that you can best help your child cope with their own feelings. Brothers and sisters of the child may also need specialist support to cope with worries this may bring up for them. This support can be offered by local support organisations.
Once the Police have completed their enquiries, gathered any evidence (including examining an alleged abuser’s phone and computer) and taken statements they will present the case to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) who ultimately make the decision about whether a suspect can be charged; and a case can go to court. All the evidence provided by the victim(s) (your child may not be the only one affected) is reviewed in order to make this decision. The younger the child, the more challenging it can sometimes be to get CPS approval for charges, for a case to go to court and for a conviction to be secured.
If the case does not proceed to court, it’s important that the child doesn’t feel that they haven’t been believed that the abuse happened. For families, this setback can be really disappointing and frustrating, but there is always the chance that additional victims will come forward and that this will lead to the alleged abuser being successfully prosecuted. Sometimes this can happen many years later as some high-profile media cases have shown in recent years.
If the alleged abuser has parental responsibility in respect of the child and a conviction is not secured, the case will be referred to the family court for a ruling about whether this parent should have any contact with the child and any siblings. An organisation called CAFCASS will be involved to consider the best interests of the child by gathering together reports from all the agencies that have been involved in the case and providing a report on the child’s best interests to the family court. Here a judge will make a ruling on contact arrangements based on all of the information available from services that have been involved in the case and the views of parents and the child themselves.
Families affected by child sexual abuse can feel that they missed some opportunities to better prepare their child to be alert to child sexual abuse. They may have felt that their child was too young to have those conversations, or they were worried about scaring them. With hindsight they may regret these lost opportunities. Some families affected by CSA have campaigned told urge others to start age-appropriate conversations from an early age. If abuse has been committed, the child will need support in understanding how to protect themselves in the future.
It is important to reinforce that the fault lies with the perpetrator of abuse and it is their behaviours that are unacceptable. Any preventative approaches used make it more likely that a child or young person will understand that they behaviours are not right and that they can talk to others about their worries and that they deserve to be protected from abuse.
The NSPCC’s PANTS messages and resources provide an age appropriate, non-scary and fun way to teach children preventative messages. Resources including videos, a catchy song, worksheets, an app and booklets for parents/carers can be accessed via the NSPCC website – just use the search box to find PANTS. Resources are also available in other languages and for children/parents with learning disabilities or other disabilities. The resources are often used in schools and nursery settings, but it is also good for them to be used by parents and carers to reinforce the messages; there is a Parents/Carers Guide to help with this.
For older children, the NSPCC has a number of resources as part of their Stay Safe campaign that can help guide conversations with older children and adolescents. There is also a fun and helpful video made by Thames Valley Police that explores the concept of “consent.”
Older children and adolescents will normally explore issues as part of their sex and relationship education (PSHE lessons) at school and this should include how to protect themselves from abuse. However, it is helpful to follow up on this learning with parent/young person conversations. Some relevant themes are covered in tv “soaps” such as Hollyoaks, East Enders and Coronation Street and these can provide a helpful way in to having conversations. Most importantly, give your child regular reassurance that you are happy to talk about any worries or questions they may have whenever they are ready. You don’t have to be an expert yourself.
It is widely recognised that some children feel unable to report cases of sexual abuse for a range of reasons and as a result, there will inevitably be some parents or carers who have themselves never disclosed abuse that happened to them as a child or young person. It is never too late to seek help and support with this and in some cases, prosecutions can be secured many years after the abuse actually happened and support obtained with coping with the long-term effects no matter how long ago the abuse happened.
As an adult victim or survivor of sexual abuse, any of the support organisations listed in this booklet will be able to help with taking the first steps to disclose abuse and get appropriate support with dealing with it.
The Government has set up an Independent Enquiry into Child Sexual Abuse and information on this can be found here: https://www.truthproject.org.uk/i-will-be-heard
The stories of over 2,000 victims and survivors have been brought together by the Truth Project and there is a telephone helpline: 0800 917 1000.
There are numerous sources of help and advice for families including:
Staying Safe on line – guides for parents
Coping with the impact of Child Sexual Abuse
MOSAC - Support for non-abusing parents and carers of sexually abused children.
National free helpline: 0800 980 1958 / 020 8293 9990. Email: email@example.com
An independent charity giving free, confidential advice, emotional and practical support for victims and witnesses of crime in England and Wales. Support line: 0845 30 30 90 9am-8pm Mon – Fri, 9am-7pm Weekends, 9am-5pm Bank Holidays.