JimKenIt is a remarkable fact that there remain important areas of child abuse where we seem to know much less than we should. Only a couple of weeks ago the Children’s Commissioner for England published a research report suggesting that we know little about child sexual abuse within the family environment. The report marked the launch of her planned two-year Inquiry into the subject.


Now, we have a report from York University, commissioned by the NSPCC, which reflects on new research that set out to tackle identified gaps in knowledge about the abuse of children in care. The research for the York report went UK wide.

The Children’s Commissioner’s report sets out the findings from a rapid evidence assessment (REA) undertaken by the University of Middlesex. The report is clear about the limitations of the REA approach, but, given the time that must have been available to researchers, the report shows that a truly extensive range of material was analysed in the course of the assessment.

Whilst I had some questions about the way conclusions in the report were set out, particularly as they affected the assessment of the performance of the English child protection system, the report certainly provided convincing arguments about the lack of current evidence and the need to know more about sexual abuse in the family environment.

As the Commissioner’s Inquiry proceeds it will be important to bear the ‘in the family environment’ tag, in mind. The aim is to look at sexual child sexual abuse perpetrated by a family member or that takes place within a family context or environment, whether or not by a family member. It is not therefore only concerned with intrafamilial abuse, but the more common use of that term may cause problems in disentangling the evidence base, as the Inquiry goes forward.

In short, the initial research found a limited range of material that looked at child sexual abuse in the family context, and found particularly worrying gaps in our understanding of the experiences of the children concerned, and of its effects on them. The developing field of online abuse in the family context was also seen as an area where much more analysis is required, as was the ‘secondary abuse’ that children may be exposed to, in the justice system.

The York University research on the abuse of children in care covered the period 2009–2012 and included a survey of all 211 LAs in the UK, designed to map out the scale of substantiated and unsubstantiated allegations in foster and residential care. There was a high response rate (74%).

Alleged abuse only a small percentage
The study also included a follow-up survey of 111 substantiated cases of abuse or neglect (87 in foster care and 24 in residential care), involving a total of 146 children. As the report notes, this is a relatively small sample, and it cautions that findings from that part of the study should be seen as exploratory.

The report is clear that its overall findings show that the large majority of children are safe in both residential and foster care, with cases of alleged abuse accounting for only a small percentage of all children in care. For example, substantiated cases of abuse in foster care amount to less than one in a hundred such children.

The study did find higher rates of allegation in relation to residential care, but that still only equated to between two and three confirmed allegations per 100 children in residential care each year. The report notes the difficult placement decisions that arise when allegations of abuse are made and says the study showed that where allegations were substantiated, in foster care, in between 56% and 63% of cases, the children concerned were removed. But even where allegations could not be substantiated, between 13% and 16% of the children were removed.

Many fewer children, in residential care were removed – the report says that less than one in five substantiated allegations resulted in removal – but, of course, the wider options for dealing with the staff involved are likely to explain at least part of that difference.

Other issues highlighted in the York report included:

  • the wide variation in the rate of allegations across the 4 parts of the UK, and across the authorities within them
  • some foster carers concerned in allegations had been the subject of previous accusations, with some study evidence that warning signs were missed when children appeared settled in long term placements
  • reasons for abuse were sometimes seen to be related to stress on foster parents, but there were some extreme cases where the evidence suggested that the carers concerned should never have been assessed as suitable to foster
  • there may be a small number of residential units where there is a culture of coercion and compliance that should be rigorously challenged through the inspection processes
  • the need for effective support and training for foster carers and residential staff, to minimise the likelihood of abuse occurring, and the role good supervision can play in ensuring effective monitoring of placements.

Heavy investment in monitoring child protection
In an echo of the English Commissioner’s report the core need for a child-centred, rights-based approach, which ensures that children and young people are listened to and appropriate action is taken if they experience poor quality care, abuse or neglect, is one of the most pressing messages in the report.

I thought the York report also exposed a number of areas where more information and debate would be useful, including cases that had resulted in criminal proceedings; and the whole subject of how allegations are investigated; and decisions reached about their seriousness – particularly in terms of the extent to which such activity is, or is not, carried out under child protection procedures.

However, the main thing that looking at both reports shows is that, although there has been a heavy investment in monitoring the child protection system, there remain worrying gaps in knowledge, and a strong need for further well-balanced research to fully explore the care and practice issues that affect our core services for children.

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