Child sex abuse in Britain is worse than we ever thought. What now?

Daily Telegraph, 24 November 2015

Child abuse has seldom been out of the headlines in the last few years. Even so, the latest official estimate of the extent of the problem is alarming, suggesting that hundreds of thousands of cases are going unreported. Only one in eight comes to the notice of the authorities, according to a new report, and the true number could be 400,000 in the last couple of years alone.

The report is from Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England, and is based on research showing that a huge amount of abuse takes place in the home, behind closed doors. The idea that relatives and family friends pose more of a danger than strangers may be hard for many people to accept, especially in view of the publicity attracted by cases such as the abduction of Madeleine McCann. But such events are the exception, as experts in the field have pointed out for years.

Some people feel an instinctive revulsion to the suggestion that so many children are at risk from people who are known to them. Any politician who dares to suggest that education about healthy relationships should begin in primary school will get a furious reaction: ‘Sex lessons for five-year-olds’ is a headline guaranteed to produce scorn and outrage. But denial about the extent of the problem is no more use than the kind of over-reaction that sees abusers everywhere.

Such information may be difficult for us to process as we read the papers over our morning coffee – something that’s true of the news generally at present – but the important thing is to come up with practical rather than emotional responses.If we accept the figure of around 200,000 children being abused each year, it’s something that needs to be analysed to come up with practical changes that can help children at risk. One of the lessons of this report (and others have come to similar conclusions) is that it isn’t good enough to wait for children to tell an adult what is happening.

We know that abusers work hard to win the trust of their victims precisely so they won’t tell a parent or teacher that they’re being abused. Even if a child senses that something is wrong, he or she might feel guilty about confiding in someone else; some children are so young when the abuse starts that they don’t even know the words to describe what’s happening to them. “A system that waits for children to tell them about something cannot be effective,” Longfield says.

It’s not surprising that children aren’t always able to make the distinction between healthy relationships and exploitation, especially when they’ve been ‘groomed’ by a manipulative adult. What’s more shocking is the failure of some adults to recognise abuse on occasions when victims have tried to disclose it. A common factor in the Rotherham and Rochdale scandals, in which vulnerable girls were multiply raped and passed around groups of men, was a failure by professionals to act even when victims reported what was going on.

Anyone who doubts the figures in the latest study should look again at the report of the independent inquiry into child sex abuse in Rotherham by Professor Alexis Jay. She believed that at least 1,400 children had been exploited there between 1997 and 2013, with some of the victims as young as 11. Other English towns have had similar scandals, not on the same scale so far, but it reflects a persistent failure to recognise the systematic nature of child sexual exploitation.

This is just the latest in a series of shocks to the criminal justice system. The staggering extent of Jimmy Savile’s predation on adults and children has changed the way police and prosecutors think about sex crimes, as well as persuading many more victims to come forward. The extent of rape, domestic violence and child abuse has been hidden for years, kept under the radar by a number of factors: shame, fear of not being believed, manipulation by abusers.

All of that’s changed in an incredibly short space of time. It may be hard to listen to survivors’ descriptions of horrendous abuse when they were children but their stories should guide public policy. This is especially important at a time when the police say that easy access to violent pornography on the internet is warping the behaviour of teenage boys, putting children as young as four at risk of sexual abuse.

Panic is never a helpful reaction to emotive subjects. But the realisation that child sexual exploitation is more widespread than most people ever imagined demands a sensible and pragmatic response. This has to start in schools: the argument for warning children about sexual predators from an early age has never been more compelling.

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