COVID-19 – Implications for Child Sexual Abuse

By Stuart Allardyce – Director of Stop It Now! Scotland

Please note that this a re-posting of a previous blog by Stop it Now! Scotland. Kieran.

Child sexual abuse is a crime that typically happens in secret. Embarrassment, shame, lack of knowledge and understanding of what constitutes appropriate boundaries and the relationship with the abuser make it difficult for children to speak out at the time of their abuse. Abusers also often go to considerable lengths to silence their victims through grooming or threats.  As a result, only around 1 in 8 children who have experienced sexual abuse disclose their abuse at the time they are harmed.

The current health crisis means that schools are closed and children are now confined to home much of their time in many parts of the world. These are necessary measures to protect both adults and children from Coronavirus at the moment.  But for those working in child protection, we know from experience and research that home is not a safe space for many children; the majority of child abuse – including sexual abuse happens within the family home. It’s likely that for many children, the social restrictions necessary because of COVID-19 may indirectly increase risks of sexual harm. Think of the following scenarios:

  • An 8 year old girl who has been sexually assaulted by her father on several occasions. She is now isolated with her abuser and no longer has access to protective adults, or safe spaces at school, community or through extended family.
  • A 32 year old adult male now working from home and living on his own, spending large amounts of spare time accessing legal online pornography and drawn to look at more extreme material. He is interested in ‘teen’ videos on Pornhub, but is getting bored and wants to find something more ‘edgy’.
  • A 10 year old girl spending increasing amounts of time online as her parents are distracted while working from home. She feels scared and isolated and has been contacted by strangers she has met through online gaming platforms. She thinks they sound friendly and they are asking her to meet on WhatsApp so they can have private chats, share pictures and have some fun.
  • A 14 year old boy, preoccupied with lots of sexual material online, is wondering what it might be like to try out some of the things he is looking at online with his 6 year old sister. He doesn’t think he will get found out as he spends a lot of time with his sister helping her with school work in her bedroom.

I could go on – there are so many possible scenarios. Some of these situations involve online harm, and some involve offline behaviour. Some involve the interplay of online and offline worlds.

Is this speculation, or is there solid evidence of more children being at risk of abuse? It’s early days, and the secrecy and shame around sexual abuse means that it might be years before we understand the full nature of the safeguarding catastrophe we could be entering into at the moment. However, there is some evidence emerging, particularly in relation to online harm, that we need to pay attention to. At Stop It Now! Scotland for instance, in March 2020 we had upwards of 300 individuals from Scotland using our online resource every week for adults worried about their use of child sexual exploitation material. It’s a resource that can be used anonymously by adults who know they have a problem and are looking for help and resources to stop, even though they may not be known to law enforcement. These numbers are roughly 3 x what we were seeing in January 2020.

We’re also picking up on worrying activity online. Last week Europol’s executive director, Catherine de Bolle noted that they had seen ‘increased online activity by those seeking child abuse material’  A recent blog by the internet safety consultant John Carr, talked about ‘cappers’ – adults who trick children into doing something inappropriate, capturing an image of the act and then using it to exploit the victim further. The Canadian Centre for Child Protection has been following online conversations between ‘cappers’ over the last few weeks and intercepted the following:

” With potentially millions of boys around the world being or soon to be forced to stay home from school, potentially unsupervised if parents are working (teens in particular) now is the time for cappers to do their part to assist the quarantine efforts. There is a dire need for enriching, structured activities for all these boys to engage in.”

So with the evidence we have at the moment, it looks like we urgently need to double down on child sexual abuse prevention if we are to avoid a potential crisis for our children.

Some additional  prevention activity is already happening. There has been a lot of messaging on social media over recent weeks encouraging parents to speak to their children about online safety and boundaries. This is a great start and sensible advice. But this is only one part of the solution, and we need to be more strategic if we are tackle the different forms and contexts of sexual abuse comprehensively – whether now, or in the future.

In February of this year we relaunched our Eradicating Child Sexual Abuse (ECSA) website. ECSA is a knowledge exchange project, ensuring that practitioners, agencies, policy-makers and the public from around the world have access to advice, support and resources that they can use to prevent child sexual abuse from happening in the first place; or to prevent it from re-occurring if it has already happened.

At its heart is a public health methodology asking practitioners to consider what evidence they have of local need and dynamics around child sexual abuse in the communities they serve. It invites professionals to then think about what needs to be done in relation to universal messaging, targeting resources at more risky situations and responding to abuse after it happens. And you need to think about what all of that then means for victims (and potential victims), offenders (and potential offenders), families and situations or contexts.

So current evidence tells us that there are potentially increased risks of online solicitation for children at the moment. What would using the ECSA methodology tell us that we should be doing to prevent this form of abuse? You would need good general deterrence messaging so that all adults know that sexualised conversations with children are illegal and why it is illegal. You might need specific messaging and supports for people who are at risk of shifting into offending (e.g. adults who have a sexual attraction to children and / or involved with risk taking sexual behaviour online).  You would need age appropriate messaging for all children that can be reinforced by protective adults, but also additional inputs around online safety for more vulnerable children (e.g. children with autism or intellectual impairments, children who have already been sexually abused or experienced other forms of maltreatment etc). You might need additional supports and resources available for vulnerable families. Engagement with internet service providers and those who have responsibility for the online environments our children inhabit will also be key, along with continued diligence by law enforcement. And what works for this kind of abuse – online exploitation – might need adapted with respect to other kinds of harm such as risk of intrafamilial abuse or viewing of child sexual exploitation material.

All of this might feel overwhelming when there are so many other social challenges we are facing. But if you work in the child sexual abuse prevention field, we need to band together urgently to respond to current challenges.

So here are a couple of calls to action. Firstly, have a look at the ECSA website, and have a think about whether there are things there that you can use to help with your work around prevention in the current challenging environment. What might be the things that you need to do more of, or things you need to do differently? And secondly, follow us on twitter (Eradicate Child Sexual Abuse ECSA@ECSA54421403). Let’s start having some conversations about what we can do to prevent this emerging crisis for our children.   

COVID 19 is an overwhelming horror, a crisis of such a scale and nature that very few of us will have lived through anything like this in our life. However, imagine if this horror gave us as practitioners the impetus to get connected, to start to work pro-actively and quickly together so that we develop comprehensive and strategic approaches to prevent child sexual abuse. What if this disaster spurred us on to get things right and help parents make home a genuinely safe space for every child right now. It is achievable. But the responsibility to make this happen now sits with all of us who work in the prevention space. 

Framework and Principles for Assessment of Men’s Acute Violence in Relation to Covid 19.

By Ken McMaster & Mike Cagney (Hall McMaster & Associates Limited)

The world has changed rapidly within a short period of time as a result of the Covid 19 pandemic. We can anticipate that in times of uncertainty, where pre-existing issues exist within relationships such as family violence, that risk is likely to increase in the short term. This is due to several factors such as financial concerns and worries, quarantine back to a single place such as the family home, unemployment/underemployment, and general feelings of unwellness for those infected. These contextual issues can put severe pressure on relationships. This, therefore, is a time to support those at risk, in order to minimise harm to others.

We have gone back to first principles and have developed a resource that can guide conversations with those at risk.  

  • The foundations of assessing risk: Static, stable, acute and protective factors
  • Looking for signs of safety as a way of bringing information together
  • Considering robust conversations around risk and safety through this period (refer to the COVID-19 questionnaire proposing lines of inquiry to ‘open up’ conversations with clients). 

We invite you to use the tool and adapt accordingly to the populations you are working with. There will be other risk factors that exist across diverse populations including LGBTQ, where women are the main perpetrator of abuse, and in the area of male survivors of sexual and domestic violence. We invite those working with these populations to adapt these ideas accordingly. The factors outlined are developed from our own experience and therefore skewed to a male population who engage in abusive practices. 

There are some caveats to this document:

  • We put this together quickly to provide a resource for workers to support family/whanau through this unprecedented time. This ‘pocket tool’ is not designed to replicate existing risk assessment tools/instruments and should be used in conjunction with fuller assessment tools.
  • Recognising that in ‘lockdown’ conditions many workers may not have access to all assessment materials, this ‘pocket tool’ has been developed for front-line for workers in the men’s violence field to have a quick reference framework, to review caseloads and assess ‘in the field’  potentially acute-risk situations.   
  • We are also aware that situational risk factors as noted above (financial concerns and worries, quarantine back to a single place such as the family home, unemployment/underemployment, and general feelings of unwellness for those infected) are likely to put significant strain on family that don’t have a history of abusive practice. We may, therefore, see a group of people who would not normally present to our organisations.
  • We believe that everyone working on the frontline should seek supervision/consultation through this time. When faced with an imminent risk situation calling the Police should be the first point of contact.
  • Where issues specific to sexual harm, risk, and danger for children or adults occur, we advise you to consult and engage services and assessment tools specific to that field of practice.  
  • We have appreciated feedback from a range of people who took the time to raise a number of issues about the original document. We have considered this feedback and be more explicit regarding the target group whom we deem at the highest risk of abusive practice/family violence during this period. The purpose of this ‘pocket tool’ should be used as a guide to conversations that workers could have with people on their caseload already.

Static, Stable, Acute and Protective Risk Assessment

Not everyone who has used abusive practice/family harm is at risk of escalation during this period of time. In order to understand good risk assessment, we can think about four factors that intersect and change, depending on what is happening in somebody’s life. The framework below has been developed in relation to men’s risk of violence towards others. There will be unique factors that exist across diverse populations including LGBTQ and where women are the main perpetrator of abuse.

Static risk factors or what is commonly known as tombstone factors are unchangeable. These relate to historic aspects in someone’s life such as early childhood trauma, witnessing family violence as a child, early onset of abusive behaviour within relationships, nature, and severity of abusive behaviour, violence across multiple relationships, et cetera. We always say that these factors are the best predictor of future behaviour. They provide our starting point and who we should take a closer look at, given that the collective impact of these behaviours means that a person has a higher probability of being abusive in the future. It doesn’t mean they will, it does mean they may have a higher propensity.

Stable risk factors are what I might describe as the big drivers for abusive behaviour. These include attitudes and beliefs about violence as a problem-solving method, attitudes towards women, peer relationships, emotional regulation skills, relationship to addictive substances, and adult attachment issues. Effective interventions attempt to undermining and disrupt these drivers of behaviour, thereby reducing the influence of these factors.

Acute risk factors move quickly. These can be seen as subgroups of stable risk factors and include issues such as jealousy, substance misuse, escalation in disagreements, while static and stable indicators help us to predict issues of severity and frequency of behaviour, anticipating acute issues is the key to reducing the immediate risk of harm.

Protective factors act as a buffer to the static, stable and acute risk issues. These include attitudes of respect, problem-solving skills, emotional regulation, cognitive coping, distress management, and lifestyle management.

Signs of Safety (adapted from Turnell and Edwards 1999)  

Signs of Safety is a social work tool and framework to engage ‘with clients’ and encourage detail and summary of risk and protective factors. We use the Signs of Safety tool to summarise and promote thinking of the detail of static-stable- acute risk and to promote reflection focused conversation. As such, the framework essentially aids the formulation of the ‘picture’ of risk.

Signs of Safety recognises professional judgement is inherent in assessment and needs to be combined with actuarial tools used – a balance to each other, as it were. Similarly, actuarial tools without an appropriate structured ‘interview / engagement / interpretation’ can produce skewed results. The tool is not, therefore, intended to have an actuarial outcome measure but to promote a reflection-discussion of the question, ‘What is the risk picture here?’ and the judgments or ‘calls’ you make as practitioners.

Too often assessments only focus upon the ‘risks’. This framework invites the practitioner to weigh also to consider ‘what is protective’? Such questions are perhaps, never more relevant than in this lockdown circumstance and ironically staying in ‘bubbles of safety’, where clients and practitioners are dealing with risk in real-time. The COVID-19 questionnaire invites where possible, to open this inquiry with the client, and the two-scale questions on the Signs of safety form, aim to promote well-considered judgment.

If necessary, we urge engaging much fuller tools (in New Zealand, for example, the Ministry of Justice Code of Practice for Assessment). They require the ‘inherent professional judgment’ when interpreting what the ‘risk -picture’ looks like and respond to any changes in acute risk accordingly. We also strongly suggest staff seek supervision and ask the question “Is there another way I should be looking at this situation?”

The tool is intended as a framework guideline and we offer this ‘open source’ to fellow practitioners in the front-line. We wish you safety and wellness in these demanding and perplexing times.

The Framework and Principles for Assessment of Men’s Acute Violence in Relation to Covid 19 can be found here.


Turnell, A. and Edwards, S. (1999) Signs of Safety A Solution and Safety Oriented Approach to Child Protection Casework, W.W. Norton and Company