Note: This blog is a
repost from the Centre for Expertise on
Child Sexual Abuse. Kieran
By Anna Glinski, Deputy Director for
Knowledge and Practice Development at the Centre of Expertise on child sexual
Over the years that I’ve specialised in sexual abuse work, as a social work practitioner, manager and trainer, and now in my current role at the CSA Centre in developing evidence-based professional practice in child sexual abuse across the country, I am continually struck by two things:
- the hard work of committed social workers and
other professionals who strive every day to make children safe; and
- that despite this, they face significant
obstacles in trying to evidence concerns about a child being sexually abused.
We know that
a great many
more children are experiencing sexual abuse than those that come
to the attention of statutory services and when they do, sexual abuse is seldom
explicitly named or adequately addressed. There are many obstacles that
contribute to this stark reality but one that perhaps limits us the most from
being proactive is a hesitancy to name child sexual abuse as a concern.
‘What if I’m wrong?’
In cases of child abuse and neglect, social work decisions on whether to act or not rest upon one central question – ‘On the balance of probabilities, do we have the evidence to intervene?’. These are, and should be, complex decisions whatever the nature of suspected abuse; however, when it comes to child sexual abuse, a whole myriad of additional conscious and unconscious thoughts and processes come into play. Our mantra (and that of the people we need to persuade) becomes ‘what if I’m wrong?’, in particular, ‘what if I wrongly accuse someone of this heinous crime?’
implications of being right can be overwhelming – emotionally (thinking the
unthinkable, hearing difficult information, considering the sexual abuse of a
vulnerable child) and practically (the need to have difficult conversations, ask
alleged perpetrators to leave the family, the implications to an already busy
caseload). In this context, strong supervision, containing management and
organisational support are essential, yet often inconsistent.
and managers often replicate the same emotional and practical reservations,
consciously and unconsciously, to the possibility of sexual abuse. The ‘what if
I’m wrong?’ becomes ‘where’s your evidence?’, and the unconscious desire to
find the answer that proves we are indeed wrong, that sexual abuse is not
taking place, can override our decision-making and thought processes. Identifying an alternative hypothesis for our
concerns is easy – they must have seen that behaviour on YouTube; it must be
their disability or condition; it’s because of other difficulties in their life
(a loss, a move, a trauma, a friendship issue, an argument or fight at home)…and
alongside this, they haven’t actually verbally
told us they are being abused, so it cannot be abuse. And when we find an
alternative explanation to the behaviour of concern, we often fail to keep the
sexual abuse hypothesis live.
the alternative explanations we consider may well be true, and our concerns of
sexual abuse will, of course, not always be founded, but we fail to consider
that sexual abuse could be occurring alongside those other factors. A child can be both on the autistic spectrum and being sexual abused; or experiencing
domestic abuse and being sexually
abused; or struggling with a friendship and
being sexually abused. We must hold in mind all
the hypotheses even when there are other possible reasons for our concerns and
even when the implications of it being sexual abuse are hard to consider. We must also be aware of and actively
challenge the preconceived ideas about who perpetrates abuse and who the
victims are which form our unconscious biases on gender, ethnicity, sexual
orientation and class and can mean that some children’s experiences of sexual
abuse are less likely to be identified and acted on.
‘Beyond reasonable doubt’
the investigation process, a common phrase we hear is ‘we don’t have the
evidence’, from ourselves, our managers, our police and health colleagues, our
legal advice. But what does this actually mean? The police may not have the
evidence ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ to be able to take further action, however
on the ‘balance of probabilities’ do we, as social workers and social work
managers, have the evidence? On the
balance of probabilities, we may have a catalogue of concerns around sexualised
behaviour and emotional or behavioural presentation, indications of abusive
behaviour from adults or siblings in the home, a child who has disclosed but
retracted, or is demonstrating in every which way other than verbally that
something harmful is going on for them. That is not evidence beyond reasonable
doubt, but it is most certainly evidence of real concern about a child’s wellbeing
that needs responding to.
how realistic and achievable is it that we will get evidence beyond reasonable
doubt? How could we absolutely know,
without doubt, that abuse has occurred?
- We saw it
happen with our own eyes?
else, who is ‘reliable’, saw it happen and reported it?
alleged perpetrator admitted it?
- The victim
clearly, verbally told us what happened with accurate recall on timescales and
attention to detail despite the trauma of the incident/s; has managed to repeat
the story on at least 2 occasions; has managed to persuade a jury while being
questioned by an adult defence lawyer?
- We have
medical evidence that proves sexual abuse took place?
- We have
film footage of the abuse taking place?
What are the
chances of any of the above happening?
Sexual abuse is a hidden crime, enacted in secrecy. Getting caught risks
the loss of liberty, family, respect and employment and so abusers are unlikely
to admit it. The trauma of abuse impacts memory and recall. The process of
abuse distorts, disrupts, confuses and silences, meaning victim testimony is
often challenged. Medical evidence is often deemed inconclusive – abuse is
rarely reported within forensic timescales; if injuries are caused children
heal quickly; sexually transmitted infections may have other causes*. We may have photographs or film footage of
abuse, and with the rise of technology there are increasing prosecutions on
this basis, but still, many abusers would not risk this approach.
yet…despite the serious unlikelihood of finding this evidence, we say,
repeatedly, and as if it is a good enough reason to take no further action – ‘we
haven’t got the evidence’. This is what
I call the myth of absolute knowing –
the myth that we will, despite the fact sexual abuse is a hidden crime, where
it is most often one person’s view (the child) over another’s (the adult),
actually be in a position where we have this level of evidence. It guides our
thinking and decision-making in the most unhelpful way, while also giving a
sense that we have done all we can to protect a child in the circumstances: ’we
haven’t got the evidence, so there is nothing we can do’.
responsibility and desire as social workers to protect and support children
affected by sexual abuse, we seem to have adopted the ‘beyond reasonable doubt’
threshold as if it is our own. This is
somewhat unhelpfully fuelled by the family courts, who, in my experience, often
address issues of sexual abuse with a criminal burden of proof, leaving social
workers disempowered to protect children they feel certain are at risk of
sexual harm. Recent
data on the scale and nature of sexual abuse indicates that on average only
14% of cases of sexual abuse reported to police go to charge (NOTE: this is not just those that get convicted, but those that go to charge)
due to a lack of ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ evidence. So what about the
remaining 86% of cases (which will include, undoubtedly, those disabled
children who struggle to verbally communicate) who on the ‘balance of
probabilities’ may be being sexually abused? If we fail to respond in any
meaningful way to this majority of children, can we honestly say that we as
social workers and managers are doing our job effectively?
What if you’re right?
profession, let’s move from asking ‘what if I’m wrong?’ to asking ‘what if I’m
right?’, ‘what if this child is being sexually harmed?’, and then ‘what do we
need to do, in the absence of ‘solid evidence’, to make this child safer?’
in mind the need to be balanced and to give sufficient weight to all possible hypotheses, we need to
apply the current knowledge and existing theory on sexual abuse to our
practice. This will allow us to think about all possible pathways to change and
safety. Children rarely care about legal thresholds and outcomes – they need us
to use the skills we already have as social workers, to sit with the
uncertainty, the emotional pain and the practical challenges and to do what we
can to support them and protect them from sexual harm.
This, of course, requires knowledge,
skills and confidence. The CSA Centre has been trialling different approaches
to increase practitioners’ confidence in practice and access to evidence around
child sexual abuse, including developing and piloting our
Practice Leads’ Programme. It is clear, however, that addressing the
current gaps in training on child sexual abuse on both pre- and post-qualifying
courses for social workers and other professionals must be a priority.
are many benefits of medical examinations where there are concerns about child
sexual abuse additional to finding forensic evidence.