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Children who sexually abuse: what's the strategy?

Simon Hackett, communitycare.co.uk, October 4, 2007

About a quarter to a third of all cases of sexual abuse coming to the attention of professionals concern situations where children and young people are the alleged perpetrators of the abuse.

Almost all reports on this topic state this same, well worn statistic, and I am sick of it.

Important as professional awareness of this phenomenon is, developing correct responses to children with harmful sexual behaviour is what matters here. It's time we moved from the statistic to action.

While the number of services designed to assist children with harmful sexual behaviour and their families has grown considerably over the past decade, these services are often over-stretched and under-resourced. There are examples of excellent practice out there, with children's charities the NSPCC, Barnardo's and NCH leading the way with local projects. But in many areas there remains a severe lack of provision.

Assessment responses across the UK are beginning to become more consistent, not least due to the widespread adoption of the AIM/G-MAP initial assessment model.

But research into the national picture suggests a critical shortage of treatment and residential services. We urgently need a UK strategy that pulls together examples of good practice into a coherent approach and a comprehensive network of effective, evaluated and evidence-based services.

We also need to ensure a balanced and less hysterical approach. Most young people presenting with such behaviour are both risky and vulnerable. It is right that we deal with the risk, but all too often the professional system conspires to increase the vulnerability. 

The move to resilience-enhancing models of intervention that seek to harness strengths and foster abilities is urgently overdue in the sexual aggression field, where risk management discourses still dominate. 

We also need to look carefully at the broader social context. In the current landscape of societal anxiety and highly restrictive legislative measures towards adult sex offenders, children and young people are being caught up in a maelstrom of intolerance and fear.

Recently, I was contacted by a desperate social worker who wanted my advice as to where to place a 15-year-old young man who had talked in an inappropriate sexual way to a seven-year-old boy in his local area. This young man had not been convicted, but he was required to move schools because of the perceived risk he posed to his peers. He had been seriously physically assaulted twice by angry members of the community to the point where his parents asked for him to be accommodated for his own protection.

I fear that arguing that such so-called young abusers are in need of understanding, empathy and practical support will hardly win me many plaudits. Yet, what kind of a professional system do we aspire to develop? Children presenting with even the most serious sexual offences are still one of those "every children" who, at least in theory, "matter".

We also need to listen to the experiences of children who have sexually abused and their families. Mothers and fathers tell us that discovering that one's child has sexually abused another child is one of the loneliest and most isolating experiences that a parent can face.

Evidence suggests that the overwhelming majority of parents of children with harmful sexual behaviours believe professionals should have treated them with more respect. Many say they found the professional system overwhelming and bewildering, and incidences of poor communication on the part of professionals were commonplace.

Yes, it is important to act to increase access for young people and their families to specialist service provision in this area. But, at the same time, the wider professional system can do much to improve its responses to this marginalised group of children and their families.

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