Child Sexual Abuse, including Sexual Abuse in the Family Environment

What is child sexual abuse?

The Government Statutory Guidance Working Together to Safeguard Children 2023 provides the following definition of child sexual abuse:

Involves forcing or enticing a child or young person to take part in sexual activities, not necessarily involving a high level of violence, whether or not the child is aware of what is happening. The activities may involve physical contact, including assault by penetration (for example, rape or oral sex) or non-penetrative acts such as masturbation, kissing, rubbing and touching outside of clothing. They may also include non-contact activities, such as involving children in looking at, or in the production of, sexual images, watching sexual activities, encouraging children to behave in sexually inappropriate ways, or grooming a child in preparation for abuse. Sexual abuse can take place online, and technology can be used to facilitate offline abuse. Sexual abuse is not solely perpetrated by adult males. Women can also commit acts of sexual abuse, as can other children.

Child sexual abuse happens through contact (where there is physical sexual contact) or non-contact (which may involve on-line activities, encouraging a child to watch sexual activities etc.).  The NSPCC provide a useful guide to the differences on their website.

What is familial child sexual abuse?

Child sexual abuse in the family environment was defined in the Children’s Commissioner report, Protecting children from harm: A critical assessment of child sexual abuse in the family network in England and priorities for action, November 2015, as “sexual abuse perpetrated or facilitated in or out of the home, against a child under the age of 18, by a family member or someone otherwise linked to the family context or environment, whether or not they are a family member. Within this definition, perpetrators may be close to the victim (e.g. father, uncle, stepfather) or less familiar (e.g. family friend, babysitter).

We also know that perpetrators can be female, such as a mother, aunt, or step-mother.

What children are at risk of sexual abuse?

Any child or young person can be affected by sexual abuse but some children may be more at risk for the following reasons:

  • there has been previous sexual abuse;
  • they have a physical or learning disability;
  • they are socially isolated;
  • they experience a disrupted home life; or
  • have experienced other forms of abuse e.g. neglect (known as poly-victimisation).

What are the possible indicators of child sexual abuse?

Professionals should be aware of the warning signs and symptoms of child sexual abuse, and respond to those indicators so that problems can be addressed as early as possible and the right support and services for the child, young person and their family provided.

Indicators that a child is suffering from or at risk of sexual abuse can include:

  • Physical symptoms, such as damage to sexual organs, such as bruising, sexually transmitted infection, pregnancy, starting to wet or soil themselves
  • Emotional and physiological signs, such as anxiety or mental health issues, such as eating disorders, problems with sleeping, self-harm, low self-esteem and withdrawing into themselves
  • Behavioural signs, including changes in behaviour, avoiding being alone with particular adults, ceasing to take part in activities they previously enjoyed, exhibiting harmful sexual behaviours, including sexualised ideas and wearing provocative clothing, running away or going missing, poor school/college attendance, falling off of educational attainment, difficulties in concentration and substance misuse.

As sexual abuse, particularly familial abuse, is so very difficult to talk about, indirect cries for help from children are common and can include:

  • comments such as “I don’t like it when Jo comes to babysit” or “I don’t want to sleep over at uncle’s house any more” to try and avoid being with the perpetrator;
  • keeping a journal of secrets as a form of emotional escape;
  • attention seeking behaviour;
  • reporting less serious experiences e.g. bottom pinching, cuddles that hurt etc.  to see if they would be believed and what the reaction will be;
  • sharing incidents through hints or clues or describing behaviour by an adult that suggests they are being ‘groomed’ for future abuse; or
  • displaying sexualised behaviour or use of sexual language.

The NHS have published a useful guide to spotting signs of child sexual abuse.

What can be the impact of child sexual abuse?

In the short term, sexual abuse can impact on a child’s wellbeing through impact their emotional and physical health, and all aspects of their life, including education.

Familial child sexual abuse can act as a ‘push’ factor, making children look outside of the home and their immediate family and friends circle for support, friendship and love, thus putting them at greater risk of other forms of abuse and danger outside of the family environment, such as exploitation.

Research has identified the far reaching and fundamental effects that sexual abuse in childhood can have into adult life including mental ill-health, including Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), self-harm and suicide, substance misuse, impact on brain functioning, such as dissociation, memory impairment and reduced social functioning,  including issues with sexual relationships.

Behavioural problems can include anti-social and criminal behaviour.  Whilst most survivors parent well, some adults who were abused as children can go on to struggle with their own parenting and may even go on to abuse their own or other children themselves.

What do we know specifically about familial child sexual abuse?

Familial child sexual abuse, or sexual abuse within the family environment or network, is even less likely to be reported.    We do know that that it represents around two thirds of all reported child sexual abuse.  It is very unlikely to be a one-off incident, with cases often going on from when a child is young and unable to understand what is happening or communicate it and ask for help.  It is more likely to be perpetrated by a male and in around a quarter of cases reported, the perpetrator is under 18 (e.g. a sibling, cousin).  Disclosure may never happen or will be extremely difficult for the child for a number of reasons:

  • not wanting to get someone they know, and may love, ‘into trouble’ with the police or wider family;
  • not wanting to split the family up;
  • feeling partially to blame;
  • feeling shame or recognising the social stigma;
  • not expecting to be believed;
  • put off by a reaction when they have tried to speak to someone e.g. the non-perpetrating parent or
  • not being able to identify someone that they feel able to share with.

How should I respond?

As with all child protection concerns, any suspicion of child sexual abuse or familial child sexual abuse should be reported immediately, via a LBR Multi Agency Referral Form (MARF) Template, in liaison with the Designated Safeguarding Lead (DSL) in your agency, to Children’s Social Care via or 020 8708 3885 (out or hours number 020 8708 5897).  Immediate safeguarding concerns should also be reported to the Police via 999.

For full information on making a referral, see our page, Worried about a child?  The child will need to be kept safe and it is vital that they are not put at further risk if sharing the concern with parents/carers would do this.

Further information, guidance and resources