Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Attitudes to Child Sexual Abuse

There was an interesting discussion this morning on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. Baroness Butler Sloss, a former High Court Judge who used to head up the family courts, was interviewed about the implications of the Jimmy Savile sexual abuse case. She was rather pessimistic about whether attitudes had fundamentally changed and she was critical of some police officers and other public officials who, she thought, still see some children and young people as wrong doers rather than as victims.

Peter Davies, lead for child protection for the Association of Chief Police Officers and Chief Executive of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, was also interviewed. He was more optimistic, claiming that police attitudes were changing.

I think the law also needs to change. Young people under 16 can still be arrested for prostitution offences. The Sexual Offences Act 2003 criminalises young people under 16 who engage in sexual acts as well as adults who may exploit them. No wonder that some sexually exploited young people are reluctant to turn to the police for help.

Both speakers stressed the need for people to bring concerns about sexual abuse to the attention of the authorities. Interestingly, I thought neither looked at the issue from the child’s perspective. It seems to me that a crucial issue is how we can make it easier and safer for children and young people to report abuse. 

Research shows that many sexually abused children only discuss the abuse with family and friends and do not report it to social workers or the police. Not surprisingly they are fearful of the consequences of disclosure. 

So the issue is how do we reduce that fear. In addition to ensuring that the law does not criminalise victims, we need to begin by very careful thinking about the experience of a child or young person making a disclosure. Where does disclosure happen, who hears the disclosure, how does that person behave towards the child, how safe does the child feel?

The story that the Today programme interviewer put to Peter Davies is salutatory. Apparently in a recording of a police officer interviewing a girl, who was one of the victims of sexual exploitation in Rochdale, the officer can be heard loudly yawning as the young person details what happened to her.