Safeguarding: Child-on-child sexual abuse

Written by: Jaine Stannard | Published:
Image: iStock

There has been a shocking rise in the number of child-on-child sexual offences being reported. Jaine Stannard looks at why this is and advises school-based professionals on their role in tackling the issues

In February, police figures revealed a rise of almost 80 per cent in reports of child-on-child sex offences (Barnardo’s 2017). In the four-year period, there were 32,452 reports of alleged sexual offences by children on other children – an average of more than 22 every day. With such shockingly high figures, it is clear we need to act and that speed is of the essence. But what can we do?

I work for School-Home Support (SHS), a charity dedicated to helping children and young people overcome barriers to education such as poverty, housing issues and abuse.

In this article, I want to outline what child-on-child sexual abuse is, provide possible reasons behind the rise and give practical guidance as to how you can prevent this happening to children at your school. The first step? Knowing what we’re dealing with. The definition of child-on child sexual abuse includes:

  • Sexual activity between children that occurs without consent or as a result of coercion.
  • This includes when one of the children uses physical force, threats or emotional manipulation to get the other child to cooperate.
  • It is different from what could be termed curiosity or exploration because it is an overt and deliberate action directed at sexual stimulation.
  • In many instances, the initiator exploits the other child’s naïvety, and the victim is unaware of the nature of what is happening to them.

What are the causes?

Children who initiate and commit overtly sexual acts with other children have often been sexually victimised by an adult beforehand, or by another child who was in turn abused by an adult.

In some cases, the perpetrating child was exposed to pornography or repeatedly witnessed sexual activity of adults at a very young age, and this can also be considered a form of child sexual abuse. In other instances, a child or adolescent may have no intent to cause any harm to another child, and he or she acts merely on a passing impulse. However, this act can still result in harm to the other child and is therefore a form of child-on-child sexual abuse.

There are a few reasons why cases – or reports of cases – are on the rise. The first and most optimistic answer is that more children and adults are speaking out about the issue, with the National Police Chiefs’ Council saying the increase was due to “more awareness and greater victim confidence”.

However, it adds: “We also have to look at the possibility that more abuse is being perpetrated and if technology is facilitating this.”

Increased access to the internet and SmartPhones is likely to be linked to the increase. One of the causes mentioned above is exposure to pornography from a young age, and we know that more children than ever are able to access pornography via the internet. In 2013, for example, PornHub was the 35th most accessed web entity by children aged six to 14 according to Ofcom’s report Children and Parents: Media use and attitudes (2014).

While technology has many educational benefits and it is vital that we don’t try to cut young people off from a valuable resource, we also need to prevent children from seeing disturbing media.

For Safer Internet Day, our troubled families manager, Deidre Bowen, wrote guidance on keeping children safe online. You can still access this information (see further information) if you are concerned about internet use by your pupils.

Another possible reason for the rise, particularly in London and other large cities, is an increase in gang culture. A 2016 report by the Home Office, Local Perspectives in Ending Gang and Youth Violence Areas, states: “Practitioners reported that they were increasingly concerned about ... the sexual exploitation of women and girls, and there was some evidence that these issues were perceived to be more prevalent now than two years ago.”

The vast majority of respondents were also concerned about “sexual or physical violence against women and girls affiliated with gangs” and said that sexual exploitation happened “sometimes” or “often” in relation to gangs in their area (97 and 96 per cent respectively). In addition to sexual assaults being carried out to attack another gang, some initiation processes also involve child-on-child sex offences.

In 2014, a girl in one London borough spoke out about being raped as part of a gang initiation process, saying that she and other girls involved did not see it as rape until they left the gang. It is important to clamp down on early signs of gang activity in schools and to ensure that pupils are given sufficient education around consent.

A case study

In recent years, SHS supported a family where the daughter, Christina (not her real name), aged 11, displayed behaviours that are sometimes associated with being a victim of sexual abuse: she didn’t wash very often, was very reclusive, tried to make herself as unattractive as possible and wouldn’t mix with other children. Her practitioner raised it with Christina’s mother a number of times, trying to find out if there was any risk of sexual abuse in the past. Christina’s mother insisted that there was nothing. Christina was bullied at school and wasn’t attending regularly as a result, so the practitioner worked closely with the school, eventually persuading Christina to attend regularly and helping her to make friends. Soon, she had one close friend, and was invited to her first sleepover. At the sleepover, one of the friend’s siblings walked into the room and discovered Christina about to sexually assault her friend.

The police were involved, the information got around the school, and both children were traumatised. Christina had to leave the school and her family had to move away. Before they did, Christina’s mother finally disclosed to the practitioner that Christina had been sexually abused by her uncle.

This case highlights the need to for staff working with children to watch closely for signs, act on instincts and take every measure to get families to see the importance of disclosing past incidents. Two children could have been protected from further harm if Christina’s mother had spoken up sooner.

What can you do?

Many children who commit child-on-child sexual offences have been abused. Like Christina, they’re replicating what happened to them as they haven’t had adequate support. Dedicated, trained staff need to be in place in schools who are able to work with parents and know how to get them to disclose information like past sexual abuse. In Christina’s case, her mother was worried about disclosing in case the children got taken away. If the perpetrator’s in the home, it’s going to be very challenging to get the family to talk about it.

It is important that we look at why children are perpetrating this harmful behaviour, rather than just seeing them as criminals. Are there people in the schools that young people can talk to? We all know that cuts to youth services, overworked teachers, and a lack of pastoral support can all contribute to incidents like this, but there are steps that we can take.

Some recommendations

  • Ensure all staff who have any contact with children are aware of early signs of abuse and vigilant for them.
  • Ensure the lines for reporting safeguarding issues are clear, and professionals have a point of contact to discuss any concerns.
  • Empower children: depending on their age group, consider a class or assembly on healthy relationships and consent. Make sure young people have a voice and feel listened to, enabling them to report any issues that may arise.
  • Make sure there’s a trained individual at the school who both children and parents can talk to.

Together, we can make sure that the number of children affected by child-on-child sexual offences are reduced and eventually, eradicated. In the meantime, we need to remember that this is a crime where there are two children being harmed – the victim, and the perpetrator.

  • Jaine Stannard is chief executive and safeguarding lead at School-Home Support (SHS), a charity helping children and young people overcome educational barriers. Jaine has more than 30 years’ experience in early intervention and community health services. Visit www.shs.org.uk.

Further information

  • Police figures reveal rise of almost 80% in reports of child-on-child sex offences, Barnardo’s, February 2017: http://bit.ly/2pQ5zT8
  • Safer Internet Day: tips for parents (and teachers), Deidre Bowen (published by the SSAT), February 2017: http://bit.ly/2oLKfP3


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