Children and young people suffering abuse and violence at home are more likely to turn to a teacher for help and advice than any other professional.
A study by the NSPCC has found that almost a third of disclosures by children, or attempts to confide in someone about abuse, are to school staff.
The report, entitled No-one Noticed, No-one Heard, is based on an in-depth analysis of interviews with 60 18 to 24-year-olds who were abused in childhood or who witnessed violence in the home, and who were questioned specifically about their attempt to tell someone.
The findings bore out previous studies which suggested that abuse is under-reported and most children keep it a secret.
The new research suggests that it takes an average of seven years for a child who has been sexually abused to tell someone and get help.
However, 86 per cent of those who took part said that they had tried to tell someone earlier but had been ignored, not believed or the signs that they needed help had been missed.
The report stresses that the most effective outcomes happened when the children were believed and support was sought immediately through the appropriate channels.
Although friends and mothers were the people they turned to most, victims were most likely to confide in a teacher out of all professionals because they trusted them and believed they could help.
In some cases, an opportunity had been presented to tell someone because the teacher had noticed a problem and asked directly. The report found that this approach was a key factor in helping young people to tell someone that they were being abused.
One of the respondents said that her ordeal had been missed even though it must have been “increasingly obvious that I was really acutely miserable”. She told the survey that she wanted someone to spot what was happening and “to sort it out”.
However, there were also cases where teachers were told of abuse but then failed to keep the young person informed of what they planned to do to help, leaving the victim feeling unsure and fearful of what would happen next.
In some case teachers contacted parents, who were the perpetrators or facilitators of the abuse, without first finding out the full facts of the case. Three of the respondents in the study went on to experience further abuse as a result of speaking out. Fathers and step-fathers were the people most cited as being responsible for abuse.
A badly handled situation can lead to a young person retracting their disclosure. One of the respondents withdrew their story after her father, who was the perpetrator, was invited into the room for discussions about the abuse.
The young people who participated in the study said they wanted someone to notice that something was wrong, and to be asked direct questions. They also wanted professionals to investigate sensitively but thoroughly, and to be kept informed about what was happening.
Pam Miller, senior analyst at the strategy unit of the NSPCC and one of the report’s authors, said: “Many teachers have been trained to spot the signs of child abuse, but some have not and this is evident from what the young people taking part in the survey told us.
“One of the areas that teachers need to know more about is child development, because this would help to inform them of what is normal behaviour in the child, and what is not, so they could read the signs better. Similarly, we hear reports that teachers often find child protection training boring, and perhaps don’t pay as much attention as they should. This can depend on who the school invites in to do the training.
“We cannot expect teachers to be social workers, but it would help if schools had a policy in place for teachers on good practice in dealing with disclosures, what to do and say and who to turn to for further advice and help.
“We should also not forget that many respondents had very positive experiences of telling a teacher, which resulted in them getting the support and help they needed, and the abuse ending.”
The report concludes that there is a need for greater awareness about the signs of abuse, and that adults, including teachers, often don’t hear or realise what is being told to them by abused children.
Teachers need to approach young people they suspect of being abused in a more open and direct way, and to provide them with better knowledge about boundaries, their rights to protection and safety, as well as healthy relationships, and information about where and how to seek help.
Teachers can download the report via http://bit.ly/1bLWXUP