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Child Sexual Abuse in the Family Environment

Working Together to Safeguard Children defines sexual abuse as behaviour which:

‘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.’

The definition of child sexual abuse in the family environment, includes relationships between the victim and the perpetrator which are mediated by the family or family home. Parents/carers, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins fall within this definition. Some adults who play a less direct role in the family life can also be included, such as neighbours, and family friends, where the familial context of the relationship between the victim and the perpetrator would exacerbate the impact of the abuse on the victim and undermine their ability to access help and support.

Sexual abuse often occurs in conjunction with the other categories of child abuse especially emotional abuse in order to maintain control and secrecy.

Children from the age of birth onwards may be subjected to sexual abuse. Sexual abuse can have a long-term impact on emotional, social and educational development and is linked to the development of mental health issues in later life. 

Also see the procedures for Child Exploitation (including Child Sexual Exploitation and Child Criminal Exploitation), Online Safety, Harmful Sexual Behaviour and Under Age Sexual Activity.

"The majority of victims of sexual abuse are abused by someone within their trusted circle – a family member or somebody already known to the child. Sexual abuse has a particular impact on victims and the wider family. The violation of trust, the barriers to accessing help, and the impact upon the entire family structure, pose particular challenges to policy-makers and practitioners".
Protecting children from harm: a critical assessment of child sexual abuse in the family network in England. November, 2015.

Sexual abuse which takes place within family environments often remains hidden and is the most secretive and difficult type of abuse for children and young people to disclose. It may be particularly difficult to disclose abuse by a sibling.

Many children and young people do not recognise themselves as victims of sexual abuse - a child may not understand what is happening and may not even understand that it is wrong especially as the perpetrator will seek to reduce the risk of disclosure by threatening them, telling them they will not be believed or holding them responsible for their own abuse.

Where sexual abuse is being perpetrated on one or more family members, it may be possible to identify by patterns of referrals or presentations to different agencies in their local community over time. There may be a range of signs but any one sign doesn't necessarily mean that a child is being sexually abused; however the presence of number of signs should indicate that you need to consider the potential for abuse and consult with others who know the child to see whether they also have concerns.

Signs include:

  • Changes in behaviour, including becoming more fearful, aggressive, withdrawn, clingy;
  • Problems in school, difficulty concentrating, appearing distracted and distant or dissociated, drop off in academic performance;
  • Sleep problems, nightmarers, or regressed behaviours i.e. bed wetting;
  • Frightened of or seeking to avoid spending time with a particular person;
  • Knowledge of sexual behaviour/language that seems inappropriate for their age;
  • Physical symptoms including pregnancy in adolescents where the identity of the father is vague or secret, STIs, discharge or unexplained bleeding;
  • Poor hygiene, which often leads to social isolation in school;
  • Injuries and bruises on parts of the body where other explanations are not available especially bruises, bite marks or other injuries to breasts, buttocks, lower abdomen or thighs;
  • Injuries to the mouth, which may be noted by dental practitioners.

In the long term people who have been sexually abused are more likely to suffer with depression, anxiety, eating disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They are also more likely to self-harm, become involved in criminal behaviour, misuse drugs and alcohol, and to die by suicide as young adults.

Other Factors

  • Frequent house moves;
  • Isolation of children (and other members) within the family from practitioners, and the wider community;
  • Failure to register with a GP;
  • Frequent absences from school;
  • Failure to cooperate with agencies or to let Police, children’s social care or other agencies into the home, or letting children be seen alone by professionals;
  • Attempts to disguise injuries or attribute them to other causes;
  • A child or young person who self-harms, misuses drugs, alcohol or solvents, and / or develops mental health problems;
  • Domestic abuse within the family heightens the risk;
  • Repeated pregnancies with no evidence of a father;
  • Genetic abnormalities in pregnancy or in children who are born;
  • Living with a step-father and without the mother even for a short time.

Finkelhor and Browne, (1986) to describe four likely impacts of CSA:

  1. Traumatic sexualisation (where sexuality, sexual feelings and attitudes may develop inappropriately);
  2. A sense of betrayal (because of harm caused by someone the child vitally depended upon);
  3. A sense of powerlessness (because the child's will is constantly contravened);
  4. Stigmatisation (where shame or guilt may be reinforced and become part of the child's self-image).

The Centre of Expertise of Child Sexual Abuse highlights the impact that secrecy (including the fear and isolation this creates) and confusion (because the child is involved in behaviour that feels wrong but has been instigated by trusted adults) has on the child. While these impacts are not unique to Child Sexual Abuse in the Family Environment, their combination and intensity in the context that they take place makes the experience particularly damaging.

See Key Messages From Research on Identifying and Responding to Disclosures of Child Sexual Abuse (Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse).

An item of information is called a risk factor for abuse if it is found more often in abusive families than in the general population. It may be rare amongst abusive families but, because it is even rarer in the general population, it is still predictive.

Research highlights that perpetrators shape and control the relationships they have with adults as well as with children in order to abuse.

Indicators in assessing the protective carer include:

  • Impaired trust;
  • Poor self-image, distorted body awareness;
  • Difficult adult relationships;
  • Depression;
  • Poor or distorted boundary setting;
  • Poor concrete environmental support;
  • Impaired social skills;
  • Lack of intimacy with partner.

Indicators for assessing the alleged perpetrator include:

  • Emotional congruence with children;
  • Blockage - where alternative sources of sexual gratification are not available – distancing from spouse/partner;
  • Distancing the child/children from their mother/care giver;
  • Creating a special “relationship” between the alleged perpetrator and the victim;
  • Secrecy;
  • Isolation of mother within the home;
  • Previous allegations.

Perpetrators will groom their environment by controlling the family and their victim. They may also attempt to groom professionals in an attempt to make them view the family from their perspective, and believe their version of events. Practitioners need to retain an awareness of the likelihood of being groomed when working with an adult who has been accused of child sexual abuse. The main method to undermine such potential behaviour is to check, cross-check and corroborate statements, and to probe with 5xWH questions. (Who, What, Where, When, Why and How).

Whenever a child reports that they are suffering or have suffered significant harm through sexual abuse the initial response from all practitioners should be to listen carefully to what the child says and to observe the child’s behaviour and circumstances. Practitioners must:

  • Clarify the concerns;
  • Offer reassurance about how the child will be kept safe;
  • Explain what action will be taken and within what timeframe.

Once a disclosure of abuse has been made, the matter should then be reported to the Police for further investigation. The child must not be pressed for information, led or cross-examined or given false assurances of absolute confidentiality, as this could prejudice Police investigations, especially in cases of sexual abuse.

A Police investigation begins with a report of child abuse. Officers and Police staff should establish as much detail as possible to support a thorough investigation. A victim or witness making a report of child abuse may not always identify it as such. Police officers and staff need to ask relevant questions and clearly identify reports as child abuse.

Professionals must take action if they think that a child or young person is indicating that they have been abused. Never dismiss the possibility of that abuse is taking, or has taken place, without first talking with the child or young person. Even if the child or young person denies that sexual abuse is happening, it may still be taking place.

When considering whether emergency action is necessary an agency should always consider the needs of the other children in the same household or in the household of the alleged perpetrator.

Whenever there is reasonable cause to suspect that a child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm there should be a strategy discussion involving the Local Authority’s Children’s Social Care, the Police, Health and other bodies, (school/nursery), including the referring agency.

Where a Strategy Discussion / Meeting takes place, wherever possible these should be face to face meetings rather than telephone discussions to allow better analysis of the available information. The core agencies involved should:

  • Share available information;
  • Agree the conduct and timing of any criminal investigation;
  • Decide whether a Section 47 of the Children Act, 1989, should be undertaken.

See Reporting Concerns Procedure and Child Protection Enquiries (Section 47 Children Act 1989) Procedure.

A clear plan should be agreed and circulated to each agency participant.

  • Agreeing who should be interviewed, by whom, for what purpose and when. The way in which interviews are conducted can play a significant part in minimising any distress caused to children, and increasing the likelihood of maintaining a constructive working relationship with the family;
  • Agreeing what further information is required about the child and their family and how it is to be obtained and recorded;
  • Agreeing how the child’s wishes and feelings will be ascertained.

Any child protection medical assessment must be planned carefully in order to secure any forensic evidence, if it is judged to be appropriate.

Visually recorded interviews must be planned and conducted jointly by trained Police officers and social workers in accordance with the Achieving Best Evidence in Criminal Proceedings: Guidance on Interviewing Victims and Witnesses, and Guidance on Using Special Measures (Ministry of Justice). All events up to the time of the video interview must be fully recorded. Consideration of the use of video recorded evidence should take in to account situations where the child has been subject to abuse using recording equipment.

Visually recorded interviews serve two primary purposes:

  • Evidence gathering for criminal proceedings;
  • Examination in chief of a child witness.

Relevant information from this process can also be used to inform Section 47 Enquiries, subsequent civil childcare proceedings or disciplinary proceedings against adults, where allegations have been made.

At the conclusion of the investigation, if the case does not proceed to a Case Conference a second de-briefing strategy meeting should be held to ensure that any on-going risks are understood and protective action can be undertaken.

In some circumstances new allegations of sexual abuse may be raised in regard to a child who is already subject to a Child Protection Plan. In these circumstances it is important to carefully consider all information, in coming to a decision as to how to proceed. The relevant Children’s Social Care Manager must ensure that contact is made with all relevant professional members of the core group as well as the Police in deciding which of the following decisions should be made; bearing in mind that assessment is a continuous process not a one off event:

  • The information is sufficiently serious as to require a strategy discussion to be held;
  • The information can be considered and addressed within the child protection core group that is implementing the current Child Protection Plan;
  • The information does not require a strategy discussion to be convened but has sufficient impact upon the management of the Child Protection Plan so as to require an early Review Child Protection Conference to be convened to review the plan for the child.

It is not uncommon for adults to disclose intra-familial sexual abuse that happened when they were a child or young person. For a number of reasons, they may have felt unable to disclose the abuse at the time, or indeed they may have told someone but no action was taken, or evidence was not found at the time to substantiate the allegation.

In such cases it is important to consider not only the needs and wishes of the adult victim, but the likelihood of significant harm being suffered by their own children, if the perpetrator is still present within the family or extended family network.

If an allegation of historical abuse is received, you should report it to Cumbria Constabulary via the national 101 telephone reporting system.

The single and most important consideration is the safety and well-being of the child or children. 

In reconciling the difference between the standard of evidence required for child protection purposes and the standard required for criminal proceedings, emphasis must be given to the protection of the children as the prime consideration.

In doing so practitioners should look beyond the standard of evidenced required for criminal proceedings and try gather and assess all possible risk factors and indicators of child sexual abuse, including those presented by the child and those presented by the alleged perpetrator and by the protective carer. This is accomplished by questioning the adult behaviour towards the child/children, the behaviour between adults and dynamics within the family, all viewed within the context of the relevant risk factors and indicators.

The investigation and enquiries must also address the religious, cultural, language, sexual orientation and gender needs of the child, together with any special needs of the child arising from illness or disability.

A victim support strategy and service should be established at the outset. Support will be required in pre-trial, trial and post-trial periods if the case/s proceed to court. Minimum periods for contact should be established. It is clear from experience in research about sexual abuse investigations that many victims and families feel that it is important that they remain in contact with the same practitioners throughout the investigative process.

Where an Initial Child Protection Conference takes place great care should be taken beforehand if the child / young person wishes to participate. The child should not be put in the position of meeting the alleged perpetrator or of attending the meeting at the same time.

Children may disclose sexual abuse directly and verbally while others may attempt to disclose by non-verbal means including changes in their behaviours, requiring those around them not just to focus on the behaviour but why the behaviour may be happening. Rates of verbal disclosure are low at the time that abuse occurs in childhood. However, children say they are trying to disclose their abuse when they show signs or act in ways that they hope adults will notice and react to. This is particularly important for disabled children.

Children and young people often disclose abuse while it is still on-going, there may be a significant delay between the onset of the abuse and any disclosure. The younger the age of the child when the sexual abuse starts, the longer it usually takes to disclose.

The absence of a direct disclosure can prevent concerns being taken forward and investigated by statutory services. Overall there is an overreliance on children to come forward and disclose the abuse that is happening to them, whilst the focus should be on professionals being attuned to changes in behaviour of children, their emotional responses and the other indicators.

There is rarely a clear disclosure, most professionals can appropriately deal with clear disclosures. It is how to deal with the grey areas, e.g. third party allegations, or where there are numerous concerns about sexual abuse but no-one is saying anything.

False denials of sexual abuse (saying it did not happen when it did), and recanting a disclosure of abuse (denying that it happened after having told someone about being abused), are much more common than false reports.

Children do sometimes recant truthful allegations of abuse. This is not surprising because the child naturally fears that she or he will not be believed. As well as the child may recant in fearful recognition of the fact that the offending adult has so much more power, and the impact on the wider family is significant.

There is little evidence that many children deliberately make false allegations or misinterpret appropriate adult-child contact as sexual abuse. In the few recorded case where children have made false allegations, it has usually been as a result of manipulation by an adult.

Many children are experiencing multiple forms of abuse and may live in households that are not safe and in which emotional support is not available to them.

Disclosures are more likely to come in adolescence as they learn about healthy relationships and how to recognise abusive behaviour. Adolescents often first ‘reach out’ to friends and peers after an experience of sexual abuse and these relationships can have significant influence on young people's emotional wellbeing after experiencing sexual abuse. Schools also have a very important role to play in aiding the disclosure process in providing developmentally appropriate education and a safe space within which to disclose. Professionals and children both highlight the importance of a trusted relationship between a child and a reliable professional as an important to aid disclosure.

See Helping Education Settings Identify and Respond to Concerns.

Children may disclose for a number of reasons possibly because they are not able to cope with the abuse any longer or because the abuse is getting worse. They may disclose in order to protect others from abuse or because they are seeking justice.

Barriers to disclosure include fear of not being believed, embarrassment and shame and fear of the consequences of telling. Some groups of young people will have additional challenges in disclosing due to communication, religious, language, cultural or sexuality issues.

Disabled children are at increased risk of experiencing sexual abuse especially due to communication and developmental issues.

Whenever they choose to disclose, it is important that they are believed, that they are told what will happen next and kept informed and that they are provided with emotional support.

Research into young people’s experience showed that they wanted someone to notice that something was wrong and to be asked direct questions.

Practitioners must be mindful of managing information to minimise the risks to the child when responding to any concerns or disclosures.

There will be situations where due to lack of forensic evidence or corroborating witnesses the threshold for criminal proceedings is not met. It is important in these cases that the lack of Police action is not interpreted as disbelieving the child’s disclosure. Nor should it prevent further examination of risk factors or indicators – assessment is dynamic not a one off event.

The Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse, is a multi-disciplinary team, funded by the Home Office, who have produced a range of resources to support professionals. These resources aim to give professionals the knowledge to identify concerns of child sexual abuse and the confidence to respond to it, not just with the child, but with the whole family.

These include:

  • Signs and Indicators: A template for identifying and responding to concerns of child sexual abuse. It helps professionals to gather the wider signs and indicators of sexual abuse and build a picture of their concerns.
  • Communicating with Children: A guide for those working with children who have or may have been sexually abused. This guide aims to help you communicate with children in relation to child sexual abuse, including when you have concerns that such abuse is happening.
  • Supporting Parents and Carers: A guide for those working with families affected by child sexual abuse. This guide helps professionals provide a confident, supportive response when concerns about the sexual abuse of a parent or carers child have been raised or identified.
  • Safety Planning in Education: A guide to support education professionals' knowledge, skills and confidence to understand and respond to incidents of harmful sexual behaviour and ensure the safety of all children and young people is addressed.
  • Helpful 12 part short film series: The CSA Centre have produced an accompanying 12-part short film series which distils key information from these resources quickly and accessibly for professionals. These films are designed for anyone whose role brings them into contact with children and young people under 18 years old or their parents or carers; including social workers, teachers, police officers, health professionals, voluntary-sector workers or faith leaders/workers – whether they are new to the role, still in training or highly experienced.

Childline website
Tel: 0800 1111
Free text phone: 0800 400 222.

NSPCC website National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children
Child Protection Helpline - 0808 800 5000
Free text phone for people who are deaf or hard of hearing - 0800 056 0566 free.

The Samaritans website
Tel: 08457 90 90 90.

Cumbria Safeguarding Children Partnership website
For support and services for families.

Stop it Now! website
Stop it Now! UK & Ireland is a campaign, managed by the Lucy Faithful Foundation, which aims to prevent child sexual abuse by raising awareness and encouraging early recognition and responses to the problem by abusers themselves and those close to them.
Tel: 0808 1000 900.

Last Updated: October 10, 2023