Centre for Research on Families and Relationships

Children’s hearing system fails to address child sexual exploitation

by Dr Sarah Nelson OBE


Dr Sarah Nelson OBE, is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships (CRFR) and a research specialist on childhood sexual abuse and its effects across the lifecourse. Sarah’s book, ‘Tackling Child Sexual Abuse: Radical Approaches’, offers hope of more effective, imaginative means of protecting children and young people from sexual abuse.


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Research by Barnardo’s Scotland and the Scottish Children’s Reporter Administration considered 44 cases where child sexual exploitation (CSE) was referenced in reports (mostly by police or social work). They also considered 30 more cases where researchers identified the child as a very likely victim. This was through combinations of significant known factors, but where there was no mention in official documents. Going missing overnight for instance was linked with significant risk factors such as unexplained injury, notably older partner, sexually risky behaviour, unexplained money and disclosure of assault. Girls were more likely to be identified than boys – 91% of the 44 known cases were girls. In comparison, more than half of the children found by the researchers to be likely victims were boys (57%). The 44 known children were highly vulnerable: 220 Hearings altogether had been held for them. Most had long histories of supervision at home, in foster care or in residential units. The researchers identified 30 girls (57%) as having been actual or likely victims of CSE from aged nine to 13 years. Some were vulnerable to CSE for almost half their lives. Prior sexual abuse was significant. For 55% of girls and 24% of boys, sexual abuse histories were recorded in their case files. For nearly a quarter of girls, this abuse began before they were four years old.

Don’t consider child a victim

Yet when CSE was referenced in reports, this was often very briefly and was seldom included in social work recommendations to Children’s Hearings. Only 10% of recommendations explicitly referenced CSE. In Hearings’ decisions only 11% of decisions specifically referenced CSE and a further 16% alluded to it. In only 23 Hearings did the social work recommendation include or reference CSE. For 15 of the 44 children where CSE was explicit in their case files, (34%), there was evidence that an assessment of CSE risk had been carried out. Yet these assessments were not made available to the Children’s Reporter or Children’s Hearings. This, they say, is:
“A serious concern…sexual exploitation cannot be understood as a vague additional risk, but rather a lived traumatic reality for a significant minority of children and young people involved in the Children’s Hearings System.”
Most Children’s Hearings do not therefore appear to be considering the child as a CSE victim when making decisions on statutory interventions. For children to receive interventions and services to protect them from sexual exploitation, the researchers argue, all involved in their care and welfare must have up to date information on children’s vulnerabilities and risks, to make effective decisions and plans. Children’s Panel Members and Children’s Reporters needed to be better informed and empowered to ask questions when a child has many vulnerabilities associated with CSE, but this is unnamed in reports.

Vulnerability – not behaviour

Most risk assessment and risk management planning, they add, “focuses on the behaviours of children…. rather than dealing with the person or places/spaces that present risk to them. There is a need to look beyond a child’s behaviour and family circumstances to who is associating with the child, why they are doing this and… to better identify and protect those vulnerable to sexual exploitation”. On under-identification of boys, the researchers ask that tools and frameworks used to recognise and respond to CSE reflect the diversity of young people affected and the variety of the abuse. Boys and girls may experience different trajectories into and out of exploitation.

Recommendations for change

Recommendations include:
  • Children’s Hearings Scotland and SCRA must ensure workers and volunteers have access to training on the identification of and response to CSE, and to tackle victim-blaming attitudes (such as “at risk from her sexual activities”, “placing herself in dangerous situations”, etc.)
  • The Scottish Government must support cultural change throughout the sector to eradicate victim-blaming attitudes and language by delivering training, supporting internal audits and reporting progress.
  • Models of contextual safeguarding (dealing with risk outside the home in the local environment) must be embedded in policy and practice. Child Protection Committees and Community Safety Partnerships can play important roles.
  • SCRA must embed CSE-specific training for Reporters to improve knowledge, understanding and confidence on issues relating to CSE risk and information-sharing. Children’s Hearings Scotland must make CSE-specific training standard for Panel members, to foster “appropriate curiosity as to the nature of children’s experiences”.
  • The Scottish Government must take responsibility for the recommendations in this report and assign their delivery to an appropriate national working group.
This report adds substantially to training concerns by Sue Hampson (Safe to Say) and myself from our previous discussions about sexual abuse with members of the Scottish children’s hearing system. These concerns were about very limited training for panel members, including understanding of common reactive behaviours by children and young people, which might bring them before the Panels in need of physical protection and therapeutic support.

Policy Report: Sexual exploitation of children involved in the Children’s Hearing System
Nelson, S. (2016) Tackling Child Sexual Abuse: Radical approaches to prevention, protection and support’, Ch.4, ‘Stigmatised young people: from “abuse fodder” to key allies against abuse and sexual exploitation’, PP.133-175.