Monday, 14 November 2016

Silencing and disclosure in child sexual abuse

Ahead of her two seminar series on Childhood Sexual Abuse, CRFR Associate Researcher Dr Sarah Nelson writes for us about silencing and disclosure.

There is a great disparity between cases of child sexual abuse (CSA) which are known to the authorities, and its prevalence in society.

For instance, a major report (Children’s Commissioner, 2015) estimated that only one in eight sexually abused children is identified. A meta-analysis of more than 200 international studies of prevalence across 28 years, with 10 million participants, revealed self-reported prevalence figures (18.0% of women, 7.6% of men) which were 30 times higher than prevalence rates reported by authorities (Stoltenborgh et al, 2011). In my own study with abused young people (Nelson, 2008), they gave me fourteen reasons why they had stayed silent in their childhood and teens. These included:

  • fear
  • violence and intimidation
  • shame
  • embarrassment and humiliation, especially with their peers
  • mixed loyalties towards their abuser
  • self-blame and guilt
  • worry about the effect on their non-abusing parent(s)
  • uncertainty about what would happen
  • fear of being in trouble
  • a conviction that they would not be believed

Additionally, in boys there is often a pervasive fear of being thought gay, or somehow unmasculine.

In my book Tackling Child Sexual Abuse (Nelson, 2016), I also chart in detail a worrying and continuing decline in identified cases of CSA by child protection authorities throughout Britain, despite the high publicity for the subject. A considerable fall in CSA registrations and child protection plans has coexisted with considerable growth in those for emotional abuse and neglect. That suggests not genuine declines in CSA, but changed priorities in policy and practice.

For all these reasons, it is important that we renew efforts to find child-centred ways of enabling sexually abused young people to tell what is happening to them. While the new emphasis on, and national strategy towards, child sexual exploitation is very welcome, a failure to address the earlier CSA which makes so many children and teenagers vulnerable to CSE means that such exploitation can never be fully addressed.

In my CRFR seminar this week (Wednesday 16 November) I outline some thought-provoking research findings by Rosaleen MacElvaney and colleagues on disclosure and non-disclosure of sexual abuse among young people. They identify first an active withholding of the secret, which gives some sense of control in an unsafe world. Secondly there is the pressure- cooker effect created by wanting to tell, yet simultaneously not wanting to.

That means the secret is often blurted out without either prior planning or support. Thirdly, there is confiding: few children tell the people they’re meant to tell (teachers, police, social workers and so on). If they tell, it is usually to a friend or to their mother, neither of whom has a support system of their own.

Thus, say McElvaney and colleagues, “in supporting children to tell, the need for the secret to be contained and controlled must be respected”.

That doesn’t mean - nor should it mean - that we can offer them complete confidentiality. It can mean slowing down the process to the child’s pace, offering them more choice and control, creating genuinely child-centred environments, and switching the emphasis from relying so heavily on children’s testimony to a perpetrator-focused strategy.

In my presentation this week I give examples, among others, of Scotland’s innovative “Stop to Listen” (formerly Confidential Space) project being pioneered by four local authorities; of the successful Barnahus children’s houses from Scandinavia, now being actively explored by the Scottish government; of possible statutory sector alliances with confidential children’s services; and of imaginative perpetrator-focused strategies. These include both successful ones from the past which were closed down, and inspiring examples of perpetrator-focused models, which have been used in the fight against child sexual exploitation.

McElvaney, R., Greene, S. and Hogan, D. (2012) ‘Containing the secret of child sexual abuse’, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 27(6): 1155–75.

McElvaney, R. (2013) ‘Disclosure of Child Sexual Abuse: Delays, Nondisclosure and Partial Disclosure. What the Research Tells Us and Implications for Practice’, Child Abuse Review, DOI: 0.1002/car.2280

Nelson, S. (ed) (2008) See us – Hear us! Schools working with sexually abused young people, Dundee: Violence is Preventable, 18 and Under, www.

Nelson, S. (2016) Tackling Child Sexual Abuse: Radical approaches to Prevention, Protection and Support, Bristol: Policy Press.

Stoltenborgh, M., van Ijzendoorn, M., Euser, E. and BakermansKranenburg, M. (2011) ‘A Global Perspective on Child Sexual Abuse: Meta-Analysis of Prevalence Around the World’, Child Maltreatment, 16(2): 79–101.

Children’s Commissioner (2015) Protecting children from harm: A critical assessment of child sexual abuse in the family network in England and priorities for action, London: Children’s Commissioner for England.

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