A report ‘Estimating child abuse numbers can overload social workers and put more pressure on families’ by Dr Devine and Mr Parker critiques the way the production and reporting of estimates effects child safeguarding culture. It can act to increase levels of referrals resulting in ever heavier workloads for social workers and more pressure on families without achieving a reducing in incidence nor an increase in detection
In the Children’s Commissioner’s Report the actual statistical analysis and its confidence limit is not included… Therefore not only does the level of undetected abuse remain a ‘dark number,’ the precise evaluation method used on the raw data is similarly ‘dark’.”
The paper discussed reports from charities which include estimations of prevalence of child abuse and the outcome from these. Two reports in particular are discussed, the NSPCC’s 2011 Report authored by Radford et al and the Children’s Commissioner’s Report, Protecting Children from Harm: a critical assessment of child sexual abuse in the family network in England and Priorities for Action. Devine and Parker point out that although neither report can provide a confident estimate nevertheless they act on public and professional perception, an important factor in relation to child protection policy. Belief that there is a high level of undetected child abuse makes for a receptive environment for policies which encourage detection and intervention. This encourages a higher level of reporting of ‘signs of abuse’ which, although it increases the number of referrals to social services has not been shown to result in greater detection due to the falling efficiency rates. “Numerous research studies indicate an increased risk of alienation of families feeling accused as opposed to supported, a risk of social work overload and the fear of missing some of the estimated high number of undetected cases.”
Nor is the impact on families adequately considered if ‘parent’ becomes increasingly synonymous with ‘suspected abuser’
They point out that the way the Children’s Commissioner report was reported in the media was unhelpful. The figures were often represented as actual as opposed to estimated. Importantly sexual abuse was reported as being between close family members as opposed to the ‘wider family network’ which according to the report itself can include less familiar people such as family friends or babysitters. Unsurprisingly this resulted in calls for ‘urgent action’ to ‘identify and prevent’ sexual abuse.
“The question of balance within the system is not considered, nor is fairness towards social workers, who manage an increasing case load in an uneasy culture where blame can easily be assigned. Nor is the impact on families adequately considered if ‘parent’ becomes increasingly synonymous with ‘suspected abuser’. Balanced policy must take account of positive and negative impacts when responding to these estimates. At present it is not clear that it does.”
Definition of Child Sexual Abuse in the Family Environment
“For the purposes of this Inquiry, Child Sexual Abuse in the Family Environment is defined as sexual abuse perpetrated or facilitated in or out of the home, against a child under the age of 18, by a family member, or someone otherwise linked to the family context or environment, whether or not they are a family member. Within this definition, perpetrators may be close to the victim (e.g. father, uncle, stepfather), or less familiar (e.g. family friend, babysitter).”
From the report (our highlighting of text bold)
- Relationships between victim and perpetrator It is not possible to provide a detailed list of the relationship between victim and perpetrator in child sexual abuse in the family environment cases using Police data, though responses to the survivor survey demonstrate that ‘male family friends’ were the most frequent abuser (Figure 11). This category is perhaps more distant to the victim/ survivor than close family members, though the definition of child sexual abuse in the family environment adopted for the purposes of this Inquiry includes individuals whose relationship to the victim is mediated by the family. This includes family friends. ‘Father’ was the next most frequent response, followed by ‘uncle’, ‘brother’ and ‘stepfather’.
Incorrectly reported in the Independent article ‘Child sex abuse much more widespread than official figures suggest, research warns’ as “Two thirds of all child sexual abuse happens within the family, with fathers, uncles, stepfathers and mothers’ boyfriends the most common offenders, the report found.”