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Inquiry research finds most child sexual abuse survivors face barriers to accessing statutory, voluntary and private sector support services

13 Awst 2020

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse has published new research exploring the challenges faced by victims and survivors in accessing statutory, private and voluntary sector support services.

Commissioned by the Inquiry and carried out by independent research consultants Broome|Gekoski in conjunction with the University of Hertfordshire, the report analyses the support service experiences of over 180 victims and survivors. It considers a number of key areas including survivors’ awareness of the services available to them, barriers to access and reasons for not doing so, as well as the effectiveness of services in meeting the needs of survivors.

The report finds that nearly three quarters of survivors reported not having accessed any support services, with just over a quarter having received some form of support, advice or treatment due to their experience of child sexual abuse.

“I was waiting and waiting and waiting and I never got any letter. I just got lost off the system and I just, I don’t know. I didn’t try again.”

Edna, participant who had a negative experience

It shows that the vast majority of survivors (84 percent) faced at least one barrier to access, with survivors citing personal, financial and community challenges which had stopped, delayed or discouraged them from accessing support.

“Because of where I live [rural area], it’s quite difficult. Had I gone to the doctors, it would’ve got back to my parents: ‘I saw Kerry at the doctors the other day, is everything all right?’ and then I would have got, ‘why were you at the doctors the other day?’ If I had accessed stuff through school, I don’t know that I would’ve trusted school not to have told my parents.”

Kerry, participant who had no experience of services

Whilst some participants felt unable to access support due to not feeling brave enough or that they were to blame or because of fears that they wouldn’t be believed, others said they simply didn’t know where to turn.

“If you had suicidal thoughts, we all know you could speak to the Samaritans. But when it’s something like a sexual matter, who would you speak to? I can’t think of anything that springs to mind.”

Aaron, participant who had no experience of services

The report shines a light on the role of support services in the healing and recovery process, with survivors who sought to access support stressing the importance of being listened to, understood, believed, and not judged, by caring and empathetic professionals. 

Whilst many participants noted that services are better now than they were in the past, almost half felt that they currently had unmet needs linked to their experience of child sexual abuse, putting forward their own suggestions on how support services could be improved. This included better training for professionals, less reliance on medication, gender specific support and help being made available as soon as it’s needed.

“I think there should be almost immediate help because as soon as a person is in a position, or feels they can open up, there should be somebody there as soon as possible. Not months and months of waiting … You shouldn’t have to get to the end of your tether, or the end of yourself, for someone to say, ‘I can help you now’.” 

Ruth, participant who had a negative experience

Fay Maxted, member of the Inquiry’s Victims and Survivors Consultative Panel said:

"I can't overstate the importance of this research, and the main question raised by the Inquiry's Victims and Survivors Forum reflects this: Why isn't support available for those who need it and for as long as they need it? The impact of child sexual abuse can affect all aspects of a survivor's life, often affecting their family members and partners too; it's essential that availability and quality of services reflects this.  

"Whether someone needs support with seeking justice, the right medical care, or specialist recovery counselling, having the ability and awareness of how to access the services needed is vital. This research should be seen as a wake up call, and the findings need to be taken on board so that survivors now and in the future get the support they need and deserve."

Alison Spence, Head of Analytics at the Inquiry said: 

“In this report, victims and survivors describe the multitude of challenges they’ve faced when trying to access support services and the importance of feeling believed, heard and understood by professionals in the process. 

“Participants’ feelings that the abuse wasn’t ‘severe’ or ‘serious’ enough was a significant obstacle to accessing support, as were feelings of being judged, fears of the impact on their family, or not knowing who to approach. As respondents make clear, greater awareness, education and specialist training are key to ensuring the needs of survivors can be better met in the future.“

Dr Anna Gekoski, principal investigator and qualitative lead, from Broome|Gekoski:

"As researchers in the field of child sexual abuse, one of the most surprising findings for us was that nearly three quarters of the victims and survivors surveyed had not accessed support services. The reasons given for this were numerous, including fear of not being believed, feeling to blame, long waiting times to access services, and difficulty finding specialist support. 

“However, perhaps the most thought-provoking finding here was that many victims and survivors said that they did not feel that they needed or wanted support. Those who spoke to us during in-depth interviews often stressed their levels of personal resilience, which is a phenomenon often overlooked in the research in this area."  

Dr Tim McSweeney, quantitative lead, from the University of Hertfordshire said:

"Few of the victims and survivors of childhood sexual abuse who spoke to us as part of the study – around one in four of them – had accessed any form of support linked to their experiences. Those that did typically took a long time to access this help - on average almost two decades after first being sexually abused as a child. And when they did get help, on balance they rated the support as being mediocre in terms of its helpfulness. 

“Regardless of the type of support accessed, the victims and survivors we spoke to through the survey and in-depth interviews emphasised the importance of being heard and listened to, having timely access to a professional who understood and believed them, and being supported by a non-judgemental, caring and empathetic professional.” 

Survivors of child sexual abuse can share their experiences with the Inquiry's Truth Project in writing, over the phone or by video call. The Truth Project is drawing to a close next year so that all of the experiences shared can be used to inform the Inquiry’s Final Report and recommendations, due for publication in 2022, so children are better protected in the future. Visit www.truthproject.org.uk for more information or email share@iicsa.org.uk

Please note: The names of victims and survivors quoted are pseudonyms chosen by the research participants.

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