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Inquiry publishes research on child sexual abuse in children’s custodial institutions

27 March 2018

The Inquiry has today published a rapid evidence assessment on the available research on the sexual abuse of children in custodial institutions

The Inquiry is undertaking an investigation into the sexual abuse of children in custodial institutions.  The investigation will consider the nature and scale of child sexual abuse within

the youth secure estate in addition to institutional responses. A rapid evidence assessment (REA) has been carried out to inform the investigation by reviewing existing research evidence.

The REA explores the following:

● The scale and extent of child sexual abuse in custodial institutions

● What type of people are affected by child sexual abuse? (both victims and offenders)

● What makes it easier or harder to protect the children in custodial institutions?

● What the research says about the systems in place to protect children, and are they good enough?

● What suggestions have been made to help better protect children in custody from sexual abuse?

There are three types of custodial institutions that house children - Young Offender Institutions (YOI), Secure Training Centres (STC), and Secure Children’s Homes (SCH). In England and Wales, there are five YOIs, three STCs and eight SCHs.  These institutions have seen their populations fall from 2915 in 2008 to 868 in 2017. 55% of children in custody are white, 45% are from a Black and Minority Ethnic Background, just 4% of them are between the ages of 10 and 14 and 96% are between 15 and 17.  Boys make up an overwhelming 97% of the population of children in custody, with just 3% girls. (Figures from 2017)

Research indicates that around four in 10 children in custody have previously been in care and that many of them have been abused and neglected.  There is also research evidence of victimisation in custody, both between children and by the staff. The types of victimisation ranged from physical abuse to threats, theft and intimidation.  Sexual abuse of children in custody is estimated to be around 1% but researchers found this takes place in a backdrop of high rates of victimisation and violence. Some children may be more at risk, because of characteristics such as their gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation or if they have been a victim of a sexual assault before, or if they’ve been convicted of a sexual offence before custody.

The culture and surroundings of the institutions could have an effect on how safe children feel.  Certain types of culture have been found to have a direct link to the extent of child sexual abuse, for example, if an estate has a particularly harsh regime where the focus of staff is on punishment rather than encouraging children not to reoffend, or there’s a tough ‘macho’ culture that does not set out to understand that the children could be victims or survivors of abuse. According to research, the structure of institutions can also impact how safe children feel, for example, the size and how many other inmates and staff there are.  How near is the site to the child’s home, are they getting regular visits from their families? Researchers found that trusting relationships between children and staff are vital to help children cope with their surroundings. Routines such as strip searches and restraint can be traumatic for children who have been sexually abused, whereas the use of CCTV can make children feel safer.

Institutions are supposed to assess each child and decide if they could be harmed, but researchers have argued that they don’t always get this right and can sometimes ignore a child’s needs.  It is also difficult for some institutions to meet the needs of children who have been convicted of sexually abusing others or who may be at risk of victimising others in custody. Custodial institutions face challenges in helping children to develop socially and maintain relationships with family, friends and other young people.

The research shows that inspections of these institutions can play an important role in identifying child sexual abuse in custody.  Some progress has been made but there are still some issues in training staff to understand more about child protection and getting them the help they need. There has been reported inconsistency in responses to incidents and allegations of abuse and a lack of joined up working with different agencies.  Whilst children demonstrate a good awareness of the complaints system, there exist a number of barriers to them actually using it.

The executive summary and full report can be found on our website

Notes to editors:

1. This is a summary of some of the findings from the research reviewed by the Inquiry's Research Team as part of their rapid evidence assessment.

2. The full report  includes details of all sources used.

3. The key sources of the figures referred to here are as follows:

Ministry of Justice and Youth Justice Board for England and Wales. (2017a). Monthly youth custody report. Simmonds, J. (2016). Children in custody 2015-2016: an analysis of 12–18-year-olds’ perceptions of their experience in secure training centres and young offender institutions. London: HM Inspectorate of Prisons.

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