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IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Sexual Abuse of Children in Custodial Institutions: 2009-2017 Investigation Report

C.2: Barriers to disclosure

4. When approaching the issue of prevalence, it is important to note barriers to the disclosure of sexual abuse may mean that abuse is not reported for many years, or at all. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) told us that a high number of incidents of sexual abuse might go unreported, undetected, unprosecuted and untreated.[1] There is also research indicating that up to two-thirds of children are not able to disclose abuse during childhood.[2]

5. The Australian Royal Commission identified general barriers to disclosure:

  • Barriers for the victim: feelings of shame and embarrassment; fear or experience of a negative response to disclosure; attitudes to sexuality, masculinity and gender; uncertainty about what is abusive; and difficulty communicating child sexual abuse.
  • Perpetrator behaviours that create barriers to identifying and disclosing: grooming behaviours and tactics; perpetrators’ position and authority; threatening the victim or others; isolating the child; and making victims feel complicit or responsible.
  • Institutional barriers to identifying and disclosing child sexual abuse: cultures of child sexual abuse, punishment and violence; inadequate avenues for disclosure; the nature of relationships within institutions; and inadequate record-keeping and information-sharing.[3]

6. Of these, the Commission considered the following were of particular application to contemporary detention environments:

  • children not understanding what sexual abuse is;
  • children not feeling safe to disclose abuse; and
  • issues around the avenues for disclosure.[4]

7. Many witnesses reflected these themes. We heard that children in custody may withhold information about abuse because they:

  • do not have someone they trust fully;
  • have insufficient emotional support;
  • fear they will be blamed, doubted or not believed;
  • fear of reprisal or victimisation, particularly because of the power staff have over almost every aspect of the child’s life;
  • feel shame and fear of the stigma associated with sexual abuse;
  • feel unsafe;
  • fear being labelled a ‘grass’;
  • are isolated from family and friends;
  • are concerned that the disclosure may not be confidential;
  • are concerned that the investigation or response to the disclosure will be poor, because in order for children to have confidence in reporting something as significant as sexual abuse, they need to have confidence that staff will take their allegations seriously and will respond effectively;
  • do not fully understand that the abuse is wrong, or do not fully understand how to complain and what the response will be; and
  • have difficulty understanding or communicating.[5][6][7][8][9][10][11][12][13][14][15][16][17][18][19][20][21]

8. A key theme Dr Laura Janes (Legal Director of the Howard League for Penal Reform) took from speaking to children in custody was their feeling that they will not be believed. When they are offered help to make a complaint, they say “There’s no point. It’s not going to make any difference”. Against the overarching power imbalance, Dr Janes said it was not surprising that children think their word stands for little, especially when many children in custody have low self-esteem to start with. In her view, if children are in a fearful state, the chances of them disclosing something as sensitive as being sexually abused are very low.[22]

9. Alan Wood, the Inquiry’s independent expert, said the creation of a safe environment for disclosure starts with the child’s cultural experience. While confidentiality is hard to achieve in custodial settings, a child’s experience of disclosures will be passed on to other children and a cultural view will emerge about what happens if children talk about abuse. Carolyne Willow, a children’s rights campaigner and founder of Article 39, agreed children ‘test’ how staff respond to general complaints they make; if they see a poor response, they are unlikely to be confident to disclose abuse.[23]

10. Disclosing abuse is likely to be very complex and difficult for children, especially those in custody, as they may feel isolated and may not have a complete understanding of why they are being detained. Mr Wood told us it requires a “leap of faith” for children to disclose abuse and trust is an essential element to this. He also noted further barriers to reporting abuse for children in custody, including that 33 percent of children in custodial institutions have mental health disorders, 11 percent have attempted suicide, 60 percent have communication difficulties and 25 percent have a learning disability. While there are a multitude of reasons why a child may not disclose abuse, these are “enhanced to a greater extent if the child … is in the custodial arena”.[24]

11. Many institutional and other witnesses told us they had received very few reports of sexual abuse. Having analysed more than 800 enquiries and case files within the Howard League over the last 10 years, Dr Janes identified only a “small handful” of instances where children have reported any form of sexual abuse. She listed six such cases, and in only three of those instances had the child reported the sexual abuse themselves. She was clear that a range of cultural factors explained the reluctance of children to report sexual abuse and was likely to provide the context for these figures.[25][26] The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) received two complaints of sexual abuse of a child detained in a YOI or STC between 2006 and 31 December 2017.[27][28][29][30][31] The Independent Monitoring Board[32][33][34] and Children’s Commissioner[35][36][37] received respectively eight and no disclosures of sexual abuse between 2009 and 2017. Rosamond Roughton said that, since 2013, NHS England has not received any formal notification of child sexual assault in the youth justice secure estate involving healthcare provider staff or occurring while under the care of such staff.[38]

12. As historical examples show, the sexual abuse of children in custody may be hidden for many years.

  • Durham Constabulary received allegations of sexual abuse against 229 children detained at Medomsley Detention Centre between 1962 and 1987. Only nine of those children (4 percent) are recorded as reporting sexual abuse to the authorities while they were in custody or shortly after being released.[39][40]
  • West Yorkshire Police received a considerable number of allegations of sexual assault against 28 different children who had been resident at Thorpe Arch Grange (a home where children were detained on remand, and also held under care orders). The alleged assaults occurred between 1971 and 1989. West Yorkshire Police report that two of the allegations were reported in 2001, and the remainder between 2008 and 2018. A number of prosecutions have resulted and 21 convictions.[41][42]


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