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IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

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

D.1: The REA’s observations on culture

2. As set out in the Inquiry’s Rapid Evidence Assessment (REA), there are a number of potentially relevant cultural factors:

  • Punitive rather than rehabilitative cultures are said in some of the research to lead to environments where sexual abuse is more likely to occur. Young offender institutions (YOIs) in particular have a culture focussed on punishment. There is also research suggesting that control can take priority over care or rehabilitation in secure training centres (STCs). By contrast, a number of reports indicate the culture in secure children’s homes (SCHs) is more focussed on safeguarding and supportive relationships.[1]

  • ‘Closed’ and hierarchical environments have been associated with instances of abuse of power within institutions for children. Some argue that YOIs and STCs, and even some SCHs, have elements of ‘defensive’ practice, such as referring to children by their surnames, over‐reliance on procedures and inflexible application of the rules, rather than ‘child‐centred’ practices.[2]

  • The ‘macho’ culture identified by some within the youth secure estate has also been a factor in a number of inquiries into child abuse in residential settings, particularly in relation to identification and reporting. (This ‘macho’ culture might be evident through an inability to express feelings or emotional vulnerability, a denial of feelings or an inability to recognise them in other children or staff.) Most children in custody and the vast majority of staff are male, leading to a male‐dominated environment, which has also been identified as relevant. For example, one study – which looked at how the needs of children are met in secure accommodation in Scotland (the equivalent of SCHs) – suggested a ‘macho culture’ and a fear of being labelled as gay may have inhibited young boys from revealing involvement in or discussing circumstances related to child sexual exploitation.[3]

  • Trusting relationships between staff and children are important to enable children to raise concerns or problems, and staff members to identify victimisation. However, surveys and inspections have highlighted differences in the quality of these relationships, and of children’s perceptions of staff both between institutions of the same type, between different establishment types and between individuals. While it is obviously important that staff can identify potential victims of abuse (including sexual assault), they find this difficult. This may be due partly to cuts in staffing levels and the consequent reduction in contact time. Detained children are also often seen as lacking credibility because of their backgrounds, offending behaviour and age.

  • There is a significant power imbalance between detainees and staff, but this is further exaggerated when those detained are children. The nature of secure units also gives staff power and the opportunity for the exercise of this power to become abusive.[4]

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