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IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Children in the care of the Nottinghamshire Councils Investigation Report

F.1: Barriers to disclosure

1. One key issue relevant to the three case studies in this investigation, and beyond, is why so many people do not report abuse. Research indicates that up to two‑thirds of children do not disclose abuse during childhood,[1] and only around 25 percent of those who are abused disclose when they reach adulthood.[2] For those who do disclose, it takes them on average around 24 years to do so from the time of the abuse.[3] Older children who do disclose will most frequently do so to their peers.[4] 

Barriers for children

2. Complainant core participants, other complainants who have given interviews to the police and some of the institutional witnesses who gave evidence to us identified the barriers to disclosure they had seen or experienced. These fall into a number of broad categories:[5]

2.1. Fear of not being believed, or of being told by the perpetrator that they would not be believed.

2.2. Being scared, threatened with violence by the perpetrator or told by them not to tell anyone.

2.3. Having no one to whom they felt able to disclose, which may be due to a lack of trust, a feeling of isolation, a lack of opportunity to speak to a social worker on their own, or not having the same social worker for a sustained period. 

2.4. Feeling embarrassed, ashamed or guilty, including because of grooming.

2.5. Not understanding what was happening at the time or seeing the abuse as normal, possibly due to grooming or past abuse.

2.6. Thinking that disclosure was not worthwhile, including due to a negative response to previous disclosure or because staff were involved or implicated in some way in the abuse.

2.7. Fear of being separated from family.

2.8. Inhibition by shock, trauma or mental health problems caused by the abuse.

2.9. Fear that disclosure would affect their next placement.

3. Other barriers identified by professionals[6] included children having other priorities,[7] feeling that they have found some stability or having an affection for the perpetrator or their family member,[8] and fearing that they will lose control of the process once they disclose.[9] There may also be practical issues such as disability or language and cultural differences.[10] Having suffered neglect or abuse in the past, leading to attachment difficulties, may also inhibit disclosure.[11]

4. A large number of complainants of sexual abuse in care have come forward as adults to this investigation or to Nottinghamshire Police but, for others, barriers to disclosure remain. These barriers may be continuations of those listed above, such as a fear of not being believed,[12] a feeling of shame or guilt,[13] a lack of trust in authority[14] or fear of the perpetrator.[15] Adult survivors may also be frightened that disclosure might have a negative impact on their relationships or that their own child might be removed by social services.[16] They may also think that the support available will not be good enough[17] or they may have lost faith in the strength of their claim after, for example, being unable to access their records.[18]

5. There is little evidence available on specific barriers to disclosure of harmful sexual behaviour.[19] Professor Hackett’s view was that children were probably less likely to disclose harmful sexual behaviour than adult‑perpetrated sexual abuse, in part because public education campaigns have largely focused on risk from adult perpetrators.[20] 

6. Even if a child makes an initial disclosure of abuse, the barriers to reporting discussed above may lead them subsequently to retract their disclosure.[21] Professionals need to deal with retractions cautiously and consider the possible reasons behind them.[22]

Impact of relationship with perpetrator or type of placement

7. The type of placement, and the relationship between the complainant and the perpetrator, can have an impact on the barriers that arise in any individual case.[23] As a result, barriers to disclosure for children abused in care may require different considerations from those for children abused in the family home or in a religious or school setting. 

8. Evidence suggests that children in care can be more vulnerable to abuse than other children, which may be due to their experiences prior to coming into care. For example, the impact of neglect may make it more difficult for children in care to distinguish between appropriate behaviour from trusted people and harmful relationships or activities.[24] Particular barriers for children in care include:

8.1. Children may be less likely to know what abuse is, if carers feel that it is an inappropriate topic to discuss.[25]

8.2. Those who may be best placed to provide an avenue for reporting, such as social workers, are often the same people who have removed them from their family (or other source of harm), which may make it difficult to establish trust.[26]

8.3. Children who do disclose often do so to a relative (most likely mothers[27]) or a friend. Those in care are away from their families and may well not be in settled placements or schools. As a result, the opportunity for, and likelihood of, disclosure is reduced.[28]

8.4. Children may fear that if they do disclose their placement will break down, necessitating another new placement, or that they will be separated from their peers or siblings.[29] 

9. Some particular factors relevant to residential care may include:

9.1. The institutional environment has an inherent power imbalance, increasing the vulnerability of the child and making it more difficult for them to speak out.[30]

9.2. There may be a sexualised culture within the home, including amongst staff, leading to a lack of appropriate boundaries and an unsafe environment in which children would find it difficult to talk about sexual abuse.[31]

9.3. Physical abuse, including by staff, may inhibit disclosure by children through fear of retributive violence.[32]

10. Specific factors affecting those in foster care may include:

10.1. Vulnerable children who experience apparent kindness and attention from a foster carer, which they may not have previously had at home, may then have conflicted feelings about disclosing abuse by the foster carer.[33]

10.2. Some foster carers become trusted by social workers and other professionals, perhaps because of the length of time they have been foster carers or the number of children they have fostered.[34] Their reputation can then make children in their care feel less likely to be believed if it is their word against the foster carer’s. 

10.3. Long‑term foster care will often involve care of a child over many years beginning from a young age. The depth of the ensuing relationship may act as a barrier – research suggests that the type of abuse least likely to be disclosed is long‑term abuse by a carer or trusted adult which starts at a very young age.[35] 

Reducing barriers to disclosure

11. A number of steps towards reducing barriers to disclosure are set out in the Councils’ Inter‑Agency Safeguarding Procedures, including: 

  • ensuring that children feel valued and respected, and listening and responding to their concerns; 
  • training staff and foster carers to be alert to children’s vulnerabilities; 
  • giving children ready access to a trusted adult outside their placement and making them aware of independent visiting and advocacy services; 
  • having clear, effective and accessible complaints procedures for children;
  • having clear procedures for staff to raise concerns about other staff or carers, such as a whistleblowing policy; and
  • ensuring that if a child goes missing, guidance is followed and steps are taken to understand the reasons.[36]

12. In terms of the response to children, as far back as 1984, multi‑agency procedures in the County stated: 

“Almost all allegations by children of sexual abuse are true and it is important to communicate to the child at the outset that they are believed … The victim needs to hear that full responsibility for the offences rests with the offender.”[37]

13. There are other steps which already form part of recognised good childcare practice[38] and which may also reduce barriers to disclosure:

13.1. Children having the same social worker whom they are able to see alone on a regular basis and with whom they can establish a relationship.[39]

13.2. Placements being regularly reviewed during unannounced visits.[40]

13.3. Ensuring social workers, residential care staff and foster carers are able to “think the unthinkable”.[41]

13.4. Providing support and counselling services to children from their first disclosure of an allegation.[42]

13.5. Providing children with age‑appropriate information which sets out that some behaviour, whether from adults or peers, is unacceptable and may constitute sexual abuse, and educating them about what they should do if a friend tells them they are being abused.[43] 

13.6. Ensuring that residential staff, foster carers, social workers, children’s social care managers and police officers are aware of the barriers to disclosure and of the need to take proactive steps to elicit disclosures. 

“Professionals need to be alert to a child’s attempts to begin to disclose. The information children share may be piecemeal and not necessarily evidential. What children say must also be viewed in the context of their behaviours and professional concerns in order to formulate a clear assessment of risk and plan of protective action.”[44]

14. Following recognised practice will assist the Councils to reduce the barriers to disclosure for children in the future. 

References

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