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IICSA published its final Report in October 2022. This website was last updated in January 2023.

IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

The Report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Final report

F.2: Identifying child sexual abuse

4. Many children who are sexually abused do not disclose what has happened to them for years, sometimes decades. Nine percent of participants reporting abuse to the Truth Project were doing so for the first time.[1] The oldest person who disclosed sexual abuse to the Inquiry for the first time was 87 years old. Some children never disclose that they have been sexually abused.

5. The reasons for not reporting abuse can be complex, deeply personal and contribute to the harm caused by the abuse itself. In particular, the fear of being disbelieved was repeatedly given as a reason for not telling someone about abuse. The Inquiry also heard how feelings of guilt, shame and embarrassment prevented disclosure. Other reasons were fear of the perpetrator and of the consequences of reporting abuse, concern for their families and even for the perpetrator, or simply not having anyone to tell.[2] As set out in the Child Protection in Religious Organisations and Settings Investigation Report, religious and cultural factors have resulted in some victims and complainants facing additional barriers to reporting their abuse.[3] The stigma of talking about sex and healthy relationships in some communities also creates obstacles to discussing and disclosing child sexual abuse.

6. The introduction of mandatory reporting, as described below, is intended directly to address victims and survivors’ concerns that they will not be believed if they report abuse.

Recognising indicators of child sexual abuse

7. Child sexual abuse almost invariably happens in private. The chance of the abuse being witnessed is therefore likely to be rare, as are obvious physical injuries resulting from the abuse. As set out in Victims and Survivors Voices, only 8 percent of Truth Project accounts reported that sexual abuse resulted directly in physical injury.[4]

8. It is essential that institutions and organisations – and those working in them such as carers, social workers, doctors and teachers – receive regularly updated training on identifying potential indicators of sexual abuse as well as current and emerging threats of abuse. It is not the responsibility of the child to come forward. It is for the institution and the adults working within it to ensure that they are able to identify child sexual abuse when it is possible to do so.

9. There are various potential indicators of abuse, which often overlap.

9.1. Statutory guidance, both in England and in Wales, provides some assistance so that individuals who work with children are able to identify the indicators of child sexual abuse. For example, the All Wales Practice Guides note that those who work with children need to be vigilant to the physical, emotional and behavioural indicators of child sexual exploitation. These could include the possession of money, clothing or technological items, including expensive mobile phones, where there is no reasonable explanation for having them.[5]

9.2. The NHS website also provides non-exhaustive lists of indicators of child sexual abuse and of child sexual exploitation.[6]

Some of the following signs may be indicators of sexual abuse:

  • Children who display knowledge or interest in sexual acts inappropriate to their age;
  • Children who use sexual language or have sexual knowledge that you wouldn’t expect them to have;
  • Children who ask others to behave sexually or play sexual games; and
  • Children with physical sexual health problems, including soreness in the genital and anal areas, sexually transmitted infections or underage pregnancy.


Some of the following signs may be indicators of sexual exploitation:

  • Children who appear with unexplained gifts or new possessions;
  • Children who associate with other young people involved in exploitation;
  • Children who have older boyfriends or girlfriends;
  • Children who suffer from sexually transmitted infections or become pregnant;
  • Children who suffer from changes in emotional well-being;
  • Children who misuse drugs and alcohol;
  • Children who go missing for periods of time or regularly come home late; and
  • Children who regularly miss school or education or don’t take part in education.


9.3. Practical guidance can also be found in various toolkits, such as the template created by the Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse, which are available to help professionals identify behaviours indicating that a child is being sexually abused.[7] There is also a range of guidance available for the medical profession and for the police.[8]

9.4. In the case of young children, signs of distress, or behavioural signals such as self-harm, physical injury or personality and demeanour changes, or sexualised behaviour in a prepubertal child, may indicate child sexual abuse. Other children may disclose partially, attempting to convey that something is not right by, for example, writing notes or drawing pictures that indicate their abuse.[9] As the Inquiry noted in its Children in the Care of Lambeth Council Investigation Report, small communication signs or changes in behaviour indicating sexual abuse can be both harder to identify in children with complex needs and more easily dismissed, particularly when the child is cared for by multiple carers.[10]

10. It is also incumbent on adults to think more broadly about behavioural indicators of child sexual abuse. For example, in a recent survey by the Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse frontline survey respondents said that:

they commonly considered whether child sexual abuse might be taking place when responding to situations involving human trafficking, children going missing from home, female genital mutilation, county lines and child neglect – but were far less likely to do so when responding to drink driving/road traffic offences, serious acquisitive crime and antisocial behaviour, despite research showing links between child sexual abuse and these other types of offence”.[11]

11. The Inquiry’s research report on child sexual abuse in ethnic minority communities noted that “Cultural stereotypes and racism can lead to failures on the part of institutions and professionals to identify and respond appropriately to child sexual abuse”.[12] One male focus group participant stated:

I did a lot of bad things; I was playing up, and I think it should have been picked up on that something’s wrong … But I think if a child of colour or black kid or Asian kid maybe plays up and, you know, does things and gets violent or whatever, it’s sometimes seen as typical.[13]

12. In its Child Sexual Exploitation by Organised Networks Investigation Report, the Inquiry identified “widespread failures” to record the ethnicity of perpetrators and victims of child sexual exploitation.[14] As a consequence, statutory agencies may not target resources appropriately – including techniques aimed at detection and prevention – enabling the police, for example, to engage with communities where these crimes occur to take preventive action. Opportunities to identify those children most at risk of being sexually exploited may be lost.

13. Factors potentially indicative of child sexual abuse are equally applicable to child sexual exploitation (and vice versa). There are, however, additional features of child sexual exploitation that mean that exploitation can be identified in a number of further ways. For example, a child may request contraception or testing and treatment for a sexually transmitted disease from a GP surgery, contraceptive and sexual health service, hospital or clinic. Changes in the child’s daily behaviour, such as deterioration in school work, or children who come into school in an exhausted state or show a lack of engagement, may suggest that further enquiries are required.[15]

14. In particular, a child going missing regularly may be an indicator of sexual abuse. In a number of the Inquiry’s investigations, victims and complainants stated that they would abscond from the institution in order to escape abuse, only to be returned by the police.[16]

15. Statutory guidance in England provides that when a child is found, a return home interview (RHI) should be offered to the child (although there is no requirement that the child participates in it). This should be conducted within 72 hours of the child returning to their home or care setting.[17] RHIs are not a statutory requirement in Wales but there is an expectation on the part of the Welsh Government that an interview will be offered after a child has three episodes of going missing.[18] As set out in the Inquiry’s Child Sexual Exploitation by Organised Networks Investigation Report, RHIs were inadequate in most of the six case study areas examined.[19]

16. While not every incident of running away will be because a child is fleeing sexual abuse, regularly going missing and unexplained absences, whether from home or school, or staying out overnight should act as a trigger for adults to ascertain why a child is behaving in this way. In some cases, a child may not be running from abuse but towards it, making it all the more important that the right questions are asked. The information sought should include where the child has been, who they were with and what they were doing.

17. Identifying signs of child sexual abuse and exploitation is not the sole preserve of professionals in contact with children. There are positive initiatives that reinforce the need for all adults to be alert to indicators of abuse. For example, in 2014 South Yorkshire Police launched Operation Makesafe, which was designed to train hotel staff to recognise the signs of child sexual exploitation.[20] The initiative was extended to fast food restaurants, taxi companies and transport hubs and rolled out across a number of police force areas to educate workers in these sectors about how to identify and report concerns about child sexual exploitation. In January 2021, as a result of a concern about the impact of lockdowns and the need to stay indoors during the COVID-19 pandemic, Sussex Police offered free training to postal workers, delivery drivers and tradesmen to help them recognise the signs of abuse and to understand how to report concerns to the relevant authorities.[21]

Indicators of abuse related to the perpetrator

18. In addition to being alive to the signs of sexual abuse being demonstrated by children, there are ways in which perpetrators of child sexual abuse can be identified.

19. Research suggests that, despite beliefs to the contrary, there is no typical child abuser.[22] Whether male or female, there are similarities in the way perpetrators behave, particularly in the methods used to groom children.[23] For example, research on female and male perpetrators from educational institutions indicated that sexual abuse occurred at a higher rate outside the school, such as at the cinema or in the perpetrator’s home or car, rather than inside the school.[24] The giving of compliments and special attention, along with gifts, alcohol, drugs and cigarettes, were features of the grooming techniques to sexually abuse and exploit children.[25] As set out in the Residential Schools Investigation Report, a serious case review referred to at least 30 incidents of “inappropriate or unprofessional conduct” by a teacher at one school which “should have been viewed as suspicious”.[26] Only 11 of the 30 recorded incidents were reported to the school.[27] In particular, there were concerns that the teacher had female-only favourites and was over-familiar and “frequently observed” to be in “inappropriately close physical contact” with some pupils. The review noted that “This behaviour is characteristic of grooming for sexual abuse and it is a further failure that it wasn’t recognised as such”.[28]

20. Ensuring that institutions, and individuals working in them, understand warning signs and indicators of potential child sexual abuse exhibited by a perpetrator is an important preventive measure. This should be addressed by the policies and procedures of an institution, and through the provision of appropriate training. It may be aided further by the Inquiry’s recommendation for a public awareness campaign.


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