Skip to main content

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

IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Child sexual exploitation by organised networks investigation report


E.3: Blaming child victims

12. Victims of child sexual abuse and exploitation should be treated with empathy and concern. Victim-blaming attitudes and behaviours are incompatible with this. They obscure the seriousness of the crimes committed against them and may support a punitive approach which places responsibility for stopping sexual exploitation with the children. A victim-blaming culture and approach may result in inappropriate or ineffective interventions and support plans that lead children to feel that they are being punished for their own abuse.[1]

13. Ms Sophie Langdale, Director of Children’s Social Care, Practice and Workforce at the Department for Education, stressed that “the guidance is clear” that child exploitation is never the victim’s fault.[2]

14. However, as explained in Part C, there are questions about the extent to which the current definition of child sexual exploitation in statutory guidance itself involves victim-blaming, with its reference to the element of ‘exchange’.

15. In Barnardo’s view, victim-blaming continues to be a feature of many child sexual exploitation operating models and assessments.[3]

16. Ms Maggie Oliver and Mr John Wedger, campaigners and former police officers, also argued that there remains a “pervasive victim blaming culture” across agencies, including the Crown Prosecution Service and police forces. They gave examples of institutions treating victims as complicit in their abuse and seeing victims as having made a lifestyle choice – concluding that the examples of victim-blaming in the case study areas reflected a cultural failure of management.[4] They recommended mandatory training across all relevant institutions to address victim-blaming.[5] However, most areas have adopted clear guidance on appropriate language for all staff.[6] Most have also conducted multi-agency training on the importance of language, delivered to frontline practitioners by child sexual exploitation specialists.[7]

17. Victim-blaming can occur when children are described as consenting to sexual acts. County Durham’s 2019 problem profile identified cases recorded as “consensual sexual acts between young people”, even where a victim was not yet a teenager or an offender was in his or her 20s. The profile noted that this gave rise to:

concerns as to whether the concept of consent is properly understood, or if grooming has [led] them to believe that they consent. Although not flagged as such, these cases would probably be more accurately flagged as CSE [child sexual exploitation].”[8]

Detective Chief Constable David Orford of Durham Constabulary explained that the term ‘consensual’ was used to distinguish acts of mutual touching from acts where force had been used.[9] It is never appropriate to describe children under 13 years old as participating in consensual sexual acts and it is concerning that such cases were not flagged as child sexual exploitation, despite the profile noting that this would be more accurate.

18. Durham County Council’s child sexual exploitation strategy also used the term “inappropriate relationships” to describe “Late teens/early 20’s targeting 13–14 year old and older perpetrators targeting those in mid-teens”.[10] Durham Constabulary noted that this comes from College of Policing terminology.[11] The College of Policing has undertaken to immediately review its guidance. Other bodies which use this language should do the same.

19. Another aspect of victim-blaming is the use of language that “places responsibility, shame or blame onto a child for their own exploitation”.[12] Examples include describing a child as engaging in “risky behaviour” or making “risky” choices. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) reported that, while inappropriate language is generally less likely to be present where a case has been allocated to a specialist team, practice in this regard is mixed across England and Wales.[13]

20. There was some evidence of victim-blaming in relation to individual children in each of the six case study areas.

20.1. In Durham, CS-A29 had been sexually exploited between the ages of 13 and 15 and was described as “placing herself in danger”, “placing herself at risk of CSE”, “continuing to display risk taking behaviours” and “taking risks by sexualised behaviour”.[14]

20.2. In Tower Hamlets, CS-A22 had been assessed as at high risk of child sexual exploitation at the age of 13. There were concerns that she had been sexually abused and raped and she was taken into police protection.[15] However, she was described as “a frequent missing person [who] appears to willingly expose herself to danger” and “placing herself at risk”.[16] Similar language was also evidenced in documents relating to CS-A77, who was described as showing “risk-taking behaviour”.[17] There was an example of an inappropriate use of the word ‘boyfriend’ with reference to adult perpetrators.[18] The Children’s Society reported that, through their Return Home Interview Service monitoring reports in 2017, there were examples of victim-blaming language by both social workers and police officers. One example seriously undermined the severity of sexual abuse the child had experienced.[19]

20.3. In Warwickshire, a number of comments about a child being “promiscuous” were recorded during Operation Jive.[20] After reviewing social care files of the girls involved in Operation Jive, which included CS-A146, Warwickshire Police considered that recording and language used by professionals could be “quite harmful”. An assessment of CS-A216 recorded that she was “placing herself at risk”, which was challenged by the Council.[21]

20.4. In St Helens, Catch22 (a charity providing commissioned missing and child sexual exploitation services in the area) noted that victim-blaming language continued to be used on referrals, which was an issue across Merseyside.[22] It had also identified examples of children being described as “promiscuous” and “putting themselves at risk”.[23] In evidence to the Inquiry, Mr Jim Leivers (Interim Director of Children’s Services) described CS-A26 as exhibiting “risk taking behaviours” and “placing [herself] in situations of vulnerability”.[24]

20.5. In Swansea, CS-A24 was described as having had “sexual partners from the age of 11”. Ms Julie Thomas, Head of Children’s Services at the City and County of Swansea Council, accepted that its paperwork had been “littered” with inappropriate language.[25] Although Detective Chief Superintendent Daniel Richards of South Wales Police told us that the language did not “sit easily” with him because it risked diminishing the victim status of children, he referred to “risky behaviour meetings” and “children who have engaged in risky behaviour while missing”.[26]

20.6. In Bristol, there were several references to CS-A32 “putting herself at risk” and an example of an officer describing a child as “prostituting herself” in a crime report.[27]

21. Professionals should be vigilant to avoid the use of such language. To varying degrees, the authorities in the case study areas have taken steps to respond to poor language or other behaviour when it has been identified.[28] It is important that a culture in which victim-blaming is always challenged appropriately is created. Barnardo’s consistently challenges such language in Warwickshire, as does the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) in Tower Hamlets.[29] There is also evidence of Warwickshire County Council challenging victim-blaming language. However, the victim-blaming nature of the language used by some of the professionals in Durham had not been brought to their attention by Durham County Council prior to them leaving their roles and we did not see any specific evidence of other occasions in which victim-blaming language had been challenged.[30]

22. Regular audits of case files are important to ensure language about children is factually appropriate and non-judgemental. Audits carried out by St Helens Council in December 2019 enabled it to identify that 16 percent of the children’s files included some evidence of unacceptable language. Only one example of inappropriate language was found by the September 2020 audit.[31] The London Borough of Tower Hamlets’ risk assessments are also checked and quality assured, including for appropriate language, on a rolling basis.[32]

23. Senior leaders within local authorities and police forces must also take the lead on eradicating attitudes and behaviours which suggest that children who are victims of exploitation are in some way responsible for it.


Back to top