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IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Safeguarding children from sexual abuse in residential schools

Understanding what child sexual abuse is

School and local authority staff generally had a clear theoretical understanding of what constitutes child sexual abuse, which included specific forms of abuse such as physical or ‘contact’ abuse, online abuse (including image sharing and grooming), being shown inappropriate images (both online or offline), peer-on-peer abuse, intra-familial abuse and harmful sexual behaviour. There were, however, ‘grey areas’ where issues were considered less ‘clear-cut’. These included image sharing and understanding what constitutes abusive behaviour in the context of relationships between peers. In these ‘grey areas’, professionals felt it was important to consider the ages of those involved and their relationship to each other, cognitive impairment, clarity of consent, power differentials and contextual influences such as peer pressure.

While generally able to define child sexual abuse in relatively broad terms, children were less clear about peer-on-peer abuse and child sexual exploitation, as well as whether and how image sharing related to child sexual abuse. In special schools, there were a range of additional complexities, such as cognitive impairment and learning disabilities that could make it more difficult for some students to fully understand the definition of child sexual abuse and/or communicate their needs with family, friends and school staff.

Parents’ understanding tended to be focused more on physical acts and some were surprised by the breadth of the definition of child sexual abuse provided in interviews, especially the inclusion of online-facilitated abuse.

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