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Child sexual abuse in youth custody


We wanted to learn more about child sexual abuse in youth custody and the duty of custodial institutions in England and Wales to keep children and young people safe.

  • We conducted a rapid evidence assessment (REA) to draw together what is already known about sexual abuse of children in youth custody. The REA was used to support the hearings for the sexual abuse of children in custodial institutions investigation held in July 2018.
  • The Inquiry also wanted to understand more about the effectiveness of current safeguarding practices in youth custody. We therefore carried out new research in the three types of custodial institutions in England and Wales which accommodate those under the age of 18: Young Offender Institutions (YOIs), Secure Training Centres (STCs), and Secure Children’s Homes (SCHs).
  • The new research identified that children did not perceive sexual abuse to be a prominent concern, however they had several other concerns about their safety. More work is needed to ensure appropriate safeguarding practices are in place to keep children safe from harm.
  • As part of our ongoing research and data analysis of experiences shared through the Truth Project, we looked at experiences of victims and survivors who were sexually abused in custodial institutions.

Key Themes

  • Youth custody
  • Safeguarding





  • One of the Inquiry’s 15 investigations has looked at child sexual abuse in custodial institutions. The hearings for this investigation took place from the 9 to 20  July 2018 and considered the extent of institutional failures to protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation while in custodial institutions.

  • This investigation was set up on the premise that children held in secure settings may be vulnerable to sexual abuse, but that very little is known about their experiences or the extent to which institutions in England and Wales have discharged their duty of care to protect them.  

What we have learned from the REA

  • The REA reviewed a variety of research evidence, policies and guidance in relation to the prevalence of child sexual abuse in custodial institutions, factors associated with failures and the nature of safeguarding systems in place in youth custody.

  • Research indicates that children in custody are very vulnerable. Many children have been physically or sexually abused before entering custody. Many have also been in care and have experienced mental health problems.

  • Research tells us that children in custody face high levels of victimisation and violence, with almost 20 assaults taking place per 100 children in custody per month in 2017.

  • Whilst little is known about child sexual abuse in custody, regular surveys carried out by HMIP estimate that around 1%-3% of children in custody report having experienced child sexual abuse from other children or staff whilst in custody.

What we have learned from the new research

The new research focused on perceptions and experiences of safeguarding in the youth secure estate, from the perspective of both children and staff. It sought to find out the extent to which children feel safe from sexual abuse in custodial institutions and the role of staff and systems within this.

The research found that:

  • Some practices do not seem to serve the best interests of the child.

  • More work is needed to ensure safeguarding is everyone's concern. 

  • Further information on the research findings can be found in the full report

  • Children do not always feel safe or are kept free from harm.

  • Measures designed to keep children safe do not always reduce risk or promote safety.

  • Children are not well equipped to have healthy sexual relationships. 

  • Children and staff struggle knowing what constitutes abuse and inappropriate sexual behaviour.

  • More work is needed to ensure staff are equipped to deal with safeguarding issues. 

  • Fostering good relationships and multi-disciplinary working is a challenge.

What we learned from the analysis of Truth Project accounts

We carried out an in-depth analysis of nine accounts of victims and survivors who shared experiences of child sexual abuse in custodial institutions. 

  • The sexual abuse suffered by participants when they were children in custodial institutions was brutal in nature. Sexual abuse was normally accompanied by other forms of abuse.

  • The geographical and social isolation experienced in these institutions, as well as lack of robust external monitoring, meant children had no one external to turn to for help or to disclose to.

Implications for the work of the Inquiry

The REA and primary research, together with the investigation, have helped the Inquiry to better understand issues around child sexual abuse in youth custody.

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