Harmful Sexual Behaviour
Sexual behaviours expressed by children and young people under the age of 18 years old that are developmentally inappropriate, may be harmful towards self or others, or abusive towards another child, young person or adult. The term encompasses a broad range of issues, including child-on-child sexual abuse or harassment and online sexual abuse, as well as behaviours that indicate the existence of adult to minor sexual abuse and child sexual exploitation. (Ref. Schools week.co.uk OFSTED June 2021).
- Two thirds of contact sexual abuse within the UK is committed by peers (Working Together to Safeguard Children (UK)); Note: there is no available data on the Isle of Man to be able to report this finding;
- History of abuse, especially sexual abuse, can contribute to a child displaying harmful sexual behaviour;
- All children, including the instigator of the behaviour, need to be viewed as victims;
- Children have greater access to information about sex through technology and this has had an impact on their attitudes to sex and sexual behaviour;
- Children with harmful sexual behaviours who receive adequate treatment are less likely to go on to commit abuse as an adult compared to children who receive no support;
- Incidents of harmful sexual behaviour should be dealt with under the specific child protection procedures which recognise the child protection and potentially criminal element to the behaviour. There should be a coordinated approach between the agencies;
- The needs of the children and young people should be considered separately from the needs of their victims;
- An assessment should recognise that areas of unmet developmental needs, attachment problems, special educational needs and disabilities may all be relevant in understanding the onset and development of abusive behaviour;
- The family context is also relevant in understanding behaviour and assessing risk.
There are no diagnostic indicators in personal or family functioning that indicate a pre-disposition towards sexual offending although the following characteristics have been found in the background of some young people who sexually offend:
- Attachment disorders - poor nurturing and parental guidance;
- Domestic violence and abuse;
- Previous sexual victimisation - a younger age at the onset of the abuse is more likely to lead to problematic sexualised behaviour;
- Social rejection and loneliness;
- Poor empathy skills.
Many of these factors exist alongside typical family environments where other forms of abuse are present.
There is a significant minority of young people who display this behaviour who have a level of learning need - up to 40% in some UK studies. Their needs must be carefully assessed as some assessment tools are not suitable. Also, the intervention may need to be extended and involve a high degree of coordination between agencies.
The link between on-line behaviour and harmful sexual behaviour may also be a cause for concern. Technology-assisted harmful sexual behaviour (TA-HSB) can range from developmentally inappropriate use of pornography (and exposing other children to this), through grooming and sexual harassment. On-line behaviour may be a trigger for sexual abuse and the long-term effect of exposure to pornography can affect the ability to build healthy sexual relationships (see NSPCC Research and Resources for further information).
It can be useful to think of sexual behaviour as a range or continuum from those behaviours that are developmentally and socially accepted to those that are violently abusive.
Most healthy sexual behaviour can be characterised by:
- Mutuality (Children of a similar developmental and chronological age);
- Absence of coercion in any form (bullying, emotional blackmail, fear of the consequences);
- Absence of emotional distress.
Additionally, sexual behaviour which seems compulsive, is repeated in secrecy and continues after interventions from parents or carers, is a cause for concern.
4. Protection and Action to be Taken
Incidents of harmful sexual behaviour come to light, either through discovery or disclosure, which may be third-party or second-hand information. The details provided should be accurately recorded by the person receiving the initial account. It is essential that all victims are reassured that their allegations are taken seriously, and they will be safeguarded. Where the disclosure is to a professional, for example, a practitioner within a health or an educational setting, or another agency or care provider; it is important that the person receiving the information has a clear understanding of what is being reported to them. Whilst it is crucial not to ask leading questions which may impact on a potential police investigation, it is important to gather as much factual information as possible to be able to share with another professional to ensure the next steps taken respond accordingly to the level of concern raised. It is therefore important whenever an initial disclosure is being made that the receiving practitioner does not pursue a mode of questioning in order to obtain evidence. Once a child has made an allegation and if Section 46 Enquiries commence then a thorough video recorded interview with the child will take place, using Achieving Best Evidence Techniques. It is during the interview that more detailed information will be sought by a specially trained police officer and social worker.
It is important that the designated safeguarding lead for the practitioner receiving the disclosure is informed taking into account the following three factors:
- The victim, especially their protection and support;
- The alleged perpetrator; and
- The risk to any other children (and, if appropriate, adults).
Once the designated lead has received sufficient information then a decision must be made to determine whether or not a referral to the Initial Response Team, Children and Families should be made.
Where there are concerns that a child or young person has, or is likely to suffer, significant harm., or if a child or young person has sexually harmed another child this information must be reported to the Initial Response Team, Children and Families Team. In such circumstances both children will be considered and responded to as separate cases. (see Referrals Procedure and Child Protection Enquiries - Section 46 Children and Young Person's Act 2001 Procedure).
Once the MARF is complete and the referral has been accepted a Multi-agency Strategy Meeting should be convened.
The Strategy Discussion/Meeting is a forum for analysing risk, sharing background information and planning further action. In addition to the police and Children and Families Division, any other agency with significant contact to any of the young people should also be invited to the meeting where appropriate.
The strategy meeting should consider:
- Issues of child and public protection, including a clear understanding and description of any alleged incident;
- The need for a (S46) NARRATES and for further specialist/medical assessment;
- The roles and responsibilities of all involved agencies;
- Any on-going safety issues for all of the children/young people involved;
- Any concerns regarding the alleged perpetrator residing in the family home with the child/young person.
The context of the behaviour and background of the young people and their family are important factors in determining next steps. Where there is no requirement to hold a formal strategy meeting, it is still good and useful practice to hold a multi-agency planning meeting to consider the needs of the children or young people involved.
Strategy meetings will make contingency plans for future actions following further assessment and investigation of the incident. The option of reconvening the strategy meeting post the investigation may be useful in some cases.
Specialist opinion may be required to inform the assessment from those providing specialist treatment services for young people who sexually harm others.
Please note: Specialist opinion is currently sought from a UK specialist and not on the Isle of Man. See Further Information*.
Where there are concerns that the alleged abuser is also a victim of abuse consideration should be given to convening a Child Protection Conference if the young person is deemed to have suffered, or is likely to suffer, significant harm. The decision to progress to a Child Protection Conference should be agreed within a Strategy discussion.
In cases where the threshold is met, a meeting should be convened under the Multi-Agency Public Protection Arrangements to consider public protection matters and safety.
Following the investigation, if the decision is made to engage the young person in further work and assessment, it is important that these discussions take place as soon after the investigation as possible. Successful engagement of families significantly diminishes if there is a time delay in arranging specialist intervention.
Young people may be in denial about having a problem with their sexual behaviour and this may be supported by parents who do not want to confront reality of their child behaving in this way. There is often no legal requirement for the child or family to accept help and it may be easier to ignore the problem than confront it. This is a common response to this issue, and practitioners will need to be familiar with the proposed intervention if they are to encourage anyone to accept it. The offer of further work may be helpfully framed as an opportunity to understand how the young person came to be in a position where they behaved in a way considered to be abusive.
Support of parents and carers is extremely helpful in promoting engagements and successful outcomes. Parents need to be informed about the program to the extent that they are aware that sexually explicit conversations will take place, also they may be asked to speak to their child about sexual issues. They may also be asked to model appropriate and respectful sexual attitudes and language.
Evidence suggests that young people 'take on' and internalise labels, and therefore to describe a young person only as a 'sex offender' or 'young abuser' may impact on their motivation and responsiveness in both assessment and treatment, leaving them feeling they cannot change.
Why anyone offends sexually is a complex question. One popular model which seeks to organise thinking around this topic is known as Finkelhor's Four Pre-conditions to Sexual Abuse, which suggests that four pre-conditions should be in place before an abusive act takes place. Interruption at any stage may prevent abuse taking place.
The stages are:
- Motivation to sexually abuse – this can arise from a number of sources which vary with the individual;
- Overcoming internal inhibitions – most young people who sexually abuse are aware of the taboos against this behaviour, yet because of their experiences or a specific set of circumstances, they can overcome these;
- Overcoming external inhibitions – this can include grooming the victim and involve creating the physical opportunity to commit the offence;
- Overcoming the resistance of the child – the offender will employ a variety of methods to commit the offence and equally important keep the victim quiet. These may include bribery, threats or other forms of coercion.
Delays in completing criminal investigations need not necessarily delay referral for specialist help; there is often a significant delay between completing enquiries and a decision being made about whether to prosecute.
Further InformationNSPCC (UK) Last updated June 2019- Evidence informed Framework for Children and Young People displaying Harmful Sexual Behaviour
*There is a current proposal for training, assessment and treatment practice to be delivered on the Isle of Man. Therefore the current arrangement of seeking off island specialist opinion may be subject to change.