Harmful sexual behaviour (HSB) is the term used to describe children or young people aged under 18 who sexually abuse other children, young people or adults. Sexual abuse perpetrated by children can be just as harmful as that perpetrated by an adult so it is important to remember the impact on the victim of the abuse as well as to focus on addressing the needs of the child or young person exhibiting the harmful sexual behaviour. Practitioners also need to remain aware however of the negative effect of labelling children and young people as 'young sex offenders' or 'young abusers'.
Sexual abuse is defined in Working Together to Safeguard Children as:
"Involves forcing or enticing a child or young person to take part in sexual activities, not necessarily involving a high level of violence, whether or not the child is aware of what is happening. The activities may involve physical contact, including assault by penetration (for example, rape or oral sex) or non-penetrative acts such as masturbation, kissing, rubbing and touching outside of clothing. They may also include non-contact activities, such as involving children in looking at, or in the production of, sexual images, watching sexual activities, encouraging children to behave in sexually inappropriate ways, or grooming a child in preparation for abuse (including via the internet). Sexual abuse is not solely perpetrated by adult males. Women can also commit acts of sexual abuse, as can other children".
Professor Simon Hackett's research review published by Research in Practice in 2014 showed that:
- Children and young people account for about a quarter of all sexual abuse convictions against victims of all ages (Vizard, 2004) and a third of all sexual abuse coming to the attention of the professional system in the UK (Erooga and Masson, 2006);
- In many cases, children and young people occupy dual identities as perpetrator of abuse and victim of harm;
- The average age of children being referred for therapeutic interventions as a result of their sexual behaviour is dropping and a significant proportion of referrals concern children in their pre-adolescent years;
- Increase in sexual behaviours online but young people with these behaviours may not share the backgrounds and risk profiles of those who commit contact sexual offences;
- Young people with a disability are a particularly vulnerable group and young people with ASD are over represented in internet enabled sexual offences.
The purpose of this guidance is to provide an operational framework in respect of children and young people who display HSB and their alleged victims. Where possible this is in line with the NICE Guidance around Harmful Sexual Behaviour and also the NSPCC Harmful Sexual Behaviour Framework.
- Consultation and Assessment
- Procedure to be Followed – Open and New Cases
- Further Information
Three key principles should guide work with children and young people who abuse others through harmful sexual behaviour:
- The need for a co-ordinated approach across agencies and with families;
- The needs of children and young people who abuse others should be considered separately from their victims. This includes allocation of cases to agencies. Agencies should be alert to the fact that children who harm others may pose a risk to children or adults other than a current victim and/or be at risk of significant harm themselves;
- An assessment should be carried out in each case, appreciating that children who harm others may have considerable unmet developmental needs, which are distinct from the specific needs of their victims. The assessment should be carried out the most appropriate level given the needs of the child and circumstances of the case e.g. Early Help, Children's Social Care or Youth Justice Service involvement (for children over 10 years). However there remains the requirement for assessment and, where appropriate, intervention.
Evidence suggests that children and young people who display harmful sexual behaviour towards others may have suffered considerable disruption in their lives, been exposed to violence within the family, may have witnessed or been subjected to physical or sexual assault, have problems with their educational development and may have committed other offences. Such young people are likely to be Children in Need and some, in addition, will be suffering or likely to suffer significant harm and may be in need of protection themselves.
Children and young people who display harmful sexual behaviour are often emotionally and socially immature and should not therefore be treated in the same way as adults. Young people are still developing their sexual feelings and understanding, and some young people engaging in this type of behaviour will have complex and additional needs (e.g. learning difficulties or ASD). Early intervention can assist development of healthy sexual behaviours and help young people channel their thoughts and feelings in ways that are not harmful to others.
It is essential that children and young people who are involved in harmful sexual behaviours are properly and consistently assessed in order to establish the extent, the nature and the antecedents of the behaviour. This assessment process and early intervention will lend itself to understanding and managing the risk and preventing the continuation or escalation of any harmful sexual behaviours. Early intervention may be from universal services or Early Help providers; however, where the behaviour is persistent or of a criminal nature a referral to Children Social Care is the most appropriate response.
Harmful sexual behaviour by children and young people includes a range of behaviours in a variety of situations and can be defined as:
"Harmful Sexual Behaviour includes sexual activity that does not involve mutual consent by the individuals involved or where their relationship includes an imbalance of power, for example - due to age, intellectual ability or physical strength and where the behaviour has the potential to cause physical and/or emotional harm" (AIM2 Assessment Manual 2012:19).
In trying to determine whether abuse has taken place several factors need to be considered in relation to:
- Absence of consent, the presence of power imbalance and exploitation which are common in all experiences of abuse;
- The nature of the relationship between children/young people (the abuser) having authority over the victim;
- Age inappropriate sexual behaviour;
- Frequency and period of time the sexual activity has occurred;
- The child/young person's perception of the sexual behaviour; and
Clearly not all sexual contact between children and young people can be described as sexually harmful and it is natural for children to explore their bodies as part of normal sexual development.
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).
The Brook Sexual Behaviours Traffic Light Tool is a resource for practitioners which can be used to help identify and respond appropriately to sexual behaviours. The indicators used in the tool are a guide and should assist the exercise of professional judgement at an early stage.
2. Consultation and Assessment
Anyone who has a concern that a child might have been harmed by another child in a sexual way or an adult has been the victim of harmful sexual behaviour by a child or young person under 18, should refer their concerns to the Police and Children's Social Care in line with the Referrals Procedure.
Any practitioner who is unsure of the need for such a referral must seek advice from the Safeguarding Lead within their agency or contact Children's Social Care for advice (which can be done without naming the child(ren) / young people involved at this stage). Allegations of peer abuse will be taken as seriously as allegations of abuse perpetrated by an adult. Children's Social Care will discuss the concerns with the referrer and, based on information received, a Single Assessment may be initiated. If the behaviour is at a level which does not meet the threshold for Children's Social Care and could be described as inappropriate or problematic rather than harmful, the referrer will be signposted to the Early Help / Early Intervention team.
Note: Schools should follow the statutory guidance: Keeping Children Safe in Education which came into force on 3rd September 2018.
3. Procedure to be Followed – Open and New Cases
Click on the links below to view the flowcharts showing the process to be followed when concerns around harmful sexual behaviour are received in relation to: