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1.4.1 Abuse by Children and Young People who Display Harmful Sexual Behaviour

FURTHER GUIDANCE AND INFORMATION

Harmful Sexual Behaviour, NSPCC Research and Resources

Brook Sexual Behaviours Traffic Light Tool – A Guide to Identifying Sexual Behaviours

Child’s Play? Preventing Abuse Among Children and Young People, (Stop It Now publication)

AMENDMENT

This chapter was reviewed and updated throughout in November 2015; it should be read in full.


Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Definition
  3. Key Principles
  4. Referral
  5. Strategy Discussion
  6. Section 47 Enquiries and Assessment – child/young person displaying problematic/harmful sexual behaviour
  7. Outcome of Section 47 Enquiries
  8. Outcomes of Assessment/Section 47 Enquiries - The Victim Child
  9. Criminal Proceedings


1. Introduction

A significant proportion of sex offences against children and young people are committed by their peers. Professionals should not dismiss this harmful sexual behaviour as “normal” between young people and should not develop high thresholds before taking action.

Children and young people who display harmful sexual behaviour should be held responsible for their abusive behaviour, while being identified and responded to in a way that meets their needs as well as protecting others.

It is important to consider that children and young people who display harmful sexual behaviours may have considerable unmet needs. For some the manifestation of harmful sexual behaviours may be as a direct result of suffering abuse perpetrated by adults.


2. Definition

The boundary between what is harmful and what is part of normal childhood or youthful experimentation can be blurred. A professional’s ability to determine whether a child’s behaviour is healthy, problematic or harmful will hinge upon the related concepts of true consent, power imbalance and exploitation.

Healthy developmental sexual activity encompasses those actions, which are to be expected from children and young people as they move from infancy through to adulthood gaining an understanding of their physical, emotional and behavioural relationships. Such sexual activity is essentially information gathering and experience testing. It is characterised by mutual consent and understanding.

Problematic sexual behaviour may not include overt victimisation of others but can be developmentally disruptive, cause distress, rejection or increase the victimisation of the children/young people displaying the behaviour.

Harmful sexual behaviour is characterised by behaviour involving coercion, threats or aggression together with secrecy or where a participant relies on an unequal power base. Such a power imbalance means that the victim cannot give informed consent. Power imbalances may be due to age, intellectual ability, status, physical size and /or strength, gender, or race. Harmful sexual behaviour may or may not result in a criminal conviction or prosecution.

Both problematic and harmful sexual behaviours may involve aspects of physical and / or emotional abuse. Such factors require consideration within the wider context of bullying and for older young people, teen domestic abuse.

Professionals must be aware of the legitimate concerns about the inappropriateness of placing labels upon children and young people, given their developmental status, for example, referring to a child or young person as a ‘young sex offender’ or ‘young abuser’ is not appropriate. The use of the term 'a child / or young person who displays problematic or harmful sexual behaviour’ is more appropriate and accurate, as it emphasise s the child or young person’s developmental status first and foremost whilst acknowledging the behaviours that require attention.

Peer exploitation is where a ‘’young perpetrator befriends and grooms a young person into a ‘relationship’ and then coerces or forces them into sexual activity.” In this context, harmful sexual behaviour may be related to child sexual exploitation and the following procedures should be adopted for the young person perceived to be the perpetrator of peer exploitation. Consideration should also be given to the fact that the young person who is deemed to be sexually exploiting, may themselves be a victim of child sexual exploitation. See Safeguarding Children and Young People from Child Sexual Exploitation: Policy, Procedures and Guidance.

Children and young people may engage in harmful sexual behaviours on-line, using new technologies. On-line sexual behaviour might involve criminal or abusive behaviours such as grooming, sexual abuse, extortion, threats, malicious conduct, or creation or showing of sexual images without the knowledge or consent of the person who was filmed or pictured.

These procedures will apply when a child or young person has downloaded, distributed or produced sexual images which involve a criminal or abusive element beyond the creation, sending or possession of these images themselves, without adult involvement (where there has been adult involvement, separate procedures apply).

Youth produced sexual images that were experimental or sexual attention-seeking, with no intent to harm another person or reckless misuse resulting in actual or likely harm caused to another person, do not fall within the remit of this procedure.

See Brook Sexual Behaviours Traffic Light Tool – A Guide to Identifying Sexual Behaviours.


3. Key Principles

The following key principles should underpin all work with children who display problematic or harmful sexual behaviour:

  • There should be a coordinated response between the agencies within the West Yorkshire Consortium Safeguarding Children Boards;
  • Incidents of harmful sexual behaviour should be dealt with under Child Protection procedures which recognise the Child Protection and potentially criminal element to the behaviour;
  • Professionals should consider the needs of the children and young people who display harmful sexual behaviour separately from the needs of their victims;
  • An assessment should be carried out in each case of problematic / harmful sexual behaviour, appreciating that children who display problematic / harmful sexual behaviour may have unmet developmental needs and may have suffered considerable disruption in their lives, been exposed to violence within the family, may have witnessed or been subject to Physical Abuse or Sexual Abuse, have problems in their educational development and may have committed other offences. Such children / young people are likely therefore to be Children in Need; some will / may have suffered Significant Harm and be in need of protection themselves. Children who display problematic / harmful sexual behaviour should be held responsible for their abusive behaviour while being identified and responded to in a way which meets their needs as well as protecting others;
  • Early and effective, intervention with children and young people who display problematic or harmful sexual behaviour can play an important part in protecting children, by preventing the continuation or escalation of abusive behaviour.

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.

The Brook Traffic Light tool may also be useful in distinguishing between ‘normal’ age-appropriate behaviour and behaviour which causes concern.


4. Referral

Anyone who has a concern that a child / young person might have been harmed sexually by another child / young person should refer their concerns to Children’s Social Care Services in accordance with the Referrals Procedure. Allegations of peer ‘sexual abuse’ will be taken as seriously as allegations of abuse perpetrated by an adult. Children’s Social Care Services will discuss the concerns with the referrer, decide whether to commence a Single Assessment and whether it is necessary to hold a Strategy Discussion and Section 47 Enquiry

Separate enquiries and investigations will be pursued in respect of both the victim and the child/young person alleged to have displayed problematic or harmful sexual behaviour.

Where relevant, Assessments will be undertaken in relation to the child / young person alleged to have displayed harmful sexual behaviour in conjunction with the Youth Offending Team (YOT).

Consideration should always be given to the need for separate social workers to be allocated to the victim and to the child / young person who has displayed harmful sexual behaviour, even if they live in the same household, to ensure that both are supported through the process of the enquiry and that, in relation to both children, their needs are fully assessed.

It should be recognised that disclosure of problematic or harmful sexual behaviour can be extremely distressing for parents and carers. The child / young person and their family should always be advised of their right to seek legal advice and be supported through the process.

The Police, when made aware of a case involving the allegation of a child/young person displaying problematic or harmful sexual behaviour, will always consult with Children’s Social Care Services to ensure that there is an assessment of the victim’s needs and that in all cases, there is an assessment of the alleged abusing child / young person’s needs. Each child should be referred to the Children’s Social Care Services Team responsible for their home address.


5. Strategy Discussion

Children’s Social Care Services and the Police will convene a Strategy Discussion or Meeting in relation to the to the child/young person alleged to have displayed problematic/harmful sexual behaviour and / or the child victim where there is reasonable cause to suspect that either child has suffered or likely to suffer Significant Harm, for example because of concerns about the parents’ ability to protect the child / young person victim from further harmful sexual behaviour.

Children and young people with problematic or harmful sexual behaviour who are returning to the community following a custodial sentence or time in secure accommodation also require consideration through these procedures. It is advised that a Strategy Discussion should be held to consider the:

  • Issues of child and public protection, including a clear understanding and description of any alleged incident;
  • An assessment of the child/young person’s needs, and the need for further specialist assessment;
  • The roles and responsibilities of child welfare and criminal justice agencies;
  • Any on-going safety issues for all of the young people involved.

Additionally a plan should be devised in order to support the child/young person to re-establish community links and attendance at their school/ education provider or employment.

Where Strategy Discussions are required for both the child / young person who is alleged to have displayed harmful sexual behaviour and the child who is the victim, these should be held separately. 

Care must be taken to ensure that the appropriate professionals attend the right meeting in order to provide confidentiality for the children involved. For example, school representatives should only attend the meeting involving the pupil at their school. The police officer and social workers who are conducting the enquiries should participate in both sets of Strategy Discussions.

Where a Strategy Discussion relates to ta child/young person who has allegedly displayed harmful sexual behaviour who is over the age of 10, a representative from the Youth Offending Team must attend.

Where relevant, a representative from the NSPCC Projects in place within the West Yorkshire Consortium will attend Strategy Discussions in their area.

The Strategy Discussions must plan in detail the respective roles of those involved in the enquiries and ensure that the following objectives are met:

  • Information relevant to the protection and needs of the alleged victim is gathered;
  • Any criminal aspects of the alleged abuse are investigated;
  • Any information relevant to any abusive experiences and protection needs of the child who is alleged to have displayed harmful sexual behaviour, is gathered;
  • Any information about the risks to self and others, including other children in the household, extended family, school, peer group or wider social network, is gathered.

Where there is suspicion that the child who is alleged to have displayed harmful sexual behaviour is also a victim of abuse, the Strategy Discussion must decide the order in which interviews with the child / young person will take place.

When a child is aged 10 or over and is alleged to have committed an offence, the first interview must be undertaken by the Police under the provisions of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984.

If a child is to be interviewed as a victim of or witness to alleged abuse under the provisions of the Achieving Best Evidence Guidance and the child admits offences, these incidents should normally be the subject of a separate interview.

In all cases, the children may require services to support them through interviews in line with Achieving Best Evidence Guidance and through any court actions that may follow. The assessments undertaken may determine that there is a need for support services, such as counselling services whether the child/young person is in need of safeguarding or a child/young person in need. The child/young person’s social worker should keep up to date with developments by communicating with the social worker for the child / young person allege to have displayed harmful sexual behaviour to ensure that the child victim remains safeguarded.

In complex situations where there are a number of victims and possible perpetrators, the Strategy Discussion should appoint a Strategic Management Group to co-ordinate the overall investigation. (See Complex (Organised or Multiple) Abuse Procedure).


6. Section 47 Enquiries and Assessment – child/young person displaying problematic/harmful sexual behaviour

If, from information gathered during the Single Assessment, it appears that the child / young person alleged to have displayed harmful sexual behaviour or the victim child / young person is suffering or likely to suffer Significant Harm, the Section 47 Enquiry process will be followed.

In these circumstances, relevant considerations include:

  • The nature and extent of the abusive behaviours and the impact on the victim(s);
  • The context of the abusive behaviours;
  • The age of the children / young people involved;
  • The nature of the relationship between the child / young people involved;
  • The child / young person’s development, and family and social circumstances;
  • Whether the ‘perpetrator’ child / young person acknowledges the alleged behaviour;
  • Whether there are grounds to suspect that the ‘perpetrator’ child / young person has been abused or that adults have been involved in the development of the harmful sexual behaviour;
  • An assessment of both children’s needs for services. The assessment should cover the following: the risks the child/young person alleged to have displayed harmful sexual behaviour poses to him / herself and others, including other children/young people in the household, extended family, school, peer group or wider social network. During the assessment, children/young people should be helped to continue their school attendance/education; and
  • Which interventions best meet the needs of the child/young person.

If during the course of the Single Assessment there are concerns about any risks to other children posed by the child / young person alleged to exhibit harmful sexual behaviour, a multi-agency risk meeting should be convened straight away. The meeting should:

  • Develop a written risk management plan in relation to any child / young person identified as at potential risk; including educational and accommodation arrangements for both the child / young person who is alleged to have displayed harmful sexual behaviours and the potential victim(s);
  • Agree appropriate arrangements for the continuation of the assessment and the need for any specialist assessment; and
  • Agree how the services to be provided will be coordinated.
The meeting should identify the Lead Professional and review process with clear timescales.


7. Outcomes of Section 47 Enquiries

If the information gathered in the course of the Section 47 Enquiry suggests that the child / young person who is suspected or alleged to have harmed sexually is also a victim, or potential victim, of abuse including neglect, a Child Protection Conference must be convened. A representative from the YOT team and a representative from the NSPCC Projects in place within the West Yorkshire Consortium areas should be invited to the Initial Child Protection Conference. 

If the child becomes the subject of a Child Protection Plan, the coordination of services will continue through the Core Group, which should address the child / young person’s problematic or harmful sexual behaviour, the potential risks the child / young person poses to others as well as the concerns which resulted in the need for a Child Protection Plan.

Where the Child Protection Conference concludes that the child / young person who is suspected or alleged to have sexually harmed does not require a Child Protection Plan, consideration should be given to the need for services to address any problematic / harmful behaviour and the inter-agency responsibility to manage any risks. In these circumstances, a multi-agency meeting must be convened by Children’s Social Care Services.

This should take place as early as possible after the Conference and should involve the Children’s Social Care Services Team Manager as chair, the social worker, the referring agency, the school (including sibling’s schools), health agencies as appropriate, a representative from the NSPCC Projects where in place in the area, the social worker co-ordinating work with the victim, the parent/carers and the child (subject to age and level of understanding).

The multi-agency meeting will develop the overall plan for the child / young person including:

  • A written risk management plan in relation to any child / young person identified as at potential risk; including educational and accommodation arrangements;
  • Any future assessment, if required; and
  • How the services to be provided will be coordinated.

The meeting should identify the Lead Professional and review process with clear timescales.

Where the Strategy Discussion concludes there are no grounds for a Child Protection Conference, but concerns remain regarding the child’s sexually problematic / harmful behaviour, s/he will be considered as a Child in Need. In such cases, a multi-agency meeting should be convened to consider the risk management as outlined above.

The decision to end the involvement of any specialist services should be made on a multi-agency basis. Factors to consider in reaching this decision include:

  • The level of risk posed by the child / young person to him or herself and others;
  • If the intended outcomes of the intervention have been achieved;
  • The capacity of the parents or care givers to respond appropriately to the child / young person’s needs;
  • The need for provision of ongoing support to the child / young person and their family.


8. Outcomes of Assessment/Section 47 Enquiries - The Victim Child

Where a Section 47 Enquiry in relation to a victim child / young person concludes that the child young person is suffering or likely to suffer Significant Harm, an Initial Child Protection Conference must be convened to assess the risks and consider the need to safeguard the child through a Child Protection Plan.


9. Criminal Proceedings

When the child/young person alleged of displaying harmful sexual behaviour is over 10, the police will consult other agencies including the YOT and Crown Prosecution Service to decide the most appropriate course of action within the criminal justice system.

In cases where criminal proceedings are taken against a young person who is alleged to have displayed harmful sexual behaviour, the YOT should be added to the list of possible attendees at any meetings. Both the compilation of the YOT Asset Plus Assessment and the preparation of a Single Assessment will be facilitated through this.

When a case is going through the Youth Court or the Crown Court, the YOT will provide information for the Single Assessment process. This may include plea, bail conditions and variations.

On conviction the YOT will work with the young person on their harmful sexual behaviour and support their parents/carers. The YOT should be part of any child protection or child in need meetings to plan for the young person’s future including reunification with the family if appropriate.

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