1.4.26 Harmful Sexual Behaviour
FURTHER GUIDANCE AND INFORMATION
AIM Project (Assessment, Intervention, Moving On) - Developing and supporting the understanding and practice of practitioners working with children, young people and their families, where there are concerns about problematic or harmful sexual behaviour
Child's Play? Preventing Abuse Among Children and Young People, (Stop It Now publication)
Key Messages from Research on Children and Young People who Display Harmful Sexual Behaviour (Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse, 2018)
AMENDMENTThis chapter was reviewed throughout and extensively updated in May 2019. Information was added with regard to Technology-assisted harmful sexual behaviour (TA-HSB) and Keeping Children Safe in Education (KCSIE) 2018. The Further Guidance and Information section was also reviewed and updated.
Two-thirds of sex offences against children and young people are committed by their peers (Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse, 2018). It is important therefore that practitioners do not dismiss harmful sexual behaviour as a part of "normal' sexual development.
Children and young people who display harmful sexual behaviour should be identified at the earliest opportunity and their behaviour addressed in order to both meet their needs and to protect other children.
It is important to remember that children and young people who display harmful sexual behaviours may themselves have considerable unmet needs. For some the manifestation of harmful sexual behaviours may be as a direct result of suffering abuse themselves.
A wide range of terms are used to describe children and young people who present with problems linked to their sexual behaviour. Terms include 'juvenile sex offender', 'young abuser' and 'adolescent perpetrator'. The misuse of imprecise and vague terminology can lead to misclassifying children and young people, or labelling them inappropriately. A shared and meaningful range of terms is important to enable clear communication between practitioners, and to allow accurate assessment of children, young people and their behaviours.
Harmful sexual behaviour (HSB) can be defined as:
"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 be abusive towards another child, young person or adult." (Hackett, 2014).
Just as children develop physically, mentally, emotionally and verbally they also develop sexually; a sound understanding of what constitutes normal sexual development is vital in order to understand what is inappropriate or harmful and to ensure that children are not made uncomfortable or embarrassed by displaying normal, age appropriate, sexual behaviours. Assessments such as The Brook Sexual Behaviours Traffic Light Tool – A Guide to Identifying Sexual Behaviours and AIM Project are helpful in developing and checking professional understanding in this regard.
It is widely accepted that HSB sits on a continuum – with behaviours ranging from healthy and developmentally appropriate, to problematic and harmful/abusive. It is therefore helpful to distinguish between problematic and harmful / abusive in the following way:
Problematic sexual behaviours do not include overt victimisation of others but are developmentally disruptive and can cause distress, rejection or increase victimisation of the child displaying the behaviour. They may be socially unexpected, developmentally unusual, and impulsive.
Harmful/abusive behaviours involve an element of coercion or manipulation and a power imbalance that means the victim cannot give informed consent and the behaviour has potential to cause physical or emotional harm. The power imbalance may be due to age, intellectual ability, race or physical strength. Harmful sexual behaviour may or may not result in a criminal conviction or prosecution. Such behaviours are more commonly associated with young people over the age of criminal responsibility (10 years) or those in puberty.
See Harmful Sexual Behaviour Framework, NSPCC.
As both problematic and harmful / abusive sexual behaviours are developmentally inappropriate and may cause developmental damage, it is suggested that they both sit under the umbrella term of harmful sexual behaviours.
It is vital that practitioners are able to understand and assess that HSB sits on a continuum from those behaviours that are developmentally and socially accepted to those that are violently abusive. Most healthy / developmentally appropriate 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.
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, domestic violence and abuse.
Practitioners 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 harmful sexual behaviour' is more appropriate and accurate, as it emphasises the child or young person's developmental status first and foremost whilst acknowledging the behaviours that require attention.
Peer exploitation is where a ''young instigator befriends and grooms a young person into a 'relationship' and then coerces or forces them into sexual activity with others." In this context, harmful sexual behaviour may be related to child sexual exploitation or child criminal exploitation. Consideration should also be given to the fact that the young person who is deemed to be sexually exploiting another child, may themselves be a victim of child sexual exploitation.
See Harmful Sexual Behaviour Framework, NSPCC.
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).
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).
Sexting is a term used when a person shares describe sexual, naked or semi-naked images or videos of themselves or others, or sends sexually explicit messages. They can be sent using mobiles, tablets, smartphones, and laptops - any device that allows you to share media and messages.
Sexting can be seen as harmless, but creating or sharing explicit images of a child is illegal, even if the person doing it is a child. A young person is breaking the law if they:
- Take an explicit photo or video of themselves or a friend;
- Share an explicit image or video of a child, even if it's shared between children of the same age;
- Possess, download or store an explicit image or video of a child, even if the child gave their permission for it to be created.
However, if a young person is found creating or sharing images, the police can choose to record that a crime has been committed but that taking formal action is not in the public interest (see College of Policing - Briefing note: Police action in response to youth produced sexual imagery ('Sexting')).
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 area;
- Incidents of harmful sexual behaviour should be dealt with under Safeguarding and Child Protection procedures which recognise the both the safeguarding children and potentially criminal element to the behaviour;
- Practitioners 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 themselves 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.
4. Risk Factors for Young People who Display Harmful Sexual Behaviour
There are no diagnostic indicators in personal or family functioning that indicate a pre-disposition towards harmful sexual behaviour 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 which is not addressed - a younger age at the onset of the abuse is more likely to lead to sexualised behaviour;
- Social rejection and loneliness;
- Poor empathy skills.
Many of these factors exist alongside family environments where other forms of abuse are present.
There is a significant minority of young people who display harmful sexual behaviour who have a level of learning need - up to 40% in some studies. Their needs must be carefully considered as some assessment tools are not suitable. Also, the intervention may need to be extended and involve a high degree of coordination between agencies.
Incidents of harmful sexual behaviour may come to light either through discovery or disclosure. The details provided should be accurately recorded by the person receiving the initial account. It is essential that victims are reassured that all allegations will be taken seriously, and that they will be safeguarded.
The details of the disclosure should be passed to the relevant Children's Social Care Services. If the young person displaying the harmful sexual behaviour is over the age of 10 and the behaviour is at the abusive or harmful end of Hackett's continuum then the police should also be informed.
Each local area should have a clear pathway between Children's Social Care Services, police and YOT (where appropriate) to ensure that information is appropriately shared from the point that an incident is identified.
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 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.
If the young person displaying the HSB is over the age of 10 then, 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). Social workers undertaking assessment of children and young people displaying HSB should have undertaken relevant training.
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 child / young person alleged to have displayed harmful sexual behaviour. Each child should be referred to the Children's Social Care Services area covering their home address.
Note Schools should follow the statutory guidance: Keeping Children Safe in Education, which came into force on 3rd September 2018.
6. 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 risk assessment / safety planning for all of the young people involved.
It is important that all relevant partners, including education providers and the Youth Offending Team (where appropriate according to the age of the children) are invited to the Strategy Meeting to ensure that full information is shared and robust plans can be made.
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. A Risk Management Meeting should also be held to address immediate accommodation and education issues and agree how risks will be managed.
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 practitioners 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 any specialist HSB support services in place within the local area should be invited to attend the Strategy Discussion.
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 Lead Practitioner / 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).
7. 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 'instigator' child / young person acknowledges the alleged behaviour;
- Whether there are grounds to suspect that the 'instigator' 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 themselves 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.
8. 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 (if the child is over 10 years) and a representative from any specialist HSB services (if available) 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 multi-agency responsibility to manage any risks. In these circumstances, depending on the seriousness of the alleged behaviour and the child's needs and circumstances, it may be appropriate to provide services as a Child in Need, or under Early Help / Early Intervention.
A planning meeting should be held 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, health agencies as appropriate, a representative from any specialist HSB services 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 planning 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 Practitioner 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, they 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 themselves 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.
9. Outcomes of Assessment/Section 47 Enquiries - The Child Victim
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.
10. 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.