By Kieran McCartan, Ph.D., Kasia Uzieblo, Ph.D, & David Prescott, LICSW
In the UK the NSPCC (a child protection charity) recently reported an increase in Child Sexual Abuse reports to its helpline. It stated that in the six months up to October 2021 4,735 calls about child sexual abuse or exploitation were made through its helpline. The NSPCC helpline is anonymous and allows victims and other members o the public to report and discuss sexual abuse concerns, after which the operator will decide about whether to report to pass the information to a relevant agency or offer the caller advice on what to do next. The increase in calls to the NSPCC helpline is significant; it is a 36% increase from the same period in 2020 (BBC). In many respects, this is a double-edged sword. On the positive side, it shows that children and young people are willing to report and discuss their experiences of abuse, therefore helping to reveal the actual, real, lived reality of child abuse. On the other hand, it can give a misperception that child abuse is increasing (which it may be, but we can’t say that for certain). These figures and their ramifications are significant, and they really highlight to us the importance of prevention – whether it’s the prevention of first-time offending or prevention of relapse – and its need to be rooted in a community-based system that is built on trust, compassion, and understanding.
Research, practice, and policy continually tell us that sexual abuse, especially child sexual abuse, is underreported and that there are many reasons for this; it is the same internationally (although levels of reporting fluctuate wildly across the world). The question must be: why has reporting to the NSPCC (in this case, but it could be any charity or organization) increased now? Is it because we are more attuned to the reality of child sexual abuse than before? Is it because society discusses child sexual abuse more? Maybe it’s easier to report? Or maybe people, especially victims, as well as their friends and family, are gaining trust that the system will respond in their favor? I would like to say yes to all these things, but they are not likely to be the case. Certainly, in the UK there is a lack of cases being passed from the police to the Crown Prosecution Service, there is a growing lack of trust in the police to handle these cases effectively, and there is a strong voice from victims/survivor’s that they are not being heard. So, what is the answer? Why have calls gone up?
The answer may well be in the process and what NSPCC does. The NSPCC approach is about a conversation and about being heard. Sometimes talking about and processing our trauma with someone helps, and it’s not necessary to do something (immediately). We often hear in research and practice that victims want to be heard and their trauma recognized. This is true in terms of child sexual abuse, as the relationship with the person who has harmed them is often complex and nuanced (often a family member, friend, or significant other in the person’s life). In the early stages of recognizing and disclosing sexual abuse, being heard in a non-judgmental, trauma-informed way is important in processing the abuse. It’s not about getting the answer or solving the problem, it’s about being heard. This is different from taking a formal route, to approach the police, the school, a social worker given that all come with inherent expectations that something must be done and that there should be a formal response. In addition to the expectation (or the answer), there are also assumptions about how successful these outcomes will be and the way that the victim will be treated, which colour our perceptions on whether we report. Therefore, the anonymous conversation maybe – but doesn’t have to be – the first step in the road to reporting, as well as by talking with friends and family, as well as the appropriate organizations once confidence has been gained. Is the real question, then, how many of this additional 36 % of calls will result in action? Or are the victims finding a place to talk about their abuse in a safe space?
The NSPCC data reinforces that child sexual abuse is common, that it’s an everyday occurrence. It does not necessarily tell us that it is on the increase, but rather that people [especially children] want to talk about their experiences more and process them properly. To find their voice in their abuse. It reminds us that we must be open to hearing what people are saying, to believe them, and to offer a space with little expectations beyond being there.