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24.25 Children who abuse others including peer on peer abuse / harmful sexual behaviour
Children may commit abuse against peers and/or adults, this abuse may be a single incident, multiple incidents and may involve more than one abusive child. Victims and those who carry out the harm may be male or female. Peer on peer abuse can manifest harmful behaviour itself in many ways and child protection policies should reflect the different gender issues that can be prevalent when dealing with peer on peer abuse. This could, for example, include girls being sexually touched/assaulted or boys being subject to initiation/ ‘hazing’ type violence, or bullying homophobic/transgender related bullying.
Around two thirds of all sexual abuse reported by children and young people was perpetrated by other children and young people (Hackett, 2014) and children who have perpetrated abuse against others may pose an ongoing safeguarding risk within a group/club or educational establishment.
Boarding schools, residential special schools and children’s homes that provide residential accommodation have additional factors to consider and should be aware of inappropriate pupil relationships and the potential for a power imbalance with older children supervising younger ones in the role of prefects and in schools and colleges with a significant gender imbalance.
- Definition(Jump to)
- Risks and indicators(Jump to)
- Protection and action to be taken(Jump to)
- Support for Victims(Jump to)
- Further Information(Jump to)
Abuse is defined as a form of maltreatment of a child. Somebody may abuse or neglect a child by inflicting harm or by failing to act to prevent harm. Children may be abused in the family or in an institution or community setting by those known to them or, more rarely, by others (e.g. via the internet). They may be abused by an adult or adults or by another child or children.
For the purpose of this document ‘child’ refers to any child or young person up to the age of 18 years. The term peer on peer abuse means that the victim is a child but the person demonstrating the harmful behaviour is also a child. Children are deemed to have criminal responsibility from the age of 10 years however problematic/harmful sexualised behaviours may manifest below this age and the behaviour will still need to be addressed.
This document intentionally focusses on harmful sexual behaviour, or peer on peer abuse. However, there are many forms of physical and emotional abuse and this guidance should be read alongside other advice covering different forms of abuse such as but not exclusively:
All forms of abuse can take place on the internet and via technology such as mobile phones. This abuse is called technology enabled abuse. The wrongdoer is carrying out the abuse using technology. See 2.5 Online safety: Children exposed to abuse through digital media
As mentioned above, this document is intentionally focussing on harmful sexual behaviour so practitioners should consider the Guidance 2.18 Sexual activity in children and young people (including under-age sexual activity). Specifically guidance on consent, and the Brook Sexual Behaviours Traffic Light Tool to help identify healthy and developmentally appropriate interest in sexual relationships or deviant behaviour.
Accordingly a child can be subject to, or at risk of harm by another child or children as a result of physical, sexual or emotional abuse. This can be through direct or isolated incidents, or as a result of ongoing behaviour over a longer period of time, for example through bullying. We also know that abuse can be carried out through the use of technology, for example ‘sexting’ (youth produced sexual imagery) and ‘cyber-bullying’, or as a result of association with gangs. Children can also abuse adults.
The terminology ‘perpetrator of abuse’ should be avoided; the preferred terminology is a child demonstrating harmful behaviour. Whilst abuse cannot be justified and must be addressed it should also be understood that the child demonstrating that behaviour may also be a victim of abuse and have complex issues/ case history.
Sexual abuse 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. It includes contact and non-contact abuse, child sexual exploitation (CSE) and grooming a child in preparation for abuse.
Abusive sexual activity may involve coercion, threats, aggression together with secrecy or where one participant relies on an unequal powerbase.
Sexual abuse also includes abuse of children through sexual exploitation. Penetrative sex where one of the partners is under the age of 16 is illegal, although prosecution of similar age, consenting partners is not usual.
‘Sexting’ describes the use of technology to generate text, images or videos that are of a sexual nature and are indecent. The content can vary, from text messages to images of partial or full nudity to sexual images or video. These images are then shared between young people and/or adults and with people they may not even know. Young people are not always aware that their actions are illegal and the increasing use of smart phones has made the practice much more common place.
As stated above whilst children who abuse others may require help due to their own experience of abuse and may have considerable needs themselves, those exhibiting harmful behaviour should be held to account for their abusive behaviour and support provided to challenge and change harmful sexualised behaviours.
Harmful Sexual Behaviour is 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 Children and Young People with Harmful Sexual Behaviours). It is a difficult issue to confront however if left unaddressed, the behaviour is likely to escalate and result in further assaults.
Risks and indicators
When considering the risks and indicators when a child is abusing another child, practitioners should refer to specific guidance relevant to the type of abuse, for example, 2.8 the Bullying Guidance in cases of peer on peer bullying. Practitioners should also refer to local risk assessments and screening tools as appropriate.
Managing situations where children have been sexually abused by other children can be complex and requires difficult professional judgements particularly when both children attend the same school, youth group or have had a previous relationship (whether sexual or not). Some situations are statutorily clear, for example a child under the age of 13 cannot consent to any sexual activity (any sexual activity with a child under 13 years is statutory rape). Whilst the age of consent is 16 years, it is important to differentiate between consensual sexual activity between children of a similar age and one which involves any power imbalance, coercion or exploitation. All agencies should be ‘clear that abuse is abuse and should never be tolerated or passed off as “banter” or “part of growing up” (Department of Education – Keeping Children Safe in Education 2021). Too often Harmful Sexualised Behaviour (HSB) is dismissed in this way and all professionals should be aware that incidents of sexual offending are rarely isolated and that harmful sexual behaviour escalates quickly if not addressed.
Sexual behaviour can be: inappropriate, socially inappropriate and/or inappropriate developmentally. It is important to consider what effect negative or harmful behaviour has on any of the parties involved and what concerns it raises about a child. It should be recognised that the behaviour may be motivated by information seeking but may cause significant upset, confusion, physical damage etc. It may also be that the child’s behaviour is replicating or acting out situations and sexual behaviour that they have witnessed/ seen /observed, been involved in or experienced and would be classed as ‘dual status’ where they are both a victim and an abuser. However, this does not mitigate the damage caused to the victim and the offender should be held accountable for their actions.
Concerns about possible abuse by one child of another frequently first come to light within any environment and it is often unclear if the circumstances should be considered under child protection procedures or not.
Where further assessment is required prior to deciding the extent and nature of the concerns, the school should:
- Ensure the parents / guardian of both the victim and the alleged abusive child are advised and invited to be present when the children are interviewed formally;
Provide pupils with the opportunity to record or dictate in their own words their version of events;
- Consider any need to separate the alleged victim and abusive child in the classroom, in the school and the possible need to send one or both home; whilst not further victimising the victim of the alleged abuse
- Do not interview either child on their own after the preliminary questioning following disclosure - they should be accompanied by a parent or guardian;
- Keep a written record of pertinent information including date, time, those present and signature - a diagram / photo of the room / playground may be useful, as well as a description of who was present etc;
- Provide the child with the opportunity to confirm the accuracy of the record and record any disagreement.
- Professionals must decide in the circumstances of each case whether or not behaviour directed at another child should be categorised as abusive or not. It will be helpful to consider the following factors:
- Relative chronological and developmental age of the two children (the greater the difference, the more likely the behaviour should be defined as abusive);
- A differential in power or authority (e.g. related to race or physical or intellectual vulnerability of the victim);
- Actual behaviour (both physical and verbal factors must be considered);
- Whether the behaviour could be described as age appropriate or involves inappropriate sexual knowledge or motivation;
- Physical aggression, bullying or bribery;
- The victim's experience and perception of the behaviour;
- The possibility the abuser is, or was, also a victim;
- Attempts to ensure secrecy;
- An assessment of the change in the behaviour over time (whether it has become more severe or more frequent);
- Duration and frequency of behaviour.
- Whether this was a single incident or is it an escalating pattern of behaviour, and/ or whether this behaviour had been observed previously.
Protection and action to be taken
Response to referrals
When considering what action and protection to put in place when a child is being abused by another child, practitioners should refer to specific guidance relevant to the type of abuse, for example, 2.8 the Bullying Guidance in cases of peer on peer bullying. Practitioners should also refer to local level 3 guidance including risk assessments and screening tools as appropriate
Practitioners are advised to discuss concerns with agency designated safeguarding advisors and refer as appropriate. Practitioners should refer to local levels of need and be familiar with local referral procedures. (Where a decision of no further action is agreed, that decision should be recorded including the justification for the decision and the consultation that took place with the agency safeguarding lead.)
Consider if an immediate response after an assault is a victim referral to paediatric SARC services.
Local specialist services may be available to support both the victim and instigator of the abuse.
The interests of the identified victim must always be the paramount consideration. However, whenever a child may have abused another, all agencies must be aware of their responsibilities to both individuals, and multi-agency management of the case must reflect this.
An allegation of rape and/or sexual abuse has wider repercussions and the impacts upon friends, peer groups, siblings and parents of the children involved should be taken into consideration when planning the multi-agency response.
It is likely that the abuser may pose a significant risk of harm to other children, but have considerable needs themselves and may also be or have been the victim of abuse. A study by Hackett et al (2013) of children and young people with harmful sexual behaviour suggests that two-thirds had experienced some kind of abuse or trauma such as physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, severe neglect, domestic violence, parental drug and alcohol abuse, parental rejection or family breakdown. Around half of them had experienced sexual abuse.
The interests of any such children must also be considered as part of the response to the referral and in the multi-agency management of the case.
In all cases where a referral is made to Children’s Services in relation to a child who has been or is a victim of abuse and the suspected abuser is a child or young person, the Police and Children's Social Care must convene a Strategy Discussion/Meeting within the Section 47 Enquiry time-scales. The Police will also decide whether a criminal offence is alleged.
A separate Strategy Discussion/Meeting must be convened in relation to the suspected abuser. The Strategy Discussion/Meeting must consider the needs of the child, as well as any other children who may be at risk from that individual.
Where the decision is reached that the alleged behaviour does not constitute abuse or the child is under the age of criminal responsibility, and there is no need for further enquiry or criminal investigation, the details of the referral and the reasons for the decision must be recorded. However, the lack of criminal investigation does not discharge other agency responsibility to support both the victim and alleged instigator of the abuse.
When the young people concerned are the responsibility of different local authorities, each must be represented at the Strategy Discussions/Meetings, which will usually be convened and chaired by the authority in which the victim lives.
A different social worker should be allocated for the victim and the alleged abuser, even when they live in the same household, to ensure that both are supported through the process of the enquiry and that both their needs are fully assessed.
The Strategy Discussion/Meeting will be convened and chaired by Children's Social Care and a record made of discussions and decisions. The attendance at this meeting, and manner in which it is conducted is set out in West Midlands Procedure - 1.8 Strategy Meeting/Discussion. (See also 3.23 – Local Strategy Discussions/Meetings).
The Strategy Meeting must determine the child’s welfare and plan rapid future action if there is reasonable cause to suspect the child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm. This will include:
- Sharing available information relevant to the protection needs of the child (and any other child or children who may be at risk);
- Agree the conduct and timing of any criminal investigation;
- Decide whether enquiries under section 47 of the Children Act 1989 should be undertaken, and if there are to be undertaken;
- What further information is needed if an assessment is already underway and how it will be obtained and recorded;
- What immediate and short term action is required to support the child, and who will do what by when. Where the victim and alleged abuse are in the same peer group and/or school, particular attention is required to the living and contact arrangements between victim and alleged abuser, and alleged abuser and other children;
- Whether legal action is required.
In planning the investigation the following factors should be considered:
- Age of both children and any other child or children who may be at risk;
- Seriousness of the alleged incident;
- Effect on the victim and their own view of their safety;
- Parental attitude and ability to protect their child;
- Arrangements to protect the victim and other children, especially where the victim and alleged abuser are in the same household or school class. Also protect other family members not in the household and peer groups outside of school.
- Whether there is suspicion that the alleged abuser has also been abused;
- Is this an isolated incident or part of escalating and repeated behaviour?
- Whether there is reason to suspect that adults are also involved;
- Consideration of completed risk assessments;
- Consider how reintegration into school and peer groups is managed;
- The likelihood and desirability of criminal prosecutions taking place.
The conduct of any investigation will be discussed within a Strategy Discussion/Meeting to ensure the requirements of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) 1984 and Achieving Best Evidence are met. Where there is suspicion that the child is both an abuser and the victim of abuse, the Strategy Discussion/ Meeting must consider the order in which interviews will take place.
Outcome of Section 47 Enquiries
Refer to West Midlands Procedure - 1.8 Strategy meeting/discussion and 3.23 – Local Strategy Discussions/Meeting, section entitled ‘Outcomes of the strategy meeting/discussion’ for further information, however it is important to ensure that the position of the alleged victim(s) and the alleged wrongdoer is considered separately.
Refer to West Midlands Procedure - 1.10 Child Protection Conferences.
Where there are no grounds for a Child Protection Conference, but concerns remain regarding a child's sexually abusive behaviour, (s)he will be considered as a Child In Need. In such cases, a multi-agency planning meeting should be held to consider the need for services to address any abusive behaviour and the multi-agency responsibility to manage any risk. Where the alleged abuser attends a school or college then the Designated Safeguarding Lead for that establishment must be directly involved in the planning. Any proposed or existing bail conditions imposed by Police must also be considered in the context of the implications for other agencies, for example the responsibility to provide the alleged abuser with access to education.
The decision as to how to proceed with the criminal aspects of a case will be made by the Police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). This decision will take into account any recommendations of the youth justice service and the views of other professionals.
The Crown Prosecution Service will apply their own guidance in relation to whether given all the circumstances it is in the public interest to prosecute the alleged abuser.
Support for Victims
Local specialist services may be available to support both the victim and the abuser.
“The simple fact is that when victims receive the support they need, when they need it, they are much more likely to take positive steps to recovery… this should be our goal” (Govt. Response to Stern Review 2011)
Where there is a safeguarding concern, practitioners should ensure that the child’s wishes and feelings are taken into account when determining what action to take and what services to provide. Systems should be in place for children to express their views and give feedback. Ultimately, all systems and processes should operate with the best interests of the child at their heart. However, it should be recognised that sexual violence is an isolating crime where victims will most often feel shame, self-blame, minimisation and a desire to ‘get back to normal’ as soon as possible. Practitioners should recognise that many of the impacts of sexual violence are not immediately apparent and that young people, in particular, may deny how they are feeling to staff, families and themselves alike – wanting to appear ‘normal’ and to ‘fit in’. Too often, the victim can become isolated from friends and support groups which inadvertently adds to a victim blaming culture. Wherever possible the victim should, if they wish and circumstances allow, be able to continue in their normal routine.
Staff should be aware of local support services, particularly the Children & Young People’s Independent Sexual Violence Advocacy services (CHISVA). The role of the CHISVA is to provide practical and emotional support to children who have experienced rape, sexual abuse or sexual exploitation at any time. They will complete a risk and needs assessment with the victim and develop a support plan. It is common for this plan to include liaising with the school and offering support sessions during school time and on school premises.
CHISVAs will provide independent advocacy support throughout the criminal justice process and beyond. They will assist with access to any sexual health or medical attention needed and co-ordinate additional support needs, this could include the provision of additional emotional support and information provision/education in relation to the abuse the child/young person has experienced.
Within some areas, the police will make an automatic referral to the CHISVA service however, referral routes are open to all services.
Many services will provide additional support for family members and are able to provide input and safeguarding recommendations into multi-agency assessment conferences.
NB. There may be the opportunity to refer the alleged abuser to appropriate support services (depending on local availability) and throughout this process appropriate risk assessments should be in place for the child or young person exhibiting the harmful behaviour.
- CEOP (2013) Threat assessment of child sexual exploitation and abuse
- Department for Education (2018) – Updated September 2021 Keeping Children Safe in Education
- Hackett, S. (2014) Children and young people with harmful sexual behaviours
- IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (2017) Fisher, C. Goldsmith, A. Hurcombe
- Jones, L. et al (2012) Prevalence and risk of violence against children with disabilities
- Matthew, L (2001) Be Aware. Supporting Young Survivors of Abuse. Dundee Young Women’s Centre
- NSPCC (2013) How safe are our children?
- Rich, P. (2011), Understanding, assessing and rehabilitating juvenile sexual offenders, 2nd ed, New Jersey, Wiley