Familial sexual abuse – information for practitioners
Intra-familial child sexual abuse refers to child sexual abuse (CSA) that occurs within a family environment. Perpetrators may or may not be related to the child. The key consideration is whether the abuser feels like family from the child’s point of view.
Around two-thirds of all CSA reported to the police is perpetrated by a family member or someone close to the child.
Where research has recorded the gender of perpetrators of intra-familial CSA, the vast majority have been found to be male, although abuse by women does occur. In around a quarter of cases, the perpetrator is under 18.
CSA in the family is rarely an isolated occurrence and may go on for many years.
Much abuse in the family remains undisclosed. Children may fear their abuser, not want their abuser to get into trouble, feel that the abuse was ‘their fault’, and feel responsible for what will happen to their family if they tell. Disabled children and some black, Asian and minority ethnic children face additional barriers.
Abuse by a family member may be particularly traumatic because it involves high levels of betrayal, stigma and secrecy.
CSA in the family is linked to a range of negative outcomes over the whole of the life course, including poorer physical and mental health, lower income, relationship difficulties and further violence and abuse.
However, not all survivors experience long-term impacts. Much depends on the nature and duration of the abuse, the individual’s coping mechanisms, and the support they receive. Supportive responses from non-abusing carers are particularly important.
Effective support is critical to enable disclosure, and during investigation and legal proceedings. Therapeutic support for young people can have a positive impact but the availability of services remains piecemeal.
Both adult survivors and children/young people value services that listen to, believe and respect them; where professionals are trustworthy, authentic, optimistic and encouraging, show care and compassion, facilitate choice, control and safety, and provide advocacy.
It is important to provide support to the whole family, and particularly to non-abusing parents, following abuse.
What is intra-familial CSA?
The UK Government’s definition of CSA for England is:
…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. (ref: Working Together to Safeguard Children 2018).
There is no single agreed definition of intra-familial CSA. However, it is generally recognised that, in addition to abuse by a relative (such as a parent, sibling or uncle), it may include abuse by someone close to the child in other ways (such as a step-parent, a close family friend or a babysitter). This understanding is in accordance with Crown Prosecution Service guidelines on the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which state:
These offences reflect the modern family unit and take account of situations where someone is living within the same household as a child and assuming a position of trust or authority over that child, as well as relationships defined by blood ties, adoption, fostering, marriage or living together as partners.
In thinking about whether abuse is intra-familial, perhaps the most important question for professionals to consider is: ‘Did this perpetrator feel like family to the child?’
Key messages from research on intra-familial child sexual abuse and further information can be found on the Centre of expertise on child sexual abuse (CSA Centre) website at www.csacentre.org.uk