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Open Letter to the Government on Child Sexual Abuse

We are proud to have signed an open letter to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Home Secretary Suella Braverman calling for evidence-informed responses to child sexual abuse. We challenge the damaging myths and stereotypes of the current rhetoric and urge the government to do better to protect and support all victims and survivors.

Thank you to everyone who signed the letter, and to Helen Beckett and Camille Warrington at the University of Bedfordshire and Ella Cockbain at UCL for organising this important piece of work.

Please read the letter in full below.

To: Prime Minister Rt. Hon. Rishi Sunak MP Rt. Hon. Suella Braverman MP, Home Secretary

Cc: Hon. Sarah Dines MP, Minister for Safeguarding Tackling Child Sexual Abuse Unit, Home Office Rt. Hon Sir Keir Starmer KCB, QC, MP, Leader of the Opposition Rt. Hon. Yvette Cooper MP, Shadow Home Secretary

25 May 2023

We are a group of UK based researchers, practice and policy leads whose work focuses on addressing child sexual abuse. As the Westminster Government releases its response to recommendations of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), we call for evidence-informed responses, that prioritise the needs of all victims and survivors, and respond holistically to all forms of sexual abuse.

This requires targeted action on many different fronts, implemented without delay. This includes challenging the damaging ‘myths and stereotypes’ noted by IICSA and the Westminster Government itself. To this end, we urgently ask all politicians to refrain from making partial, inaccurate or divisive claims about child sexual abuse. Doing so undermines attempts to ensure policy-making is evidence-based, fair and inclusive. Many recent political announcements and accompanying media discussions have clearly fallen short in this regard, perpetuating misinformation, racism and division. Whatever the intention, stereotyping around child sexual abuse (racial or otherwise) poses considerable risks, not least to children.

The Government has stated its commitment to ‘bringing child sexual abuse out of the shadows’ and ensuring ‘we do not fail children and young people’. These are important goals and action is long overdue. To that end, we highlight key principles that should inform all policy efforts to prevent child sexual abuse, protect victims and prosecute perpetrators.

Recognising the problem

The vast body of knowledge - from victims and survivors, practice and research - demonstrates that victims’ needs are best served by creating a society in which we openly confront the complex realities of child sexual abuse. Such abuse happens on an epidemic scale. Children are sexually abused across all strata of society and in every type of institution. That includes (but is not limited to) families, schools, sports and leisure clubs, care and welfare services, religious institutions, and within the criminal justice system. Prevention, early intervention and better support for victims are vital in all contexts in which child sexual abuse occurs.

Overlooking and/or misrepresenting the sheer scale and varied nature of child sexual abuse, however unintentional, is dangerous. It inhibits timely recognition, hampers effective responses and weakens the societal fabric necessary to keep children safe.

Policies which start from a basis of singling out one ‘type’ of abuse as more heinous and worthy of attention than any other are ineffective and unethical. Attempts to locate the problem of child sexual abuse (including child sexual exploitation) within a particular community, ‘type’ of perpetrator, or ‘type’ of victim, run counter to the extensive evidence base – including the Home Office’s own evidence on ‘group-based child sexual exploitation in the community’ (so-called ‘grooming gangs’). For example, a narrow focus on the perceived targeting of white girls overlooks the equally reprehensible victimisation of boys and young men, and victims from Black and minoritised communities. Evidence also shows significantly under-recognised abuse amongst disabled children. In a similar vein, a singular focus on groups of male abusers of British-Pakistani origin draws attention away from so many other sources of harm. Whatever the intention behind these partial narratives, children will almost certainly be less safe as a result.

Responding to the problem

Extensive evidence [1] from research and inquiries - including those which centre the expertise of victims and survivors - demonstrates remarkably consistent messages about what should be priorities for policy and practice. Many of these messages are echoed in other key initiatives within the field, such as the Westminster Government’s own Tackling Child Sexual Abuse Strategy and the Multi-agency Practice Principles for responding to child exploitation and extra-familial harm. Future policy and resource allocation will have greater impact if grounded in these insights. This will include a focus on:

  • Better identification of all forms of child sexual abuse to limit the impact and prevent further harm. This means fostering a society in which those who experience abuse feel safe and supported to tell, and where others are empowered to recognise potential signs of child sexual abuse and respond effectively. It also means challenging the silencing and stigma that is associated with such abuse, and the silencing victim-blaming narratives that often accompany this.

  • Timely access, for victims and survivors, to effective long-term support to address therapeutic, advocacy and wider support needs. This should address children’s intersectional identities and associated needs, recognising how multiple forms of discrimination compound vulnerability and limit access to services. It should also extend to support for adult survivors and non-abusing family members of both victims and of those who abuse.

  • A trauma-informed and responsive criminal justice system that centres victims’ and witnesses’ needs, processes cases effectively, and proactively seeks to reduce attrition.

  • Appropriate education and awareness raising within schools and wider society to support children, young people and adults to recognise abusive, coercive and controlling behaviours; understand consent; recognise routes to help; and foster a society which will not harbour or tolerate abuse.

  • Improving collection and use of data to inform responses. Criminal justice statistics need to be improved, whilst recognising that most abuse remains unreported. To understand the hidden picture and keep pace with rapidly changing patterns in abuse perpetration and victimisation, it is vital to invest in a regular, representative prevalence survey among children and young people.

  • Improving understanding of what is effective in preventing child sexual abuse, how it works (or doesn’t) and under what circumstances. Too often, responses to child sexual abuse are reactive - coming after the harm is done. Building and acting on a stronger evidence-base around prevention would help treat child sexual abuse as the public health priority it should be.

This list, though not exhaustive, is key to better policy and practice around child sexual abuse. This Government - and any future Government committed to tackling child sexual abuse - must do better to ensure no child is unseen or left behind. That means acting on the existing evidence base, listening to the expertise of victims, survivors and professionals, and prioritising meaningful impact over short-term media cycles. Children deserve nothing less.

Yours Sincerely,

Dr Helen Beckett, Director, Safer Young Lives Research Centre, University of Bedfordshire

Dr Ella Cockbain, Associate Professor in Security and Crime Science, UCL

Dr Camille Warrington, Associate Professor, Safer Young Lives Research Centre, University of Bedfordshire

Dez Holmes, Director, Research in Practice

Dr Lucie Moore, Faiths Against Child Sexual Exploitation (FACES) & Visiting Research Fellow, University of Bedfordshire

Diana Fawcett, Chief Executive, Victim Support

Anna Edmundson, Head of Policy and Public Affairs, NSPCC

Sheila Taylor MBE, CEO, NWG Network

Patricia Durr, CEO, ECPAT UK (Every Child Protected Against Trafficking)

Victoria Green, CEO, Marie Collins Foundation & Visiting Senior Research Fellow, University of Suffolk

Kate Wareham, Strategic Director, Young People, Families & Communities, Catch22

Duncan Craig OBE, CEO, We Are Survivors & Honorary Senior Research Fellow, School of Criminology, University of Manchester

Sherry Peck, CEO, Safer London

Abi Billinghurst, Founder and CEO, Abianda

Cath Wakeman OBE, Chief Executive Officer and Trauma Therapist, Imara CIO

Rehana Faisal, Co-chair, Faiths Against Child Sexual Exploitation (FACES)

Robert Balfour, Founder/CEO Survivors West Yorkshire (Bens Place) and Honorary Supervisor Department of Clinical Psychology, University of Liverpool

Professor Nasreen Ali, Professor of Public Health Equality, University of Bedfordshire

Dr Katherine Allen, Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Social Justice and Crime, University of Suffolk

Professor Rachel Armitage, Professor of Criminology, University of Huddersfield

Professor Christine Barter, Co-Director, Connect Centre for International Research on Interpersonal Violence and Harm, School of Social Work, Care and Community, University of Central Lancashire

Professor Claudia Bernard, Goldsmiths, University of London

Dr Lisa Bostock, Principal Research Fellow, Institute of Applied Social Research, University of Bedfordshire

Dr Isabelle Brodie, Principal Lecturer, University of Bedfordshire

Professor Sarah Brown, Visiting Fellow, UWE

Dr Sangeeta Chatterji, Lecturer, Social Work, University of Edinburgh

Dr Claire Cody, Senior Research Fellow, Safer Young Lives Research Centre, University of Bedfordshire

Professor John Devaney, Chair of Social Work, University of Edinburgh

Dr Sukhwant Dhaliwal, Course Leader, Woman and Child Abuse programme, London Metropolitan University

Dr Katie Ellis, Senior Lecturer in Child Welfare, University of Sheffield

Dr Fiona Factor, School Enhancement Lead & Academic Portfolio Lead (PG), School of Applied Social Sciences, University of Bedfordshire

Professor Carlene Firmin MBE, Professor of Social Work, Durham University

Professor Deborah Fry, Director of Data for Childlight – Global Child Safety Institute, Moray House School of Education and Sport, University of Edinburgh

Professor David Gadd, Professor of Criminology, School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester

Dr Fiona Vera Gray, Deputy Director, The Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit, London Metropolitan University

Dr Sophie Hallett, Senior Lecturer (Social Policy), Cardiff University & Reader in the Prevention of Interpersonal Harm, Connect Centre, University of Central Lancashire

Dr Kristine Hickle, Senior Lecturer in Social Work, University of Sussex

Professor Patricia Hynes, Professor of Social Justice, Helena Kennedy Centre, Sheffield Hallam University

Professor Liz Kelly, Director, Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit, London Metropolitan University

Joseph Kiff, Research Fellow, Safer Young Lives Research Centre, University of Bedfordshire

Dr Aravinda Kosaraju, Lecturer in Child Protection, University of Kent

Professor Michelle Lefevre, Director of the Centre for Innovation and Research in Childhood and Youth, University of Sussex

Professor Samantha Lundigan, Director of the Policing Institute for the Eastern Region (PIER), Anglia Ruskin University

Stacey Maher, Doctoral Researcher, University of Huddersfield & Child Sexual Abuse Practitioner and Advocate

Nicholas Marsh, Social Worker & PhD Researcher, University of East London

Dr Elena Martellozzo, Associate Professor in Criminology, Middlesex University

Dr Franziska Meinck, Senior Lecturer, University of Edinburgh

Hannah Millar, Research Assistant, Safer Young Lives Research Centre, University of Bedfordshire

Dr Mary Mitchell, Senior Lecturer in Social Work, University of Edinburgh

Dr Fiona Morrison, Lecturer in Childhood Studies, University of Edinburgh

Professor Jenny Pearce OBE, Professor of Young People and Public Policy, Safer Young Lives Research Centre, University of Bedfordshire

Professor Ethel Quayle CBE, Professor of Forensic Clinical Psychology, School of Health in Social Science, University of Edinburgh

Dr Theresa Redmond, Dawes Senior Research Fellow, the Policing Institute for the Eastern Region (PIER), Anglia Ruskin University

Professor Jessica Ringrose, Co-Director Centre for Sociology of Education and Equity, University College London

Dr Nicola Sharp-Jeffs OBE, Emeritus Fellow, Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit, London Metropolitan University & Founder and CEO, Surviving Economic Abuse

Claire Soares, Research Fellow, Safer Young Lives Research Centre, University of Bedfordshire

Professor Sundari Anitha, Professor of Gender, Violence and Work, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Lincoln

Professor Ravi K. Thiara, Department of Sociology, University of Warwick

Dr Roma Thomas, Principal Lecturer, School of Applied Social Sciences, University of Bedfordshire

Professor Kay Tisdall, Professor of Childhood Policy, University of Edinburgh

Joanne Walker, Assistant Professor, Durham University

Professor Richard Wortley, Jill Dando Institute of Security & Crime Science,

University College London

Dr Lauren Wroe, Assistant Professor (Research), Department of Sociology, Durham University

Alice Yeo, Senior Research Fellow, Safer Young Lives Research Centre, University of Bedfordshire


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