Our public health emergency: How the UK can turn the tide on child abuse

How often do you switch on the news to find another account of a child abused, and a life irrevocably altered?

In the UK it is rapidly becoming a daily occurrence, and yet the same myths and stereotypes continue to circulate. We reassure ourselves that it was the work of a bad apple, a lone stranger. It couldn’t happen in our family. It only happens in religious organisations or certain geographical areas. If it was happening to a child that we know, of course we would spot it, we would intervene, we would support, and we would enact justice.

But that is not the case. According to data from NAPAC’s support service1, between October 2019 and the present day, only 3.6% of callers who identified their abuser indicated that they were abused by a stranger. The overwhelming majority of abuse was perpetrated by a family member or close family friend.

Not only that, but more than 9,000 (67% of) callers1 that volunteered this information said that the abuse lasted for years. 52% of callers1 that volunteered this information also indicated a negative, disbelieving or indifferent response when first disclosing their abuse.

The National Strategic Assessment of Serious and Organised Crime 2023 estimates that there are between 680,000 and 830,000 people in the UK who pose varying degrees of sexual risk to children. That’s around 1.5% of the population. This doesn’t include other types of abuse such as physical, emotional, ritual and neglect. It’s not much of a stretch to suggest that there are around one million potential abusers living in the UK at any given time.

All of this data demonstrates that we are in denial. Child abuse is not unique to one religion, race or geographical area, and we are not particularly adept in spotting it. Nor are we well-versed in knowing how to respond to a disclosure in an appropriate manner. Do you know what you would say if a friend’s teenage son or daughter disclosed to you?

Much of this is due to our failure to recognise that the abuse can also affect the wider community. Our denial of the scope of the problem is a symptom of our communal trauma. We do not want to believe that we have been betrayed by those we have put our faith in, and in many cases, loved. It shatters our self-image and our societal codes.

Despite this bleak picture, NAPAC believes that this can change, and that collectively we have the tools to improve the situation. So, what can we do to change this for the better?

Take a belief-first approach to disclosure

If someone discloses the abuse they experienced to you, pause and take a breath. It is not your job to ascertain the perpetrator’s guilt. You are there to believe and support the survivor. It is not your responsibility to tell the survivor what to do. Instead, you can provide the precious gift of listening without judgement and asking them what they need.

If a survivor’s first experience of disclosure is a positive one, they are far more likely to seek support and pursue recovery. Conversely, a damaging first experience often leads to a lifetime of refusal to speak about their trauma or engage with support services or criminal justice.

Invest in safeguarding and support

NAPAC’s vision is of a world where no child experiences abuse. Until then, we envision a society in which everyone impacted by child abuse can access the support they need, when they need it.

For anyone who believes that they are at risk of perpetrating abuse, services like the Lucy Faithfull foundation offer confidential support in coping with unwanted feelings and managing problematic behaviour.

Recovery is a lengthy process that is unique to the individual. For example, your needs when first disclosing as a young adult will likely be very different to what you might require when experiencing flashbacks decades later. Therefore, it is imperative that there is widespread availability of specialist, age-appropriate support. You can help boost this availability by donating to, and/or spreading awareness of charities like NAPAC.

Become trauma-informed

Although this model was initially developed for healthcare settings, it is clear that everyone would benefit from an education in a trauma-informed approach. In 2017, a study from the World Mental Health Survey Consortium found that that 70% of the global population had experienced at least one traumatic event. As the saying goes ‘everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about’. This is particularly applicable to survivors of child abuse, who on average take 22 years to disclose.

A ’trauma-informed approach’ may sound complicated, but at its core it is about being open enough to consider the needs of others (that may be outside of the scope of your experience) and providing a safe, empowering environment for them to express themselves. It hinges on a commitment to preventing re-traumatisation, which has been lacking in many of our public services up until the last few years.

The sad reality is that child abuse affects millions of people in the UK. Having said that, our response is improving. If we continue listening to survivors and upgrading our support and safeguarding processes, the survivors of today will be able to pursue recovery, and the children of tomorrow will be protected.

1 Anonymised data from NAPAC’s support line, collated between October 2019 and present day.

Most Popular:

Call us on 0808 801 0331 for free from landlines and mobiles from 10am-9pm Mon-Thu & 10am-6pm Fri. Calls will not show on your bill.