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Sheffield Children Safeguarding Partnership

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Sexual abuse

Abuse is 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 a family or in an institutional or community setting by those known to them or, more rarely, by others. Abuse can take place wholly online, or technology may be used to facilitate offline abuse. Children may be abused by an adult or adults, or another child or children.

The government's statutory guidance, Working together to safeguard children, states that 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. 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.

Sexual abuse can take place online, and technology can be used to facilitate offline abuse. Sexual abuse is not solely perpetrated by adult males. Women can also commit acts of sexual abuse, as can other children.'

Child sexual exploitation also forms part of the wider problem of child sexual abuse and is also damaging to children.

There are often no clear physical signs that a child is being sexually abused. Changes to the way a child behaves can indicate a possible trauma and there are several factors which may indicate child sexual abuse including sudden emotional or behavioural changes.

It is difficult to estimate the level of child sexual abuse as many instances go unreported but an NSPCC study (Radford et al, 2011) found that nearly a quarter of young adults (24.1%) had experienced sexual abuse by an adult or by a peer during childhood. 

Perpetrators of sexual abuse are from any ethnicity and more likely to be a male who is known to the child or their family rather than a stranger but there is some discussion as to whether abuse by females is under-reported. Reported victims are more likely to be female but again there is discussion about whether there is more stigma for a boy to report abuse. Victims can be of any age and ethnicity.

Other forms of abuse, especially previous sexual abuse or a disrupted home life can make a child more susceptible to sexual abuse. Some abusers target children who are neglected by their parents or children who are isolated. Disabled children can be particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse because of e.g. their increased dependency on others for their care, their level of understanding, social isolation, their ability to communicate and whether they are believed.

Children can also be at risk when using the internet inappropriately e.g.social media, chat rooms and web forums However, with the right checks in place, the internet has also brought huge benefits for children.

The impact of sexual abuse, especially if never reported, or if children do not get support to recover, includes a range of physical, psychological and emotional problems including sexually transmitted disease, pregnancy, depression, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress, self-blame, self-harm and suicide. It can lead to confused ideas about appropriate relationships and behaviour. 

In order to make a disclosure a child has to find someone they can trust and who they feel safe telling. The abuser can exert control over their victim by persuading the child that they will not be believed, that the abuse is their fault or a fear of what their abuser may do if the child tells. Providing a safe space for a child to talk can be key to preventing further abuse.

SCSP fact sheets:

SCSP policy and guidance:

National guidance:

Real stories: 


    Other relevant information can be found on this website here: Information and resources or in the index on the left side of this page.

    If you are concerned about a child or young person, follow this link: Referring a safeguarding concern to Children’s Social Care


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