Child abuse has increased due to Covid-19. How can we better safeguard our children?
Everyone deserves a happy childhood. Unfortunately, it’s a sad fact that over 2 in 5 adults in England and Wales state that they experienced some form of child abuse before they were 16. This works out to almost 25 million survivors of child abuse as recorded by the March 2019 Crime Survey of England and Wales.
But, what about after March 2019? In December 2019, the World Health Organisation’s China Country Office received reports of an unusual pneumonia in Wuhan, China. By January 2020, the novel coronavirus had spread to other parts of the world, and in March 2020, it was announced that Covid-19 was now characterised as a pandemic. In a bid to slow the spread of the virus in the UK, on 23 March 2020, the nation went into lockdown. Lockdown was a series of strict measures that meant everyone was expected to stay home, study at home and work from home.
For many of us, the lockdown simply meant getting used to spending almost 24 hours a day within the four walls of our homes. But, for countless children across the globe, it also meant spending every hour of their day scared, at risk of abuse, and with nowhere to turn for help. Below is a brief overview of some of the data surrounding child abuse and its increase during Covid-19-related lockdowns, alongside expert commentary on what has happened, and how to better safeguard our children.
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- Covid-19-related lockdowns have seen child sexual abuse rates soar
- Police forces report increase in online child sexual abuse over lockdown
- Reports of child abuse have been rising over the years
- Children are more likely to be abused in their own home than anywhere else
- Data from the 1930s onwards sees reports of child sexual abuse spike in the 70’s
- 64% of police forces say Covid-19 risks crimes against children not being investigated
- Number of counselling sessions for child abuse have decreased since 2011
- What to do if a child you know has experienced or is at risk of abuse
Covid-19-related lockdowns have seen child sexual abuse rates soar
The Covid-19 pandemic meant unprecedented disruption both to the economy and to society as a whole. To find out how this disruption affected rates of child abuse, NetClean, an organisation dedicated to safeguarding against child sexual abuse material in the workplace, ran a research project.
They surveyed 470 law enforcement officers from 39 countries, all of whom work on cases pertaining to child sexual abuse (CSA). Data was gathered from countries including the US, Sweden and the UK, with 47% of respondents being from North America, 44% from Europe and 3% each from Oceania and Asia. 92% of officers reported that they’d seen an increase in child sexual abuse crime due to Covid-19, with 68% noting they’d seen an increase in online CSA crime and 11% noticing an increase in offline CSA crime. 21% also reported an increase in the number of incoming child abuse cases and investigations.
According to the report, some of the reasons for these increases over lockdown include:
- Lockdown and social restrictions leading to adults and children spending more time online.
- More time online has allowed perpetrators to build new child sexual abuse forums and even develop business models for sharing CSA materials online.
- Isolation and stress prompting offenders to “act out” or fall victim to their own addictions.
- Children being in isolation or in close proximity to their abuser, with less chance of the abuse being detected or prevented by teachers, social workers and the like.
The same report also found that a shocking 64% of police officers believed there was a risk that some types of crimes against children were not being investigated due to a change in priorities during Covid-19.
Police forces report increase in online child sexual abuse over lockdown
Police forces across the globe have also reported that they’ve observed either a considerable increase or moderate increase in online activity related to child sexual abuse over lockdown.
The NetClean survey found that 39% of police reported a considerable increase in attempts by perpetrators to contact children about CSA materials, while 17% reported an increase in activity on darknet forums about CSA. A shocking 16% reported an increase in livestreamed child sexual abuse and 27% of officers also reported a considerable increase in self-produced CSA material and 27% of officers also reported a considerable increase in self-produced CSA material. (Self-produced CSA materials refer to those produced without a sexual intent by a child, or an older child producing sexual material with consent, which then ends up on the internet).
As the NetClean report explains, children have turned to creating material of themselves and exchanging it for money, due to Covid-19 pandemic making it harder to access other forms of making money. If you’re worried about your child’s wellbeing in the digital world, our guide to sexting in the digital age has further tips and resources for online child sexual.
Reports of child abuse have been rising over the years
While lockdown led to massive increases in reported child abuse crimes, research suggests this is against a backdrop of reports of child abuse rising over the years. We used data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) Crime Survey of England and Wales (CSEW) to compare rates of child abuse in 2016 versus 2019. The survey found that rates of reporting child abuse have increased across the four types of abuse investigated: psychological abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse and having witnessed domestic violence.
The ONS survey found an increase in adults reporting being sexually abused as a child from 6.6% in 2016 to 7.5% in 2019. More adults were likely to report having witnessed domestic violence in 2019 than 2016, and the same is said for those going through physical abuse, and those who suffered emotional abuse.
Unfortunately, in the 2019 survey, 1 in 5 (21.3%) adults who experienced sexual abuse in childhood reported that they never told anyone about it at the time. While the surveys suggest there’s been an increase in self-reporting, it’s equally possible there are many children unable to speak up.
While online abuse has increased over lockdown, social media and other platforms, when used in a positive way, can be powerful forces to encourage survivors to come forward. Professor Amaka Offiah, Chairperson of the European Society of Paediatric Radiology Child Abuse Taskforce and Publications Committees, provides further insight. She states that social media – as well as newspapers, magazines, television and radio – play several vital roles in encouraging children to speak up, and preventing perpetrators from descending into abuse:
- Providing resources for people to deal with stress: People can find groups to join, they can speak to someone on the phone, access helplines, and generally get comfort from the knowledge that they’re not going through stress alone.
- Prompting frontline workers (like teachers and social workers) to spot abuse: If there’s been a particularly traumatic case in the news, teachers and social service workers become more aware and look more carefully for signs of abuse. Following major cases in the public eye, there’s generally a spike in the detection or pick-up rate of abuse.
- Providing resources for older children who may be at risk of abuse: Children who use social media and other platforms may be able to use helplines and access resources to protect them from the risk of abuse.
“Above all,” says Professor Offiah, “social media and other platforms should be geared towards preventing abuse from happening at all.”
Children are more likely to be abused in their own home than anywhere else
To ensure safeguarding measures are reaching the right places, it’s important to note where children are being abused. Institutional abuse is more likely to happen in an educational setting, with 8% of adults who reported having experienced sexual abuse before the age of 16 stating this happened at school, 2.2% at a doctor’s surgery and 1.4% in a care home or foster home.
While these figures are extremely worrying, the Crime Survey of England and Wales found that children are more likely to be abused in their own home or in someone else’s home than anywhere else. In 2016, 39% of adults reported that their childhood abuse occurred in their own home, and 45% said it occurred in someone else’s home. Similarly, in 2019, 37% of adults said they experienced childhood abuse in their own home and 40% stated it occurred in someone else’s home.
These unfortunate statistics could explain why the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel reported a 27% increase in serious incident notifications involving children dying or being seriously harmed in the months encompassing the first UK lockdown.
Data from the 1930s onwards sees reports of child sexual abuse spike in the 70’s
To get an overall view of child sexual abuse over the decades, we looked at Operation Hydrant’s information on historic cases. Operation Hydrant is a coordination hub that brings together all non-recent child sexual abuse investigations across all police forces in the UK. Their data reveals that child sexual abuse was at a high in the 1970s. This correlates with research by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, whose Truth Project asked victims and survivors of child sexual assault about their experiences.
More than a third (35%) of Truth Project participants in 2019 stated that they were first sexually abused in the 1970s . While many have attempted to attribute this to the 70s being a time of hedonism, Chief Constable Simon Bailey, the national lead for child protection and abuse investigations, noted that the one constant in all cases was an abuse of power.
It was only when the Children Act 1989 came into force in 1991 that children were granted the right to protection from abuse and a framework was established for the welfare and safety of children. The government’s statutory guidance, Working Together to Safeguard Children was last updated in 2018. It’s crucial that legislation is kept current to ensure we’re doing all we can to safeguard children, and that the government assess what changes may be necessary in a post-Covid world.
64% of police forces say Covid-19 risks crimes against children not being investigated
While safeguarding measures have helped stem the risk of incidences of child abuse rising back to the rates in the 1970s, Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdowns could disrupt these efforts.
According to the officers who responded to NetClean’s survey, 64% believe the pandemic has had an effect on their capacity to investigate CSA crimes. An increase in workload, limitations when working from home, difficulties conducting interviews, being unable to execute search warrants and limited court processes could all lead to cases not being investigated to their fullest.
Shockingly, over half (52%) of the police officers that responded to NetClean’s survey across the world stated that the Covid-19 pandemic will have far-reaching consequences on CSA crime. They predicted an increase in cases post-Covid due to underreporting during the pandemic, as well as potential decreases in law enforcement resources for child abuse cases due to backlogs elsewhere.
Number of counselling sessions for child abuse have decreased since 2011
When a child – or adult – reveals they’ve been abused, it’s crucial they’re given the support needed to cope with what’s happened. Data from the ONS shows that the number of counselling sessions delivered by Childline for abuse-related concerns has slowly dropped over the last decade. Between 2010 and 2019, counselling sessions for abuse-related concerns dropped by half (48%) – from approximately 34,100 in 2010 to 19,900 in 2019. The ONS explains that this is partly due to more sessions taking place online – which takes longer than phone counselling sessions – and because fewer volunteers are available later in the day, when sessions are most common.
What to do if a child you know has experienced or is at risk of abuse
Victims and survivors who contributed to the Truth Project noted that there’d been a failure by adults and institutions to recognise the signs of child sexual abuse. Professor Offiah notes that “it’s the responsibility of every adult to safeguard children, particularly in organisations such as schools, hospitals, social services or the police.” She’s provided some advice – based on her expertise of physical abuse in children under 2 – that may be helpful:
“Some of the signs of physical abuse to look out for are:
- Bruising on the limbs and along the abdomen, particularly if the child is under 1, as, at this age, they’ll be unable to walk around by themselves and therefore unable to fall.
- Unexplained bleeding from the nose and/or mouth.
- Scratches that don’t look like the child could have caused them.
- Swelling of a limb or reduced movement of a limb.”
We cover how to spot signs of child sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect in our article on the topic.
If you believe a child you know is at risk of abuse, Professor Offiah has the following recommendations:
- “Share your concerns with the child’s teacher (or another teacher, if you’d feel more comfortable approaching someone else), or speak to the head of the school. You may want to find your school’s safeguarding policy to learn exactly what to do and what to expect once your concerns are raised.
- Similarly, if you spot abuse in a religious or other organisation, you can address your concerns with the head of that establishment – such as the priest, pastor or imam.
- If you’d rather stay anonymous, contact the NSPCC helpline or other relevant charity.
- You could also contact the police or social services (anonymously if you prefer).
“Above all else, if you suspect a child is in danger, this certainly should not be kept to yourself.” Read our detailed article on how to report child abuse for more information. We recommend reporting abuse to an external agency or organisation if you suspect that leadership of the organisation concerned may have reasons to try to minimise or conceal the issues to the outside world.
The coronavirus pandemic has claimed lives, ripped apart families and caused immense pressure across the public and private sectors. . While state lockdowns did help stem the rise in Covid-19 cases, we need to acknowledge the devastating impact the lockdowns have had on the most vulnerable in our society. If you need to talk about your situation, or would like to pursue a child abuse claim on behalf of yourself or a loved one, contact us for a no-obligation chat.