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Journal ArticleDOI

Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation: Knowledge, confidence and training within a contemporary UK social work practice and policy context

01 Dec 2016-British Journal of Social Work (Oxford University Press)-Vol. 46, Iss: 8, pp 2208-2226

Abstract: In 2014, research was undertaken to examine social workers’ confidence, understanding and awareness of child sexual abuse (CSA) as it was suggested that a decline in numbers of reported incidents might be due to a decline in levels of understanding and awareness. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with twenty-five first-line, middle and senior managers and two chairs of local safeguarding boards across six local authorities in England. Focus groups were conducted with fifty-four social workers. Key themes revealed a complex array of issues, ranging from the diverse forms of CSA and exploitation that social workers are required to address, the variable support and training available, and the inter-disciplinary nature of much of the work. Although social workers undertake this important work with a strong sense of commitment and concern for children, they face a number of challenges. Paradoxically, whilst their work on these cases is the source of intense scrutiny, the training, support and supervision, and role clarity required to undertake this work well are often overlooked. The aim of this paper is to discuss the research findings and to identify implications for social work practice, training, multi-agency work and future research.
Topics: Child sexual abuse (60%), Social work (60%), Safeguarding (54%), Focus group (53%)

Content maybe subject to copyright    Report

Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation:
Knowledge, Confidence and Training
within a Contemporary UK Social Work
Practice and Policy Context
Josephine Kwhali, Linda Martin, Geraldine Brady* and
Sarah J. Brown
Faculty of Health and Life Sciences, Coventry University, Coventry, CV1 5FB, UK
*Correspondence to Dr Geraldine Brady, Reader in Sociology of Childhood and Youth,
Faculty of Health and Life Science, Coventry University, Priory Street, Coventry, CV1
5FB, UK. E-mail: G.Brady@coventry.ac.uk
Abstract
In 2014, research was undertaken to examine social workers’ confidence, understanding
and awareness of child sexual abuse (CSA) as it was suggested that a decline in num-
bers of reported incidents might be due to a decline in levels of understanding and
awareness. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with twenty-five first-line, mid-
dle and senior managers and two chairs of local safeguarding boards across six local
authorities in England. Focus groups were conducted with fifty-four social workers. Key
themes revealed a complex array of issues, ranging from the diverse forms of CSA and
exploitation that social workers are required to address, the variable support and train-
ing available, and the inter-disciplinary nature of much of the work. Although social
workers undertake this important work with a strong sense of commitment and con-
cern for children, they face a number of challenges. Paradoxically, whilst their work on
these cases is the source of intense scrutiny, the training, support and supervision, and
role clarity required to undertake this work well are often overlooked. The aim of this
paper is to discuss the research findings and to identify implications for social work
practice, training, multi-agency work and future research.
Keywords: CSA, CSE, critical reflection, education, social work, training
Accepted: September 2016
# The Author 2016. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of
The British Association of Social Workers. All rights reserved.
British Journal of Social Work (2016) 46, 2208–2226
doi: 10.1093/bjsw/bcw154
Advance Access Publication November 14, 2016

Introduction
In March 2015, former British Prime Minister David Cameron stated
that child sexual abuse (CSA) was a ‘national threat’ and responding to
it a national priority. CSA occurs when a child is ‘forced or persuaded
to take part in sexual activities. This doesn’t have to be physical contact
and it can happen online’ (NSPCC, 2016). The definition of child sexual
exploitation (CSE), which is a form of CSA, was recently defined by
UK’s Department for Education (Department for Education and Home
Office, 2016) as when a child or young person under the age of eighteen
is ‘persuaded, coerced or forced into sexual activity in exchange for,
amongst other things, money, drugs/alcohol, gifts, affection or status’.
Social workers in England are at the forefront of the response to CSA
and CSE (CSA/E) and have important responsibilities for safeguarding
children and invoking child protection policies.
Despite the spotlight on CSA/E, child protection registration figures
and the number of children being made subject of child protection plans
for sexual abuse was lower than it was a decade ago and significantly
lower than two decades ago (Brown et al., 2011). Questions were raised
about the reasons for this decline, particularly since it contrasted with an
increase in reported incidents of CSA/E (NSPCC, 2015) and professional
practice had been challenged following reports of failures in responding
to CSA/E allegations (e.g. Jay, 2014). NSPCC scoping work suggested
that the reduction in reported incidents might be due to professionals’
decline in levels of understanding and awareness. Rapid developments
in practice, particularly in relation to CSE, and a shift from family sup-
port to child protection (Featherstone et al., 2013) made it difficult for
professionals to keep abreast of changes.
It was against this backdrop that research was commissioned by the
NSPCC to explore social workers’ confidence and understanding of
CSA. The research report is available on the NSPCC website (Martin
et al., 2014) and, in this paper, our focus is on the implications arising
from it. After outlining the method, we discuss in turn, noting the find-
ings and implications, two of the core themes from the research findings:
practice issues in relation to social workers’ knowledge and confidence;
and effective support, supervision and training. Finally, we identify the
implications for CSA/E practice, education, training and multi-agency
work that arose from the research.
Method
Ethical approval was gained from the authors’ university and the
Association of Directors of Children’s Services (England) Research
Group. An advisory group of experienced professionals was established
Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation 2209

to guide the research. Seven of the forty-five English local authorities
(LAs) invited to participate in the study agreed, and six were able to
participate within the time frame. The size and nature of these varied,
with three located in the East and West Midlands, one in London, one
in East Anglia and one in the North-West. Four had nationally ‘low’
and two ‘medium’ rates of reported cases of CSA (see Martin et al.
(2014) for more details about the method and participating authorities).
In each LA, two focus groups were held: one with Safeguarding Teams
and one with Duty and Assessment, Child in Need and/or Looked After
teams. In addition, a team manager and middle manager with responsi-
bility for safeguarding practice, the relevant senior manager and, where
possible, the Chair of the Local Safeguarding Children’s Board (LSCB)
were interviewed. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with
twenty-five first-line, middle and senior managers and two chairs of
LSCBs; twelve focus groups with a total of fifty-four social workers were
facilitated. All were digitally recorded and transcribed verbatim.
Participants varied in terms of level of social work experience and,
where possible, diverse social and ethnic backgrounds were represented.
There were two experienced social workers on the research team, one of
whom had held Head of Children’s Services roles. Their familiarity with
the pressures and challenges experienced by front line social workers
were to prove invaluable whilst collecting data in the field, balancing the
sensitivity of encouraging staff and managers to talk about their know-
ledge and confidence (or lack of) yet recognising when practice was un-
safe and needed improvement. The focus group and interview
transcripts were analysed using framework analysis (Richie and Lewis,
2003); initial emerging themes were used to develop a thematic frame-
work that helped to illuminate similarities and differences between par-
ticipants and LAs. To ensure confidentiality, the names of participating
LAs and individuals are not identified; data extracts are attributed by
LA and focus group number (e.g. LA1, FG2). Each LA was provided
with a summary of key findings respective to the authority, including
where participants had indicated need for improvement in practice and
training.
Findings, discussion and implications for practice
This section is organised around two of the core themes that emerged
from the research: ‘Practice issues, knowledge and confidence’ and
‘Effective support, supervision and training’ (Martin et al., 2014). Each
subsection will consider the main findings without seeking to repeat the
original report, before discussing the implications for CSA/E practice.
2210 Josephine Kwhali et al.

Main findings: practice issues, knowledge and confidence
The purpose of undertaking focus groups and interviews was to establish
how confident and self-assured social workers and managers felt in rela-
tion to working with CSA/E. Questions explored training and career
pathways into their current field of work, current role and details of
memorandum, post-qualifying and multidisciplinary training in the field
of child safeguarding. We also focused on experience of working in so-
cial work with children and families generally and with specific reference
to CSA/E including the nature, range and scale of their experience.
Some participants considered themselves to have considerable experi-
ence and knowledge of CSA work, while others were less experienced
and more cautious in their assertions. Social workers’ experience of
CSA was primarily acquired through the assessment or management of
cases where sexual abuse was perpetrated by a family member or associ-
ate. Procedures and guidance were well developed in this area and there
were usually other staff members or managers whom they could turn to
for advice. Participants recognised that incidents of CSA could emerge
through the identification of other categories of harm, through working
directly with children in foster-care, adoption and leaving care services
or through the assessment of a child initially referred for family support.
Social workers in our research reinforced the need for all practitioners
to have understanding of CSA/E and to build up their expertise and
knowledge. Whilst the management of CSA/E cases was viewed as
stressful and complex, it was considered a core component of social
workers’ safeguarding responsibilities. In general, social workers con-
sidered themselves confident in discussing and managing familial CSA,
whilst also reporting that confidence was undermined by staff shortages
and high caseloads.
Participants stressed that direct work in cases of CSA needs prepar-
ation and time for reflection—‘it’s not something you just go and do’
and this space was rarely available. For example, one social worker
(LA2, FG1) indicated that insufficient time was allocated to build trust-
ing relationships with children in a family where sibling abuse had taken
place, so she visited at the end of the day to ensure her manager was un-
aware of the additional hours being spent. Fine and Teram (2013) per-
ceive that the organisational climate can be such that social workers feel
the need to respond by masking and smoothing institutional inadequa-
cies. They argue that, whilst this may be a way of supporting individual
families, acting overtly to address perceived social injustice is more
likely to lead to institutional change.
Social workers gave examples of cases being closed either because the
child or alleged abuser had been removed from the abusive situation or
as a result of more pressing referrals. This left the child and other family
Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation 2211

members vulnerable at a point when the investigating agencies with-
drew. One social worker warned ‘you can forget there’s a child in the
middle of it’ (LA5, FG2) and another said ‘it isn’t all about a Police in-
vestigation, it’s about them’ (LA2, FG2). Social workers in four author-
ities (1, 3, 4 and 5) raised specific concerns when the police were
undertaking investigations and the lack of clarity as to their own role in
supporting children and other family members. They also expressed con-
cern about potential delays in children accessing therapeutic interven-
tion. Also, ‘“stalling” for so long and telling them that they’ve done the
right thing but actually we’re going to do nothing about it for a
bit’(LA5, FG1) whilst criminal investigations were concluded potentially
made it worse for a child if left unsupported to deal with the aftermath
of sexual abuse disclosure. A social worker spoke of her distress of
working with a young girl (age not specified) who had been raped and
the trauma for the girl in undergoing medical and criminal procedures,
commenting ‘And it’s left with you to sort of hold it, it’s all left on you’
(LA3, FG1).
Less confidence was shown by research participants when cases
involved grooming, trafficking, internet abuse and other types of exploit-
ative behaviour and where multi-agency responses were required. Few
research participants had direct experience of working with trafficked or
groomed children. They consistently expressed uncertainty as to their
role in partnership working and how the social work function might best
be exercised in assessing and supporting children and young people sub-
ject to CSE. Confidence was further eroded by the allocation of cases
based on numerical capacity or availability of staff, rather than levels of
expertise or prior experience.
The uncertainty regarding the social work role was also evident in so-
cial workers’ and managers’ discussions of the Multi Agency
Safeguarding Hubs (MASH) that were incrementally developed follow-
ing the Munro review (2011) of child protection. Established to improve
information sharing and decision making between agencies when cases
of potential child exploitation were referred or identified, social workers
in one authority (LA2) knew little about the newly established MASH
team, commenting that it dealt mainly with cases of grooming and CSE.
When asked whether such children and young people were then referred
under section 47 and made subject to child protection plans, the social
workers indicated otherwise, suggesting that such cases were matters for
the police.
Management participants, including team managers and those working
at a strategic level, expressed some uncertainty about the interrelation-
ship between MASH and child protection services. They felt there was a
lack of clarity between the MASH and the recording and management
of CSE cases and those of familial abuse managed within children’s so-
cial work. This leads to concerns as to the potential under-recording of
2212 Josephine Kwhali et al.

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Abstract: The aim of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA or ‘the Inquiry’) is to investigate whether public bodies and other non-state institutions have taken seriously their responsibility to protect children from sexual abuse in England and Wales, and to make meaningful recommendations for change, to help ensure that children now and in the future are better protected from sexual abuse. As defined in current government policy in England and Wales, child sexual abuse involves forcing or enticing a child or young person under the age of 18 to take part in sexual activities. It includes contact and non-contact abuse, child sexual exploitation (CSE) and grooming a child in preparation for abuse (HM Government, 2015b). However, definitions and understandings of what counts as child sexual abuse have been subject to substantial change over time. As part of its work, the Inquiry commissioned this rapid evidence assessment (REA) to understand what the social and political discourses have been about child sexual abuse, and the ways in which these discourses may have influenced responses to child sexual abuse by institutions. These questions have cross-cutting relevance for the work of the Inquiry. The overarching aim of this REA was to summarise the existing evidence base about social and political discourses concerning child sexual abuse in England and Wales from the 1940s to 2017 and identify the ways in which those discourses may have influenced institutional responses to such abuse.

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"Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation..." refers background in this paper

  • ...…able to enter interprofessional negotiations on an equal footing but ‘role slumping’ (the practice of higher level managers intervening in decisions that should be made at practitioner level) (Katz and Kahn, 1978; Searle and Patent, 2013) potentially undermines their ability to do this effectively....

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    [...]

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