5.6 Children Displaying Harmful Sexual Behaviour

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This chapter was updated in February 2018 with a revised flowchart


1. Introduction

While sexual exploration and experimentation are a normal part of childhood development, there are circumstances in which children are sexually harmed by other children and the consequences for the victim can be just as serious as when the abuser is an adult.

The primary objective of all work with children who sexually harm must be the protection of victims and prevention of a repetition of the sexually harmful behaviour.

Working Together guidance states that professional interventions with children who display sexually harmful behaviour should be coordinated as part of the multi-disciplinary safeguarding children system.

2. Definition

The boundary between what is abusive and what is part of normal childhood or youthful experimentation can be blurred. Professionals’ ability to determine whether a child’s sexual behaviour is developmental, inappropriate or abusive will hinge around the related concepts of true consent, power imbalance and exploitation.

Developmental sexual activity encompasses those actions, which are to be expected from children as they move from infancy through to an adult understanding of their physical, emotional and behavioural relationships with each other. Such sexual activity is essentially information gathering and experience testing. It is characterised by mutual consent and understanding.

Sexual behaviour can be inappropriate socially, inappropriate to development, or both. In considering whether behaviour fits into this category, it is important to consider what negative effects it has on any of the parties involved and what concerns it raises about a child. It should be recognised that some actions may be motivated by information seeking, but still cause significant upset, confusion, worry, physical damage. It may also be that the behaviour is ‘acting out’ which may derive from other sexual situations to which the child has been exposed.

Abusive sexual activity is characterised by behaviour involving coercion, threats, aggression together with secrecy, or where a participant relies on an unequal power base.

It may include sexually harmful behaviour by one child/young person to another through the sending of messages and images via the Internet (social networks such as Face book or YouTube), mobile phones etc, which are intimidating and are intended to frighten the other child. The damage inflicted by cyber-bullying via the internet can frequently be underestimated. It can cause considerable distress to children, to the extent that it affects their health and development or, at the extreme, causes them significant harm including self-harm.

Professionals must be aware of the legitimate concerns about the inappropriateness of placing labels upon children, given their developmentally immature status, for example, referring to a child as a ‘young sex offender’ or ‘young abuser’. Therefore the use of terms such as ‘young people with sexually problematic or abusive behaviours’ is considered more appropriate and accurate as it emphasises their developmental status first and foremost whilst acknowledging the behaviours that require attention.

3. Recognition

When there is suspicion or an allegation of a child having been sexually abusive to another child, it should be referred immediately to the Surrey Children's Services or the Police Public Safeguarding Investigation Unit (SIU) in accordance with the Contacts and Referrals Procedure.

It should be recognised that disclosure of sexually inappropriate or abusive behaviour by a child can be extremely distressing for parents or carers. They may react with disbelief and take on board some of the child’s minimisation. It is therefore important that professionals help them through this process at an early stage so they can also help the child

It must be acknowledged that not all children displaying problematic, harmful or abusive sexual behaviour have been sexually abused themselves. They may have been living in highly sexual environments with few boundaries, or been exposed to sexual activity or information which is beyond their natural level of development and understanding, or live in violent chaotic family environments where there is little warmth and empathy. In general, the younger the child with this type of behaviour the more likely they are to have experienced or witnessed sexual activity.

4. Factors to Consider when Investigating a Child who has (Allegedly) Displayed Harmful Sexual Behaviour

In order to more fully determine the nature of the incident, the presence of exploitation in terms of equality, consent and coercion should be given consideration:


Consider differentials of physical, cognitive and emotional development, power, control, status and authority, passive and assertive tendencies.


An agreement including all the following:

  • Understanding what is proposed based on age, maturity, developmental level, functioning and experience;
  • Knowledge of society's standards for what is being proposed;
  • Awareness of potential consequences and alternatives;
  • Assumption that agreements or disagreements will be respected equally;
  • Voluntary decision;
  • Mental competence.


The child who (allegedly) sexually abuses may use techniques like bribing, manipulation and emotional threats of secondary gains and losses - for example loss of love, friendship, etc. Some may use physical force, brutality or the threat of these regardless of victim resistance.

The following questions may be used as a helpful guide in looking at a particular incident:

  • What is the nature of the relationship between the child who (allegedly) sexually harmed and his/her victim?
  • How sophisticated is the activity? Is the type of sexual activity age appropriate?
  • How often and for how long did the activity take place?
  • Has it become more frequent, severe or deviant?
  • Is there overt aggression, coercion or bribery?
  • Have there been any attempts to secure secrecy by any of the individuals involved?
  • Does the child who has (allegedly) sexually harmed appear to target a particular type of victim?
  • What was the response by the child’s parents/carers - dismissive and blaming, or shocked but understanding?

Professionals need to understand that the sexual behaviour of children can be placed along the continuum from healthy/developmental, to problematic and abusive. It is important to note that it is the relationship and interaction that defines sexual abuse - rather than an isolated behaviour, taken out of context. A range of professional responses is therefore needed to fit individual circumstances. For some children, educative inputs may be enough to address the behaviour. For others, particularly those whose behaviour is assessed to be coercive, a range of family, individual and group interventions should be considered.

In evaluating sexual behaviour of children, the above information should be used only as a guide. Further information and advice is available from A.C.T who will be able to assist professionals in identifying and responding to sexual behaviour of concern in children and adolescents.

5. Procedure

See also Appendix 1: Sexually Harmful Behaviour following Police Report of Incident - Flowchart.

Strategy Discussion/Meeting

In all cases where the suspected or alleged abuser is a child, the Police and Surrey Children's Services must convene a Strategy Discussion or, more often, a Strategy Meeting within the required time-scales (see Strategy Discussions and Section 47 Enquiries Procedure, Timescales of Strategy Discussions/Meeting.

When the children concerned are the responsibility of different authorities, each must be represented at the Strategy Meeting, which will usually be convened and chaired by the authority in which the victim lives.

Children with sexually problematic/abusive behaviour who are returning to the community following a custodial sentence or time in Secure Accommodation also require consideration through these procedures.

Separate Strategy Discussions must be convened for the victim and the alleged abuser.

Different social workers should be allocated for the child who is the victim and the child who has harmed, even when they remain in the same household, to ensure that they are both supported through the process of enquiry and that each child’s needs are fully assessed and met.

The Strategy Meeting(s) will be convened and chaired by Surrey Children's Services and a record made. The following individuals should be invited to the meeting:

  • A representative from A.C.T (in relation to the meeting on the abusing child);
  • Discussion should take place with the Surrey Sexual Assault Referral Centre (SARC) (in relation to meeting the victim);
  • Social worker for the child who is suspected or alleged to have sexually abused another person;
  • Social worker for the child alleged to have been abused;
  • Social workers' line manager;
  • Police;
  • YOT (in Surrey known as the Youth Support Service) representative where the child who is suspected or alleged to have sexually abused is aged 10 or over;
  • School representative/s for the relevant child (particularly if the concerns suggest that other children in the school setting may have been or may be at risk of being abused);
  • School Nurse or other health service staff as required, for example CAMHS;
  • Representatives of fostering or residential care as appropriate.

The meeting must plan in detail the respective roles of those involved in the Section 47 Enquiry and ensure the following objectives are met:

  • Information relevant to the protection and needs of the alleged victim is gathered: discussion with Surrey SARC should occur;

  • Any criminal aspects of the alleged abuse are investigated;
  • Any information relevant to any abusive experiences and protection needs of the child who is suspected or alleged to have sexually abused is gathered.

In planning the investigation the following factors should be considered:

  • The immediate protection of the children involved;
  • The age of the children involved;
  • Seriousness of the alleged incident/s;
  • The vulnerability of the alleged victim;
  • The victim’s parents’ attitude and ability to protect their child(ren);
  • That risks to, and needs of, siblings of young sexual offenders are assessed and reassessed if there are significant new concerns to ensure that younger siblings of convicted sexual offenders are safe;
  • The risks to other children /young people, if the child who has (allegedly) sexually harmed another lives in a foster/residential/boarding or other shared environment;
  • The response of the parents of the child who has (allegedly) sexually harmed to their child’s behaviour;
  • Whether there are grounds to believe that child who is suspected or alleged to have sexually abused has also been abused;
  • Whether there is reason to suspect that adults have been involved in the development of the alleged sexually harmful behaviours;
  • The likelihood and desirability of criminal prosecutions taking place;
  • Arrangements to enable the children to continue their school attendance/education, which will include assistance with a risk assessment for the school;
  • Consideration of referral to the Surrey SARC to ensure that all health needs of both the victim and the child who has been harmed has been considered, this includes the risk of pregnancy, sexual health screening and treatment;
  • Whether to initiate an AIM2 Assessment - see Appendix 2: Definition of AIM2 Assessment.

Where there is suspicion that the child under investigation is also a victim of abuse then the Strategy Meeting must consider the order in which the interviews will take place.

Record of the Strategy Discussion/Meeting

The record of the telephone strategy discussion or face to face strategy meeting must be sent to all parties involved within 24 hours.


A strategy meeting will be convened as per the guidelines in Strategy Discussions and Section 47 Enquiries Procedure, Timescales of Strategy Discussions/Meeting.

Review strategy meetings/discussions will be held throughout the process of the investigation and at its conclusion.

Criminal Investigation

The Police will decide whether an alleged offence should be subject to a criminal investigation.

It may, at an early stage or at any point during such an investigation, be concluded that the sexually harmful behaviour did take place but there is insufficient evidence, or it is not in the public interest to proceed on a criminal path. In such circumstances the multi-agency group should reconvene to consider whether any ongoing engagement / intervention is required to further assess and/or manage any risk identified. The group should also consider how the young person and family will be informed of the end of criminal matters such that risk management and addressing the behaviour and precipitating factors is not compromised.

With regards to 'sexting', the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has recommended that: "it would not usually be in the public interest to prosecute the consensual sharing of an image between two children of a similar age in a relationship. A prosecution may be appropriate in other scenarios, however, such as those involving exploitation, grooming or bullying"

From the perspective of the criminal investigation, when a child (aged ten or over) is alleged to have committed an offence, the first interview with him/her must be undertaken by the Police, within the provisions of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) 1984, i.e. it will be an audio taped interview held in a police station, under caution and with a parent or another appropriate adult present.

There may be circumstances in which this approach may not be in the best interests of the overall management of the investigation or the welfare of the child involved, for example when the child has a significant learning difficulty or disability or other vulnerability. In these circumstances, the Police may agree it may be preferable for a social worker (and other professional as appropriate) to interview the child.

If during the course of being interviewed as a victim of or witness to alleged abuse, under the provisions of the Achieving Best Evidence Guidance, a child admits offences, these incidents should normally be the subject of a separate interview. This should only be the case where explicit Police agreement has been obtained to this course of action.

Throughout the enquiry the immediate protection of all child(ren) involved must be ensured.

Where the decision is reached that the alleged behaviour does not constitute abuse and there is no need for a Section 47 Enquiry, the details of the referral and the reasons for the decision must be recorded. In each case and in respect of each child involved or potentially involved, Children’s Services will determine whether or not an Assessment of need is warranted.

6. Outcomes of Section 47 Enquiries

The outcome of Section 47 Enquiries is as described in the Strategy Discussions and Section 47 Enquiries Procedure. However, the position of the alleged victim and the child who is suspected or alleged to have sexually abused should be considered separately.

If the information gathered in the course of the Section 47 Enquiry suggests that the child who is suspected or alleged to have sexually abused is also a victim, or potential victim, of abuse including neglect, a Child Protection Conference must be convened.

Child Protection Conference

Consideration should be given to inviting a Youth Offending Team (In Surrey known as Youth Support Service) representative to the conference of any child(ren) aged eight or over presenting harmful behaviours, and informing the local YOT of the meeting in cases of younger children.

In addition to carrying out the usual functions, the Child Protection Conference must consider how to respond to the child’s needs as a possible abuser.

Where the child who is suspected or alleged to have sexually abused is not made subject to a Child Protection Plan, consideration should be given to the need for services to address any sexually abusive behaviour and the inter-agency responsibility to manage any risks, through the use of Multi-Agency Planning Meetings.

Multi-Agency Child in Need Meetings

Where there are no grounds for a Child Protection Conference, but concerns remain regarding the child's sexually problematic behaviour, consideration should be given to a Family Action Plan. Whether the child is a Child in Need or a Child in Need of Protection, it is important that they receive the appropriate level of intervention commensurate with their level of needs and risks.

Children who are victims and those who are abusers are likely to have complex needs requiring a multi-agency response. Therefore, in cases where there are no grounds for holding a child protection conference, or where one has been held but a protection plan did not result, a multi-agency meeting should be convened to plan multi-agency services for a child in need.

It is not envisaged that universal services would be able to deal with such a degree of complexity through the processes associated with the Early Help Assessment (EHA).

These multi-agency meetings should not be confused with the Multi-Agency Public Protection Arrangements (MAPPA), in which arrangements are made to protect the community from known potentially dangerous offenders. However, the local co-ordinator for the MAPPA in either the police or probation providers must be advised of the case.

For each child (the victim and the child with harmful behaviours), a multi-agency planning meeting should be convened by Surrey Children's Services to:

  • Share information;
  • Agree to undertake:
    • An assessment of the needs of the victim/s;
    • An assessment of the needs and risks posed by the child with harmful behaviours;
  • Agree to refer for a specialist assessment for either child, as required;
  • Set a timetable for both assessments;
  • Coordinate interim:
    • Support for the victim/s;
    • Risk management for the child with harmful behaviours;
    • Support for the parents/carers.
  • Allocate agency and professional roles, including which agency will take responsibility for the interim risk management plan.

Those invited should include participants of the Strategy Discussion/Meeting and representatives from health, including child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS), the school and any other professionals with relevant knowledge of the child and their parent(s).

On completion of the assessments, the multi-agency meeting should be reconvened for each child to consider the outcome, and to review and coordinate the roles of relevant agencies in providing identified interventions, including a risk management plan and specialist input for children with special needs.

It should be clear which agency is responsible for the risk management plan for a child with harmful behaviours. The plan should always address the risk to other children wherever the child spends time, including at school and within or near to the home address or placement whenever a child isLooked After by a local authority. A plan must be in place to minimise risk of future offending.

Both the risk management plan and support for a child who is the victim should be reviewed at regular multi-agency meetings. The Chair of the multi-agency meeting should decide the frequency of the review meetings according to each child’s needs / risk. At the point of closure, the review must consider the possible need for long term monitoring and the availability of advice and other services.

Children and Young People who Disengage from Services

Where a child or young person assessed as posing an ongoing risk of sexual harm disengages form services the multi-agency group should be notified to review the risks and consider any re-engagement / risk management strategies.  Where the intervention has become single agency that agency should convene a professionals meeting to involve police, SCS, ACT, and YSS.

Children Moving into or Re-entering a Local Authority Area

Children with inappropriate sexual or very violent behaviour who are re-entering the community following a custodial sentence or time in secure accommodation, or who move into an area from another local authority, require the multi-agency response (assessment / intervention) described above. The response should be initiated at the earliest opportunity.

Where a child who has been convicted of sexual offences involving the abuse of other children is released into the community, the local coordinator for the Multi-Agency Public Protection Arrangements (MAPPA) must be notified in order to consider if the young person should be discussed under these arrangements.

Appendix 1: Sexually Harmful Behaviour following Police Report of Incident - Flowchart


Appendix 2: Definition of an AIM 2 Assessment

The Assessment, Intervention, Moving On - Version2 (AIM2) Model of Assessment (Print et al. 2006)

The AIM2 assessment is an actuarial measure developed within the UK. It is made up of a number of evidence-based risk and protective factors associated with young people who do or do not go on to sexually re-offend. It includes a ‘Level of Supervision’ matrix that allows professionals to categorise whether a high, medium or low level of supervision is required in minimising risk. The tool has a total of 75 items including 26 items addressing static concerns, 25 items addressing dynamic concerns, 6 items addressing static strengths and 18 items addressing dynamic strengths, and is based on four domains: Offence Specific Issues (nature of sexual offending, attitudes, victim characteristics, motivation to engage); Developmental Issues (early life experiences, health issues, resilience factors); Family Issues (level of family functioning/dysfunction, attitudes and beliefs, sexual boundaries, parental competence); and Environment (opportunity, support networks, community attitudes).

This page is correct as printed on Tuesday 24th of April 2018 10:34:07 AM please refer back to this website ( for updates.