5.7 Children Displaying Harmful Sexual Behaviour
This chapter was updated in June 2020
- 1. Introduction
- 2. What is Harmful Sexual Behaviour (HSB)
- 3. Stages of Sexual Development
- 4. Recognition
- 5. Procedure
- 6. Outcomes of Section 47 Enquiries
- Appendix 1: Sexually Harmful Behaviour following Police Report of Incident - Flowchart
- Appendix 2: Definition of an AIM 2 Assessment
Harmful Sexual behaviour can involve one or more children engaging in sexual discussions or acts that are inappropriate for their age or stage of development. These can range from using sexually explicit word and phrases to full penetrative sex with other children or adults
2. What is Harmful Sexual Behaviour (HSB)
Harmful Sexual Behaviours are likely to include:
- Power imbalance which may involve significant difference in age and developmental factors
- Degradation and threats
- Compulsive behaviours
- Age inappropriate knowledge and experience
- Grooming including use of bribes, gifts
- Removal of inhibitors through for example use of drugs / alcohol
HSB may also include:
- Sending and receiving messages and images via the internet / social media
- Cyber bullying causing intimidation, fear and distress leading to impaired health & wellbeing, significant harm or self-harming behaviours
When assessing if a child’s sexual behaviour is harmful professionals must take into account age, as well as their physical, intellectual and emotional development.
3. Stages of Sexual Development
Children pass through different stages of sexual development as they grow and their awareness and curiosity of sexual matters changes with them. Due to children developing sexual awareness at different rates it can be difficult to tell the difference between age appropriate sexual exploration and the warning signs of HSB.
Further information is available at NSPCC Guidelines on the 4 stages of Health Sexual Development
Professionals must be aware of the language they use to describe children who may be exhibiting some of the warning signs of HSB and should avoid labelling such as 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.
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 Single Point of Access (C-SPA) Monday – Friday 9am-5pm on 0300 470 9100 or Emergency duty team if out of hours on 01483 517898 AND Surrey Police.
Indicators of HSB include:
- Sexualised behaviour that is significantly more advanced than that of a child of the same age and ability showing healthy sexual development
- Lack of inhibition causing concern – such as a pre-school child talking about sex acts or a 12 year old masturbating in public
- Sexual interest in adults and other children of very different age to their own
- Forceful or aggressive sexual behaviour
- Compulsive habits
- Sexualised behaviour impacting upon progress and achievement
- Disclosure of age inappropriate sexual activity
Professionals should be aware of Assessment Intervention and Moving on Guidance (AIM) which supports professional decision making to determine the level of concern when an incident has occurred and a response to inappropriate HSB is required.
Disclosure of sexually inappropriate or abusive behaviour by a child can be extremely distressing, particularly for parents or carers. In this situation they may react with shock, anger or be in denial about what has happened, they may also 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. Early help for the child and family can make a real difference and help to manage the potentially devastating impact of the details of the emerging concern.
A child or young person exhibiting HSB may be both a perpetrator and victim. However professionals should acknowledge that not all children displaying problematic, harmful or abusive sexual behaviours 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.
Professionals should report concerns immediately to Police and Surrey Children's Single Point of Access Monday – Friday 9am-5pm on 0300 470 9100 or Emergency duty team if out of hours on 01483 517898.
The attending Police Officer will complete a Single Combined Assessment of Risk Form (SCARF) for any victims and alleged abusers under 18.
Upon receipt of the completed SCARF Police and Children’s Services should consider the immediate risk to the victim and alleged abuser and put in place appropriate safety measures.
Separate Strategy Meetings should be arranged for any victims and alleged abusers under the age of 18 within 72 hours. ACT, Surrey Family Services and SARC should be invited to the meeting or consulted with by the lead social worker for the concern.
In all cases where the victim or alleged abuser is a child, the Police and Surrey Children's Services must convene a Strategy Meeting within 72 Hours Separate Strategy Discussions must be convened for the victim and the alleged abuser.
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.
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.
Allegations of Sexual Harm by children need a different approach to be adopted in the Strategy Meeting. 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, in all cases A.C.T/SFS and SARC must be consulted with by the lead social worker: and a written record of their conversations/discussions should be included in notes:
- 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);
- Surrey Family Services or named Social worker for the child who is alleged abuser or alleged to have sexually abused another person;
- Social worker for the child alleged to have been abused;
- Social workers' line manager;
- Youth Intervention Team representative where the child who is alleged abuser 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 agencies involved in the Section 47 Enquiry and ensure the following objectives are met:
Child and Family Assessment is completed for all the individual victims and the alleged abuser under 18 years of age or under 25 for a young adult with Disabilities.
- 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 by Police;
- Any information relevant to any abusive experiences and protection needs of the child who is 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);
- Which agencies if any are the alleged abuser / victim already open / known to
- The risks to, and needs of, siblings of the alleged abuser are assessed and reassessed if there are significant new concerns to ensure that 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 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;
- Has access been requested by the police for Children’s Services/medical/school records etc? Can anyone in the meeting assist in gaining the information if not done so already?
- Whether to initiate an AIM2 Assessment - see Appendix 2: Definition of AIM2 Assessment.
- Who will undertake the AIM2 & within what timescale?
- Who will contact the solicitor, young person & parents/guardian to gain consent for an AIM2?
- What paperwork is needed by ACT in order to complete the AIM2 – who will supply this?
- What other assessments are available to be submitted to CPS? Who will gain consent for them to be shared if applicable?
- What is the current situation with the victim? Who is their single point of contact (SPOC) throughout this process?
- Who is responsible for updating any other agencies working with the young person if they are not present at the meeting?
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.
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 Harmful Sexual 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 as either a joint decision making panel or as part of an investigation conclusion meeting 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', guidance has been published by the CPS (see here) advising prosecutors that ‘care should be taken when considering ‘sexting’ that involve images taken of persons under 18.’ The guidance advises that it would not usually be in the public interest to prosecute the consensual sharing of sexual images between children and this would suggest most of these incidents be dealt with informally.
Whilst 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 that 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.
Investigation Conclusion Meeting
Police will convene an Investigation conclusion meeting involving the agencies who attended or were invited to the Strategy meeting to ensure that there is clarity on next steps and clear understanding of individual agencies roles and responsibilities. A single point of contact for the family / families will be agreed to ensure clarity of messages to families. Liaison between A.C.T. and Surrey Family Services will determine the best way to provide support to the victim or alleged abuser without compromising other processes
Police will liaise directly with A.C.T. to organise dates and times to meet and will proceed to either stage 1 or stage 2 of AIM2.
Stage 1: Is a paper based process for all clients, including where there is non admittance, no interview will be conducted and will be carried out within fourteen days of paperwork being completed and submitted to ACT.
Stage 2: This is where there is admission of the offence and consent has been given. This should be carried out within four weeks from the date of submission of completed paperwork to A.C.T.
Schools and colleges should also refer to the Department for Education guidance Sexual violence and sexual harassment between children in schools and colleges (updated May 2018).
6. Outcomes of Section 47 Enquiries
The outcome of Section 47 Enquiries is as described in the Strategy Discussions and Section 47 Enquiries Procedure. If the information gathered in the course of the Section 47 Enquiry suggests that the child who is alleged to have sexually abused is also a victim, or potential victim, of abuse including neglect, a Child Protection Conference must be convened.
Consideration should be given to inviting a Youth Intervention Team (YIT) representative to the conference of any child(ren) aged eight or over presenting harmful behaviours and informing the local YIT 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 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.
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 child 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 is Looked 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 Dis-engage 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 SFS
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).