The Office for National Statistics (ONS) recently completed its first phase of a feasibility study aiming to understand how to best measure the current extent and nature of child abuse in the UK. Evidence about the prevalence of child abuse in the UK is limited. Currently, there is no single source reporting child abuse data, robust measurements are lacking and official statistics in the UK are limited in their coverage of child abuse.
As part of this work, we were commissioned to carry out a qualitative feasibility study which looked at whether and how a national survey on child abuse could be conducted in the future (read our full report here). The ONS is building on this evidence base by collecting feedback through a consultation, which closes later this month, on 21 April 2021.
Our research included depth interviews and focus groups with practitioners, teachers, children, and parents/guardians. We found that participants agreed generally that a survey on experiences of child abuse completed by children would have societal and individual benefits. At the same time, there were concerns about delivering a survey of this nature. These touched on the importance of offering children the choice to participate; ensuring the survey could be appropriately tailored; issues relating to privacy and confidentiality (and the extent to which this could be accommodated); and ensuring children had appropriate access to support.
Additionally, some participants highlighted that children could be negatively impacted by participating in a survey on abuse. Concerns included the possibility of children being retraumatised, put at risk of harm from adult or peer perpetrators who would know of the survey, or singled out at school for not participating.
We aimed to speak to children and parents of children with past experiences of abuse to include their voices in the research. However, despite multiple and varied efforts, recruiting participants with these experiences was not possible. Challenges included pressures on staff time which limited support organisations’ ability to assist with the study and concerns that engaging in the research might take time away from service users’ regular contact with support organisations.
Going forward, it is important that we try to overcome challenges to involving victims and survivors in research. Having their input would help shed light on this under-researched area, spearhead changes in policy, and enable better targeting of support to vulnerable groups. It is perhaps even more important in the context of the pandemic to do this, as there are indications that instances of child abuse have increased. The NSPCC has identified three key reasons why risk of abuse might intensify during the pandemic, including increased parental and caregiver stressors, increased vulnerability of children and young people and a reduction in the normal protective services.
In our research (pdf) for the ONS, we outline some suggestions for safely and ethically expanding recruitment approaches to involve victims and survivors. This included alternative opt-in methods – such as utilising social media, and consulting with support organisations earlier in the design of the project to allow for early collaboration on recruitment. As the pandemic continues, we think there is value in the research community continuing to work on how best to safely engage vulnerable and seldom heard groups in research on child abuse and other sensitive subjects. Careful consideration should be given, for example, to ensuring participants have safe, private spaces to engage online and access to immediate support if needed.
If you have an interest in child protection and child protection policy, the ONS would like to hear your needs for a survey measuring the prevalence of child abuse, and invite your views on their proposals.
Please click here to visit the ONS website and respond – the consultation closes on 21 April 2021.