- Professionals find it challenging to support children displaying harmful sexual behaviour, including activity involving social media and the internet.
- Harmful sexual behaviour is sexual behaviour displayed by a child or young person that is inappropriate to their age or stage of development, and may be harmful to themselves or others.
- Professionals also report that children displaying HSB are often vulnerable and have a range of needs, and this makes the work more complex.
- View the full report here.
- High quality supervision is key to practitioners’ ability to work safely, but access to this is patchy.
- Professionals identify support form peers as key to improving their confidence in working with children displaying HSB, but structured opportunities for peer support are not available to all.
- Specialist services are well-placed to build skills and knowledge across the workforce, but many are only commissioned to work with children directly.
- 54 per cent of frontline staff surveyed say there has been an increase in cases of HSB since 2014.
The challenges of responding to HSB effectively
New research shows the complex challenges that professionals face when responding to children who display Harmful Sexual Behaviour (HSB), with staff reporting that it can be difficult to balance the rights and needs of a child displaying HSB, with the duty to protect other children. Professionals often face difficult decisions, such as whether to exclude a child from school, in order to protect other children from harm.
Close to 600 (589) staff working with children in six local authority areas, including social workers, teachers, foster carers and mental health professionals, took part in the research by the National Children’s Bureau and Research in Practice. Two fifths (40 per cent) said that their experience of working with children displaying HSB, or the prospect of having to address this behaviour in the future, made them feel “worried”, and 25% said it made them feel “upset”. This included professionals who considered themselves to be experienced in working with children displaying HSB.
The needs of staff
While three quarters of staff said they had the skills and knowledge necessary to identify children displaying HSB, there was considerably less confidence in working directly with these children, with 40 per cent saying they lacked the skills to do so.
What would help the workforce
Professionals most valued the support of their peers in helping them navigate complex decisions about children displaying HSB. Nearly three-quarters (73 per cent) turned to senior colleagues for advice on HSB. However, nearly half (48 per cent) said that they were unable to access team meetings or learning as a team on HSB, but would value being able to do so.
Specialist services are well-placed to build skills and knowledge across the workforce, but many are only commissioned to work with children directly. While 94 per cent of staff said their local specialist service provided direct support to children and young people, less than half (49 per cent) said they also provided supervision, training or advice to practitioners from other agencies.
Staff who could access one-to-one supervision or team meetings and team learning were more likely to say that it improved their confidence in working with children displaying HSB.
Perception that prevalence is increasing
Professionals said they thought the number of children displaying harmful sexual behaviours seemed to be increasing. 54 per cent thought that there had been an increase in cases of harmful sexual behaviour since 2014, compared to just two per cent who thought there had been a decrease and 18 per cent who thought there had been no change.
Impact of technology
More in-depth research was conducted with a smaller group of professionals in two local authority areas. 62 per cent of this group said they had seen an increase in the number of cases of HSB involving the use of technology, social media and the internet. But despite many believing they had the skills and training to identify when children were accessing or sharing harmful content on the internet or through social media, they felt less confident about activity involving games consoles, instant messaging or mobile apps.
Children displaying HSB are often very vulnerable
Professionals surveyed said they thought children displaying HSB have often experienced abuse or neglect. Of the staff and foster carers surveyed who had worked with six or more children displaying HSB, 43 per cent said most or all of these children had suffered neglect, and nearly a quarter (23 per cent) of staff said that most or all of the children had been sexually abused by others.
Dez Holmes, Director of Research in Practice, said:
‘Children displaying HSB deserve the best support possible, and so the professionals and foster carers who help them deserve to be as well-equipped as possible. This research shows that more can be done to build the knowledge, skills and confidence of those undertaking this rewarding but challenging work.
‘One of the great strengths of the Local Authority Research Consortium, now in its 7th round, is the fact that it is research undertaken by the sector, for the sector. As a result, the focus and findings are highly relevant and the recommendations are practical, cost-effective and grounded in reality. In this research, it’s clear that much can be achieved simply by improving collaboration between agencies and local areas, and by thinking creatively about how to harness the skills and knowledge of local specialist agencies.
‘I applaud the Local Authorities who took part. Their commitment to learning and to building local research capacity demonstrates the vital and active role the sector can play in generating new knowledge in order to improve children’s lives.’
Anna Feuchtwang, Chief Executive of the National Children’s Bureau, said:
‘Children displaying harmful sexual behaviour are often very vulnerable. Many have experienced neglect or abuse, and need the best possible support so they can recover from past experiences and lead healthy adult lives. We must listen carefully to professionals who are warning of an increase in harmful sexual behaviour, and that new forms are emerging, based on social media and the internet.
‘Professionals must have the support they need to feel confident in taking difficult decisions that balance the needs of children with the safety of other young people.
‘As a top priority, local authorities and other key organisations should enable staff to discuss the challenges they face, through one-to-one supervision, team learning opportunities and ‘case clinics’, where agencies can come together on effective practice and problem solving.
‘We must get this right so that every child has the best possible opportunity to grow up safe and healthy.’
A local authority manager participating in the research said:
‘The workforce survey has helped acknowledge the complexities of this area of work and that existing support mechanisms are valued. It has reinforced the need to support staff and mangers to be confident in addressing what can be a challenging and emotive area of intervention. The need to broaden support and strengthen training across all tiers of the workforce is fundamental to improving how professionals respond. In particular, the identification of the growth in the use of technology related to HSB displays the necessity that we remain responsive to this ever-changing arena of practice.’
The report calls for local authorities and their partners to adopt effective and cost effective measures, including:
- Embedding peer support and opportunities for learning as a team, for example, through case clinics or 'surgeries' within or between agencies.
- Strengthening supervision for those working directly with children displaying HSB.
About harmful sexual behaviour
Harmful sexual behaviour is sexual behaviour expressed by a child or young person under 18 that is inappropriate to their age or stage of development and may be harmful towards themselves or abusive to another child, young person or adult. It is thought that between a third and two thirds of sexual abuse of children reported to police is carried out by other children and young people under the age of 18.
About the report
With public awareness of harmful sexual behaviour in children increasing, a group of local authorities has worked with Research in Practice and the National Children’s Bureau to investigate the needs of the children’s workforce in this field.
Workforce perspectives on harmful sexual behaviour is the seventh research project undertaken by the Local Authorities Research Consortium (LARC). The final report is based on the results of a survey of 589 professionals working across a range of agencies in the six local authority areas (two non-metropolitan counties; two Metropolitan Borough Councils from the Midlands and North of England; and two London Boroughs). Staff working in a range of services, including children’s social care, health services, youth offending teams and schools, took part in the survey. The survey gathered the views of those working at all levels of local services, from frontline practitioners and foster carers to strategic managers and commissioners.
A smaller group of 117 professionals and carers working in two local authorities provided information on HSB relating to the use of technology and the internet.
About Research in Practice
Research in Practice is a not-for-profit organisation aiming to improve outcomes for children and families, by supporting the children’s sector to use evidence in service design and practice. We work with professionals to promote research-mindedness and critical thinking, and seek to create new knowledge by bringing together research, practice wisdom and the voice of children and families. Our membership network includes local authorities, charities, providers and universities.
About the Local Authority Research Consortium (LARC)
LARC, the Local Authorities Research Consortium, supports local authorities to undertake research in order to inform improvements to services for children, young people and families.
LARC was founded by Research in Practice and the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) to support local authorities to develop sector-led collaborative research projects. For this round of LARC, the National Children’s Bureau (NCB) carried out the role previously carried out by NFER.
 There were 573 valid responses as follows (percentages rounded to nearest whole number):
48 (8%): large increase; 262 (46%): some increase; 105 (18%): no change; 5 (1%): some decrease; 3 (1%): large decrease; 134 (23%): unsure; 16 (3%): other.
13 respondents said the question was not applicable as they only worked with small number of children. These were not counted as valid responses or included in the calculation of percentages.
 Hackett, S. (2014). Children and young people displaying harmful sexual behaviours. Dartington: Research in Practice; and Radford L, Corral S, Bradley C, Fisher H, Bassett C, Howat N and Collishaw S (2011). Child abuse and neglect in the UK today. London: NSPCC.