In recent years there have been growing levels of awareness of harmful sexual behaviour (HSB) as an issue affecting children across England. NCB and Research in Practice supported the Local Authorities Research Consortium to investigate the perspectives and needs of the workforce in this challenging area of practice.
Local Authorities Research Consortium(LARC) was founded by Research in Practice and NFER to support local authorities to develop research-based improvements to services for children, young people and families. This research was the seventh project undertaken by LARC, with funding provided by participating local authorities.
Harmful sexual behaviour can be defined as “Sexual behaviours expressed by children and young people under the age of 18 years old that are developmentally inappropriate, may be harmful towards self or others and/ or be abusive towards another child, young person or adult.”
The needs of children and young people displaying HSB has received little political attention and there is currently no national strategy or overarching service delivery framework. Participating local authorities identified that understanding and workforce needs were key areas of interest. This research therefore pays particular attention to the confidence, knowledge, skills and development opportunities of those working at various levels of local child services.
What we did
Working as part of the team, our researchers helped create an online survey for practitioners, carers, managers and commissioners working with children and young people. It was distributed through local authority channels across the six participating areas. This included two non-metropolitan counties, two Metropolitan Borough Councils from the Midlands and North of England and two London Boroughs
As well as participating in this national project, each participating local authority has been supported by NCB and Research in Practice to carry out their own local research into a related topic.
Our report sets out the results of the survey of nearly 600 professionals working across a range of agencies in the six participating local authority areas. Key findings from the survey include that:
- Professionals face complex challenges 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
- Practitioners 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.
- Practitioners also value high quality supervision when working in this area, but access to this is patchy. 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.
- 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.
The final national report was published in July 2016 and is available to download here.
A key focus of LARC is to develop the most cost efficient and practical solutions that reflect the resource constraints that public services in England currently face. The findings this research provide participating local authorities and their partners with a range of evidence based actions they can take to improve practice in supporting children who display HSB.
The report identifies as a top priority the embedding of peer support and learning in teams. This might mean, for example:
- Setting up case clinics and/or 'surgeries' within or between agencies: these provide opportunities for practitioners to come together with a clear focus on practice and problem-solving.
- It could also involve collaboration and coordination across geographic and service boundaries for peer learning opportunities about HSB, reducing reliance on external providers.
It also suggests practical ways in which local aithorities and their partners can:
- Strengthen support through reflective supervision for those working directly with children displaying HSB
- Improve training and skills development for those working with or caring for children displaying HSB
- Improve awareness of harmful sexual behaviour to ensure consistent, early identification of children who may need support
Participating local authorities were also provided with their own local results so that learning could be tailored to their own circumstances.