Workforce perspectives on harmful sexual behaviour – what are practitioners saying?

07 August 2017

Profile photo of Dez HolmesDez Holmes

Last month, we published a report, in partnership with the National Children’s Bureau, examining the needs of the children’s workforce in relation to working with children and young people who are displaying Harmful Sexual Behaviour (HSB). This research was undertaken by the Local Authority Research Consortium (LARC), now in its seventh round.

Over 500 multi-agency professionals and a number of foster carers, across six local authority areas, responded to a survey, and undertook their own local research. The national survey sought to understand how professionals describe their knowledge, skills and confidence in relation to supporting children and young people displaying Harmful Sexual Behaviour (HSB), what works well in developing capabilities, and what further support they feel is needed.

For the purposes of this research, HSB was 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.' (Hackett, Holmes and Branigan, 2016). HSB, therefore, is an umbrella term that spans a range of behaviours.

The results, as is so often the case, were mixed. Whilst two-thirds of staff said that they felt confident in identifying children and young people displaying inappropriate or abusive sexual behaviours, it appears that direct work is more difficult, with only 36% agreeing they felt confident in this. The emotional impact of this work was also found to be significant; 40% reported that either working with or the prospect of working with young people displaying harmful sexual behaviour made them feel ‘worried’ and 36% agreed it made them feel anxious – even where they had considerable experience in this area.

It’s no surprise that the survey showed this to be a challenging area of work, not least because professionals report that children and young people displaying HSB often have other vulnerabilities and needs that make the work particularly complex. Children and young people may have experienced/be experiencing abuse themselves, or have additional needs relating to learning and communication. We know of course that correlation does not imply causation. A child who has experienced abuse will not necessarily go on to develop harmful behaviours, and a child who is displaying HSB has not necessarily experienced abuse or neglect. However, it is useful to be aware of the range of factors that may be at play in a child or young person’s life, in order to work to support them in the most effective way.

Just over half of the respondents said that they felt there had been an increase in cases of HSB since 2014. Again, we know that perception is not necessarily reality. We need to be careful not to jump too quickly to conclusions about the prevalence – rising or otherwise – of harmful sexual behaviours. At Research in Practice we have been involved in this strand of work over the last few years (including our work with NSPCC in 2016 to develop the Harmful Sexual Behaviour framework) and have seen a growing awareness of HSB as well as a drive across the sector to do more to identify and respond. It may be therefore, that an increase in cases reflects a better understanding of and/or response to HSB.

One of the challenges that came up, as it does time and again in relation to lots of issues across Children’s Services, is that of digital technology and social media. In those local areas who focused specifically on technology, social media and the internet, research participants reported these are being used more often in relation to HSB than had previously been the case. Many believed that they were able to identify when children were accessing or sharing harmful content on the web or through some social media platforms, but were less confident when it came to activity such as multi-player gaming, or mobile apps. Current advancements in social media and digital technology out-pace workforce capabilities, and this is an area where we need to invest in order to improve practitioner knowledge and skills in order to better protect children.

Importantly, and in keeping with the LARC ethos, the research explored solutions as well as the challenges. This research, no doubt because it was co-led by the participating local authorities, offers ideas which are practical and achievable in the current climate. High-quality supervision was identified as key to practitioners’ ability to work safely, as was access to structured support from peers and the ability to discuss cases with senior colleagues. It appears there could also be the potential to strengthen practitioner skills and resilience by harnessing the expertise of local specialist services (where these exist) to deliver training and provide advice for colleagues, in addition to the direct work they undertake with children and young people. This kind of support could prove to be immensely valuable for non-specialist staff working in universal services, and could go some way to improving early support for children and young people.

Originally published on www.ncb.org.

About the author

Dez Holmes is Director of Research in Practice and Research in Practice for Adults.

Related resources

Harmful Sexual Behaviour framework

Child neglect and its relationship to sexual harm and abuse: responding effectively to children’s needs: Evidence Scopes

Children and young people with harmful sexual behaviours: Research Review (2014)

Children and young people with harmful sexual behaviours: Executive Summary (2014)

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