Working with cases of child sexual abuse: social workers report that they are operating without the necessary time, knowledge, support and training

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Wednesday 26 November 2014

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Initiated and funded by NSPCC logoDespite being the 'front line' when it comes to working with highly vulnerable and abused children, caseload pressures, the expectations of partner agencies and insufficient support and preventative services are limiting the support social workers are able to provide to children, according to a new report from the NSPCC and Coventry University1.

Report findings are based on a study conducted by Coventry University with social workers, managers and Safeguarding Board Chairs in six local authorities across England2. In these local authorities there are a total of 8,825 children on child protection plans and 355 children on plans as a result of sexual abuse.


Key findings include the following:

Training is not fit for purpose

Learning and professional development was often found to be 'fragmented and partial' with no uniformity of training. Some social workers described having to seek development opportunities on their own initiative and in their own time with many social workers feeling they had to 'learn on the job.' While familiar with the procedures that need to be followed, they feel ill-prepared to deal with victims' emotions. They also raised concerns that they had not undertaken specific or in-depth training on child sexual abuse as part of their qualifying programme.

In addition, of those that took part in the study, only in one local authority were social workers confident in discussing child sexual abuse within the context of cultural or religious diversity. Without the skills to meet diverse needs, practice might of itself be discriminatory, limiting the potential for disclosure of sexual abuse if people do not feel that services will be responsive to their needs and beliefs.

Support with multi-agency working is required

Social workers reported struggling to make and justify time spent building relationships with children, particularly amid criminal proceedings. They reported that this was either because criminal investigations took priority, or because cases of grooming and trafficking were handled through multi-agency panels.

The report also suggests that there are missed opportunities to identify sexual abuse and an urgent need for a wide range of staff, not just those who 'specialise' in sexual abuse, to be equipped with this expertise.

A dearth of resources and provision

There are long waits for specialist services and an inability to undertake long-term work with abused children whose cases may be 'closed'. One group of social workers reported a case where a child who had disclosed significant sexual abuse had to wait six months for support.

Services must be responsive and flexible, outsourcing support where needed to ensure that no abused child's feelings of guilt, shame and powerlessness are reinforced when they reach out for help. Three local authorities had benefited from help with complex cases from agencies including the NSPCC. But local service managers should also assess the best use of their own workers' time, avoiding situations where they are 'taken away from direct work' to comply with bureaucracy as some participants described.

Emotional toll on social workers

Social workers' guiding principle is a strong sense of commitment and concern for children, but vast caseloads leave them strained. Prolonged exposure to trauma and strong empathy with families takes its toll on workers' emotional wellbeing, but busy schedules do not allow to time to heal. There are particularly demanding phases when they are relied upon for support but powerless to offer it, for example when families are denied therapy in order not to 'contaminate' evidence. In these instances there is a sense that the system in place to protect the child aggregates their suffering, which leaves the social worker frustrated and dissatisfied.

While the importance of formal managerial supervision is recognised, social workers especially value the advice and guidance offered by more experienced team members. Last year a Community Care survey found that 96% of frontline staff feel moderately or very stressed and half do not feel like they can tell their line manager. The NSPCC report shows social workers find it much easier to 'offload' to colleagues than in a managerial setting, highlighting the importance of regular peer-to-peer support.

Jon Brown, head of the sexual abuse programme at the NSPCC, said:

Despite their best efforts, social workers need support to keep up with a rapidly changing environment of sexual abuse. They expertly adapt their responses to ever-evolving risks, but also need bespoke training to tackle issues such as internet-based abuse, grooming and child sexual exploitation.

We must recognise that social workers are only human and cannot manage these difficult cases alone, nor should they. Their emotional needs should be monitored just as closely as their training needs and catered for with regular opportunities for reflection and support.

This research highlights good practice at a local level in a very challenging environment but we need to ensure there is greater consistency in the training and support that social workers get to identify and help children and families.

The report includes specific recommendations for change, which include:

  • Education providers to collaborate, ensuring consistency in the teaching of child sexual abuse during qualifying training.
  • Training programmes to be audited by Local Safeguarding Children Boards to ensure they promote skills specific to multi-faith and ethnically diverse communities.
  • Local Safeguarding Children Boards to develop and coordinate multi-agency training on child sexual abuse as part of an Authority-wide strategy.
  • Employers to work with service providers in the independent sector to ensure that there are no gaps in the range of therapeutic services available and that these can be accessed in a timely manner.
  • Employers to develop formal peer supervision (as an addition to management supervision) by piloting models that acknowledge the importance of peer support for social workers.

For further information, email or call 0203 7729052.



Notes to editors

1. The NSPCC and Coventry University report ('Social workers' knowledge and confidence when working with cases of child sexual abuse: What are the issues and challenges?') is based on statistical data from local authorities as well as interviews and focus groups with Children's Social Work staff.

2. A diverse sample group was recruited from local authorities across England with a range of geographic and demographic characteristics. The participants represent various parts of Children's Social Work services and a range of perspectives. They include senior managers, team managers, frontline social workers and Chairs of the local authorities' Safeguarding Boards.

3. The NSPCC is testing and delivering a range of services for children and families dealing with sexual abuse to find out what works best to protect children from harm. Letting the Future In is a therapeutic service for children and young people affected by sexual abuse where there has been a joint or single agency investigation. The service works with each child and their safe carer helping them recover from the abuse through counselling, play and creative activities, drawing on cognitive behavioural techniques where appropriate.