IICSA most recent research report: Support services for victims and survivors of child sexual abuse

In August 2020, IICSA published its most recent research report into support services for victims and survivors of child sexual abuse.

This research report had been commissioned by IICSA in order to gain some insight and clarity into the experience of victims and survivors of child abuse when they try to and/or access support services.

The research and the associated report is the work of the independent research consultants Broome|Gekoski who worked in conjunction with the University of Hertfordshire.

The report notes that 7.5% of adults aged 18–74 years have reported experiencing child sexual abuse in England and Wales before the age of 16.

Experiencing child sexual abuse can give rise to significant short and long term impacts on many aspects of the victim/survivor life, to include their physical, mental and psychological health and their economic wellbeing.

To cope with these impacts the victims and survivors may need the help of statutory and voluntary support services.

IICSA felt that there had been very little research carried out into how victims and survivors experience these support services and what lessons if any could be learned from their experiences to date in terms of shaping policy in this area in the future.

There were four clear aims for the research project and they were as follows:

  • understand more about victims and survivors’ reasons for not accessing support services and any barriers to access;
  • learn about victims and survivors’ perceptions and experiences of support services;
  • understand what support services victims and survivors think are available to them and how to access them; and
  • explore whether there are unmet needs for support services which impact on whether victims and survivors access support.

The report was based on the experiences of 634 adults who self-identified as victims and survivors of child sexual abuse and the age group involved in the research ranged from 19 to 74 years, with an average of 47 years.

The principal finding and/or conclusions of the report are as follows:-

  1. Most victims and survivors have not accessed support services, almost 75% of those surveyed as part of the research reported not having accessed any support services at all.
  2. Victims and survivors who access support services take a long time to do so and rate those services as mediocre. On average it took a victim/survivor 19 years from when they were first sexually abused as a child to make contact with a support service.
  3. The most highly rated forms of support across all services were those provided by the voluntary sector, in particular those specialist services that specialised in child sexual abuse and sexual abuse and/or rape support services.
  4. Counselling provided through health services (i.e. through a GP or hospital) was considered to be the least helpful service overall by some while at the same time being considered to be the most helpful service overall by others. While this may seem contradictory it is more a reflection on the fact that this is the type of counselling most commonly accessed by victims and survivors and therefore more people were likely to have a view about it and this finding also evidences that the response to counselling is very much an individual experience.
  5. Victims and survivors stressed the importance of being heard, listened to, understood, believed, and not judged, by caring and empathetic professionals. It is notable that victims/survivors appear to be more comfortable when the counselling takes place in a welcoming, warm, private and comfortable physical environments, as opposed to clinical rooms.
  6. The vast majority of victims and survivors reported at least one barrier to support and these included shame and fear of not being believed, long waiting times and the cost of services.
  7. A key personal issue or reason for not accessing support was victims and survivors not feeling they needed it. However, those victims and survivors who felt that they did not need support services tended to be the older people who took part in the research.
  8. A substantial minority of victims and survivors reported having unmet needs. The most common unmet need identified in the course of the research was not being able to secure counselling provided by a specialist organisation.
  9. Significant relationships were found between the views and experiences of victims and survivors of child sexual abuse and their demographic characteristics and the type of child sexual abuse experienced. Women are significantly more likely to report having been sexually abused in a family setting than men, but were less likely to have done so in an institutional setting. Those people who were unable to access the support services that they needed were usually much younger in age. Those abused within the family and/or institutional settings faced more barriers to accessing the necessary support services, however, interestingly those who had been sexually abused within the family were much more likely to have accessed support services regardless of the barriers.

The findings of this research report will no doubt have to be considered by IICSA as it goes about work and in particular when making its final recommendations on how victims and survivors can be best supported in the future.

The experience of other international child abuse inquiries is that victims and survivors very often see the provision of properly resourced long term support services to be as, if not more, important than financial compensation/redress and/or apologies. As such services are often likely to have a more longstanding positive impact on how they are able to live their lives and relate to others. However, the success of these support services is fully dependent on them being fully resourced and that may be the greatest challenge of all in these challenging economic times.

Sharon Moohan, Partner, BLM

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