The taboo of child-on-child abuse

March 2, 2007

The number of children who commit sex crimes is on the rise.

Common misconception about child sex abuse is that it is perpetrated by adults.

Indeed, the issue of child-on-child abuse is almost a taboo subject.

But research shows it is far from unique. Between a quarter and a third of children who have been abused report that the perpetrators have been children, according to various studies.

Tink Palmer, director of the Stop It Now! campaign set up to help children who are abused and a board member of the Internet Watch Foundation, said: "People don't just start abusing when they turn 18.

"It is something that develops over the years and is caused by a variety of reasons."

But in recent years, clinics that offer counselling to children who display sexually abusive and harmful behaviour report an increasing number of cases involved the internet.

Dr Andrew Durham, who runs a service for Warwickshire County Council for children who have abused or are developing inappropriate sexual behaviours, says the web plays a part in the cases of about half of the 120 children he sees each year.

"It is so easy for children these days to view abusive sexual images that they would not have been able to get close to years ago.

"Children are pretty computer savvy and once you start viewing pictures, it leads to more hardcore ones." Such a scenario is borne out by stories of children who have fallen into the trap.

Like many teenagers, Dan (not his real name) started using chat rooms when he was 16 and developed a friendship with someone who later transpired to be an adult.

The man began to send him pictures of porn and then later abusive images of children.

In an interview with Barnardo's, Dan admitted he did not find the pictures repulsive.

At about this time, he began developing friendships with younger children.

One day, when his parents were away, he suggested that they come to his house to play.

He then took indecent photographs of the children, telling them that this was 'part of a game'.

He was soon arrested and given help to overcome his behaviour.

Cases like this are rare - there have only been about a dozen cases where children have been arrested for child porn.

But Dr Durham say graphic and abusive adult porn can desensitise children to sex.

"People start thinking what they are looking at is normal. The sex becomes what is important, not the relationship.

"It is not healthy. We have seen children, some very young, who have looked at pictures and started acting out the things they have seen.

"But I think this is all about the wider sexualisation of society. Sex is everywhere now, in advertising, on TV. This does have an effect."

DS Robert Willis, who is part of the abusive images unit run by Greater Manchester Police, said: "I think we are storing up all sort of problems for the future.

"Parents have to take responsibility for what their children are doing on computers, putting the right security blocks in place."

But specialists who treat children at risk of abusing also say it is not solely about the internet.

Research commissioned by the Department of Health last year found children who abuse generally fall into two categories.

There are those who develop abusive patterns early on, before the age of 11. These are more likely to have been sexually abused, come from broken families and develop insecurity issues.

But those whose abusive tendencies date to their teen years seem to have had slightly different experiences and the reasons for their abuse is less obvious.

The research found they tended to misuse substances, and have mental health and behavioural problems.

Jonny Matthew, of the Taith project in Swansea, a partnership between Barnardo's and seven local authorities which uses talking therapies to help children at risk of abusing, said: "The reasons for this behaviour are many and complex.

"But what we know is that with the right help and support these children can often be prevented from going on to commit serious offences."
Warning over children who abuse

By Nick Triggle

Health reporter, BBC News

Children at risk of sex offending need more help in a bid to reverse the rising number of sex crimes committed by youngsters, experts say.

Charities say the internet is a growing factor, with children as young as five treated for inappropriate behaviour.

The Youth Justice Board said 1,664 children were given police warnings or court orders for sex offences in 2002-3 - by 2005-6 this had risen to 1,988.

NHS chiefs said services were improving but admitted care was too inconsistent.

The voluntary sector treats most of the children demonstrating what is termed 'sexually harmful behaviour', taking referrals from police, social services and the NHS.

This includes children who have committed sex offences, such as indecent exposure or sex assaults, or, for young children, those who are engaging in acts deemed inappropriate for their age.

The biggest single provider of services is the NSPCC, which runs 22 services in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The charity treated over 750 youngsters last year - the overwhelming majority boys - with an average age of 13, although children as young as five were seen by NSPCC specialists in talking therapies.

Numbers have been gradually increasing in recent years, partly due to more awareness over the issue, the charity says.

But officials say they are particularly worried about the role the internet is playing.

Kevin Gibbs, co-chairman of the NSPCC's sexually harmful behaviour group, said: "These children have usually experienced some sort of trauma - sex abuse or violence - which seems to be behind this.

"But what all our services are reporting is that the children they are seeing report having seen abusive sexual images on the internet.

"Five years ago this was just not available to them. It is not so much a trigger, but the problem is that is desensitises them and enables them to tell themselves what they are thinking is okay.

"This is affecting all sectors of society. The children we are seeing come from all kinds of background."

He added better co-ordination was needed between government departments, police and councils to make sure the early warning signs are acted up on.

His comments come after the number of children being warned by the police or ending up with court orders for sex offences increased.

In 2002-3, there were 1,664 cases. But by 2005-6 this had risen to 1,988, according to the Youth Justice Board. One in 10 of the offences were committed by children aged 12 or under.


While most children will be treated by the voluntary sector, the NHS - in partnership with local government - does offer some support through Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (Camhs), which are situated in a variety of places, including schools, GP surgeries and hospitals.

But Pam Hibbert, principal policy officer at Barnardo's, which runs 11 services across the country, said: "Their waiting lists are very high, and they just don't have the capacity or speciality to deal with these children.

"We need councils to take charge."

Jo Webber, of the NHS Confederation, said: "The service is improving, but there is still too much inconsistency.

"There is some great voluntary sector provision and we need to work in partnership with these bodies to make sure children get the right help."

Tink Palmer, who used to run a service for children who display sexually harmful behaviour and who is now a board member of the Internet Watch Foundation, agreed more co-ordination of services was needed.

But she added: "One of the biggest problems today is with the internet. Some of the most graphic, horrible images are just a few clicks away.

"It is important parents make sure they know what children are doing on computers."