Have 425,000 children really been abused during the past two years? That is the extraordinary claim suggested in a report put out earlier this week by the Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, which was swallowed whole by the Today programme and many newspapers. Not even the normally-inquisitive John Humphrys raised the slightest doubt about the figure when he interviewed a woman who said she had been abused back in the 1960s.
The more you dig into the data, though, the more that the estimate of 425,000 child abuse victims comes across as a pure fantasy figure. It is based on a statistical method called Multiple Systems Estimation, which involves totting up the number of reported cases of child sex abuse reported to police, social services and voluntary bodies and then trying to eliminate the overlap – in other word take account of the inevitability that a child recorded by the police as having been abused is also likely to have been reported to social services. From this ‘“dark figure” of victims’ who have not come to the attention of authorities is estimated.
The figure it produces is highly questionable because, as Longfield concedes, it 'depends on assumptions that cannot be fully verified'. The figure is followed by an admission that 'this represents all forms of child sexual abuse, not only child sexual abuse in the family environment'. The report itself, however, is entitled 'Protecting children from harm: a critical assessment of child sex abuse in the family network in England and priorities for action' – so the emphasis is on sex abuse within families. The press release which introduces this report, however, does not make clear that the 425,000 figure is highly speculative and in any case refers to all sexual abuse, by adults and other children included. What the press release does assert though is that the report ‘reveals that the vast majority of sexual abuse (66 per cent) takes place within the home or its trusted circle’.
Small wonder, then, that Longfield’s claim has been reported as if we are a nation of kiddy-fiddlers fiddling with our own kids – a dramatic picture which echoes previous child abuse scandals – or rather non-child abuse scandals – involving Dr Marietta Higgs in Cleveland and the allegations of a satanic abuse circle in the Orkneys.
The claim that 66 per cent of child sexual abuse takes places within the home is not made by Longfield’s report; it is a figure quoted in the report and gleaned from a study by the University Campus Suffolk into the experiences of a group of child abuse survivors, 66 per cent of whom had been abused within their families. Longfield’s report (but not the press release) also states that various police forces record between 5 per cent and 69 per cent of child sex abuse cases as having taken place within the family environment. Police data, however, is based on only 37,000 cases of child sexual abuse reported to them between April 2012 and March 2014. In no way does it relate to the 425,000 cases claimed by Longfield.
Longfield also quotes two other studies in her attempt to quantify the prevalence of child sexual abuse. One was a study published in the journal BMC Medicine, which involved a survey of adults aged 18-69 and asking them whether they had ever experienced any kind of sexual abuse (by anyone aged five or more years older than them) in childhood. Of those asked, 6.3 per cent said they had. The other study was conducted by the NSPCC in 2011 in which 1761 young adults aged 18-24 were asked whether they had experienced ‘contact’ sexual abuse as children. Of those asked, 11.3 per cent said they had.
The survey didn’t distinguish between sexual abuse in and outside a family environment nor between that committed by adults or other children. Nevertheless, Longfield follows it immediately with the assertion that ‘Known adults (including parents and guardians and non-resident adults such as neighbours or family friends) were the most frequently reported perpetrators of adult perpetrated contact sexual abuse’.
What she might have done, but didn’t, was to admit that the NSPCC study went on to ask the 18-24 year olds whether they have ever been sexually abused by a parent or guardian. Four males and 14 females said they had, representing 1 percent of the total. In other words, judging by this study less than one in 10 cases of child sexual abuse involve a parent or guardian.
The claim that 425,000 children have been abused in the past two years, mostly by members of their own families, simply doesn’t stack up. It comes from a crude attempt to add together many different overlapping datasets, which you hope doesn’t include too much double-counting but don’t really know, to produce a pie-in-the-sky figure. This figure has then been married with different data erroneously to assert that the majority of this child sexual abuse happens within the home.
We have already had a witch-hunt of celebrities of politicians over child sexual abuse. My fear now is that the Children’s Commissioner’s sensationalist claim is now used to unleash a witch-hunt against ordinary families akin to that which happened in Cleveland nearly 30 years ago.