Children wait 100 days longer than adults for sexual abuse investigations to go to court, figures show

May Bulman
The length of time between an offence being recorded and a charge being laid has also increased: Getty

Child sex abuse victims are waiting 100 days longer than adults for their cases to go to court, a report has found, prompting calls for more to be done to give underage victims access to the support they desperately need.

A report by the Children’s Commissioner reveals that in the year 2015-16, the median length of time for investigations of child sex abuse cases was 248 days, compared with 147 for adult sexual offences – a total of 101 days less. A quarter of cases took considerably longer, some 393 days or more.

According to the data available, child sexual abuse investigations take longer than not only adult cases but all other crime types, with the median length of time taken for crime recording to a charge outcome in relation to drug offences being 90 days, theft 73 days, and violence against a person 72 days.

Alarmingly, the length of time for child sex abuse investigations seems to be increasing, with the median length of time between an offence being recorded and a charge being laid having increased from 179 days in 2013-14, to 236 days in 2014-15 and then 248 days in 2015-16.

The figures reflect how increased reports of sexual offences are placing a significant demand on services and agencies dealing with the cases. Where capacity is stretched to meet the increasing demand, there is a risk that cases will take even longer to resolve, exacerbating the trauma experienced by children and their families, the report states.

It adds that while the length of time the investigations take may reflect the relative complexity of these cases, the considerable wait is likely to be a “period of huge uncertainty” for victims. The report urges police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to explore ways of working more effectively to minimise delays and increase the speed of decision-making.

HM Inspectorate of Constabulary should “explicitly address” the timeliness of investigations in its child protection inspections, it states, adding that the “sexual offences” category of Home Office and Criminal Courts data should be separated in published data to “child” and “adult” offences, in order to enable scrutiny of performance on child sexual abuse.

It also recommends the adoption of the Icelandic “Barnahaus” approach, whereby different professionals work under one roof in investigating suspected child sexual abuse cases and providing appropriate support for child victims.

The findings come as part of new research commissioned by the Children’s Commissioner, which includes three separate reports into child sex abuse and differential access to support, with many failing to receive the help they need.

A second report, carried out by researchers from the University of Bedfordshire in partnership with NSPCC, found that child victims were frequently having to wait months or years for therapy following abuse, and that some schools were failing to offer children any lessons on the issues.

About half of primary schools report that they teach subjects related to sexual abuse, and a significant minority of secondary schools do not yet offer any teaching on this issue, according to the report, called Making Noise.

There were 106,098 sexual offences recorded by police in the year ending March 2016 – an increase of 20 per cent compared with the previous year. This includes a 20 per cent increase in crimes recorded as sexual assault on a female aged 13 and over, a 31 per cent increase in sexual activity involving a child under 16, and a 51 per cent increase in the offence of sexual grooming.

A report published by the Children’s Commissioner in November 2015 called Protecting Children from Harm found that as few as one in eight victims of child sexual abuse is estimated to come to the attention of statutory authorities, suggesting the scale of child sexual abuse is much larger than is currently being dealt with by statutory and non-statutory services.

In light of the findings, Anne Longfield, children’s commissioner for England, said: “It is clear from this research and the heart-breaking stories told by young people within it, that many child sexual abuse victims are being let down by the system.

“Too much is being expected of victims themselves. Not only do many feel unable to disclose abuse, they are waiting too long to see their abusers charged and jailed. Often they have to wait months and years for therapy following abuse.

“Professionals remain dedicated to supporting the victims of abuse, but urgent changes need to be made to the way it is reported, the role of schools in preventing it and the criminal justice process in child sexual abuse cases.

“The Icelandic ‘Barnahaus’ approach, where services ranging from medical examination to therapy are provided to victims under one roof, has been proven to be successful in overcoming some of these hurdles and I hope it will be trialled in England.”

Trish O’Donnell, development manager from the NSPCC, meanwhile said: “The Making Noise report allows the voices of children who have experienced familial sexual abuse to be heard. It tells us how they can be let down by systems but when they do find help it can really changes things for them.

“It is crucial that we create a culture where children who have suffered from such a traumatic experience are encouraged to speak out, and when they do that they get all the help they need in dealing with the difficult and upsetting events and emotions that stand in their way before they can hopefully get their lives back on track.”

A Government spokesperson said: “We want every child to feel able to speak out if they are a victim of this crime and be confident they will be listened to and supported when they do. We are improving the way the police, social services and other agencies work together to keep children safe, including from organised grooming and sexual exploitation – as well as giving £20 million to the National Crime Agency to target online child sexual exploitation.

“We have also changed the law to make sure young people get taught about safe and healthy relationships at school, giving them the life skills they need to help them stay safe and face the challenges of growing up in today’s world.”