Around one in five adults in England and Wales experienced a form of child abuse before they turned 16, figures suggest.
In the year to March, the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) estimated that 8.5 million adults aged between 18 and 74 had been abused before the age of 16.
Experiences ranged from being threatened as a child to rape.
The survey also estimated that 3.1 million were victims of sexual abuse before the age of 16 (2.4 million women and 709,000 men). This is equivalent to around one in 13 adults in this age bracket.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) examined existing data in a bid to “provide a more complete picture” of the scale of child abuse in the country for the first time.
Information on sexual, physical and emotional abuse as well as neglect experienced by children was gathered from a range of public bodies to produce the findings.
The information from the crime survey estimates the prevalence of adults who experienced abuse before the age of 16 but does not measure the “current level” of child abuse in the country, the ONS added.
Figures were compiled using information from government departments like the Home Office, the Department for Education, the NHS, and officials in Wales, as well as the National Crime Agency and organisations like the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
According to the research:
– There were 19,847 counselling sessions given to children by Childline in the UK where abuse was the primary concern in the year to March.
– At the end of March, 49,570 children in England and 4,810 children in Wales were looked after by their local authority because of experience or risk of abuse or neglect.
– Around one in seven adults who phoned the National Association for People Abused in Childhood helpline said they had not told anyone about the abuse before.
– Around half of adults (52%) who experienced abuse before the age of 16 also experienced domestic abuse later in life, compared with 13% of those who did not experience abuse before the age of 16.
Andrew Fellowes, public affairs manager at the NSPCC, said: “It is clear from reading this that we simply do not know how many children are suffering right now, hampering our ability to plan and fund services to help them recover.
“It’s crucial government conducts a prevalence study so we get a true picture of the scale of abuse in the UK.
“Only then will we know what services are needed to protect and support abused young people.”
Alexa Bradley, of the Centre for Crime and Justice at ONS, said: “Child abuse is an appalling crime against some of the most vulnerable in society, but it is also something that is little discussed or understood.
“Today’s release is ONS’s first attempt to fill an important evidence gap on this critical issue.
“Measuring the extent and nature of child abuse is difficult because it is usually hidden from view and comes in many forms.
“Bringing data together from different sources helps us better understand both the nature of child abuse and the potential demand on support services.”