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The nightmare that no one talks about

Child protection guidelines are protecting nervous adults not victims, says Sarah Nelson

Instead of helping, do child protection guidelines actually hinder schools and youth projects from discovering when children have been sexually abused? That was the worrying, unexpected question raised by my pilot research project in Craigmillar, Edinburgh, on ways in which local communities can help prevent child abuse. The Neighbourhood Mapping report was launched this week at a conference entitled "Keeping Children and Young People Safe - It's Everyone's Job".

Numbers of disclosures recalled by teachers and youth projects were consistently low, falling far short of child sexual abuse prevalence studies, or the experience of adult survivor projects in Scotland. Most schools and youth agencies recalled about half a dozen disclosures over several years, while one primary school spoke of one disclosure in 14 years.

When staff were asked what difficulties they faced in uncovering sexual abuse, they repeatedly put child protection guidelines at the top of their list. Edinburgh education department's strict interpretation seemed a particular obstacle.

Staff should, quite rightly, not suggest a possible abuser by name. But many also believed they could not even raise the possibility of sexual abuse, even when a young person showed suggestive symptoms like an eating disorder, self-harm or promiscuous risk-taking. This was in case it contaminated evidence for a possible court case - though in reality few cases do reach court, and are not assisted by current forms of evidence gathering.

Edinburgh education department's influential child protection officer, Sue Hamilton, confirmed this strict interpretation, saying a questioner should not even ask: "Has someone been touching you?" Nor would it be acceptable to read a teenager a list of possible reasons for her eating disorder, one of which was sexual abuse. She claimed: "Children are infinitely susceptible to adult questioning."

One teacher in an Edinburgh school's special unit made sure she left leaflets about sexual abuse lying around, but believed she was not even supposed to do that.

However, Edinburgh's own child protection co-ordinator, Martin Henry, does not share Sue Hamilton's interpretation. He believes nothing in the guidelines prevents teachers or youth workers asking a young person if they have been sexually harmed. "If they were showing certain symptoms it might even be the responsible thing to do." The point of having a lengthy signs and symptoms checklist for sexual abuse in the Lothian Child Protection Guidelines is also unclear, if people may not act on it.

Inability to offer confidentiality - even to allow young people to talk through their fears while a plan of action is worked out - was also seen as a major problem about the guidelines. Yet the 18 and Under project in Dundee (for young people suffering rape or abuse) consistently finds that allowing young people this time and control makes them stronger, and more prepared to go ahead with cases against perpetrators. Last year, it says, retraction of abuse allegations was nil.

My research also found that many school and youth staff sincerely believed young people would tell about abuse when they were ready, even if this meant waiting years for disclosure. But this is inconsistent with the view most would take about confronting other serious crimes.

The belief is also widely challenged by adult survivors, who describe desperate attempts to get staff to ask, when they themselves were unable to speak. School behaviour reported by survivors in my Beyond Trauma study (2001) included throwing tables, slashing wrists, running along a school roof, drinking heavily, drug-taking, putting a Bunsen burner in the mouth and running in front of cars.

The Craigmillar report calls for projects working with vulnerable young people to record explicitly that their client groups are at high risk of sexual exploitation, and to reflect this in their policies and practices.

Representations should be made to the child protection committee on difficulties raised by the guidelines and their interpretation. The projects should work towards agreeing sensitive methods of routine inquiry, use of display materials and working practices which would create a more receptive environment for any disclosures of sexual exploitation.

It is time to admit that since children rarely disclose sexual abuse of their own accord, guidelines based on waiting for them to tell are severely problematic, and the point of lengthy, expensive child protection training is unclear. With sexual abuse, in particular, child protection guidelines are protecting nervous adults from having to ask, from having to find out and from having to act.

That is surely the opposite of a child-centred policy.

Neighbourhood Mapping for Children's Safety: A Feasibility Study in Craigmillar, Edinburgh. Available from Womanzone (0131 652 0182).

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