Hidden abuse of children in care

13th February 1998 at 00:00
More than eight out of 10 residential schools and children's homes say they are working with young people they know or suspect have been sexually abused. A third say they are working with children who abuse others.

In an eight-month period in 1995, 16 allegations of abuse were made against staff, five of them in residential schools. The findings follow a survey of 244 schools and homes in Scotland by Meg Lindsay, director of the Centre for Residential Child Care at Strathclyde University, who describes the results as "striking".

Mrs Lindsay said: "Sexual abuse in residential care is no marginal or side issue. It is a vital one, affecting more than two out of every three services in Scotland." Her report, The Tip of the Iceberg, was published last year but has had a restricted audience. The questionnaire it was based on had a 94 per cent response rate. One reason for withholding the findings from a wider audience was the risk of "demonising" problem young people.

Mrs Lindsay said the study highlighted a "horrendously difficult" area for school and care staff. Experience of sexual abuse was "widespread". There were 3,740 places available when the study was carried out and many young people moved between children's homes and residential schools, the two most common types of provision.

Of the 226 respondents, 65 per cent (149) said they had children who had been abused, 17 per cent suspected children had been abused and 16 per cent said there was no abuse. A total of 189 services were working with children they knew had been abused or suspected had been abused. There was no difference between children's homes and residential schools in perceived sexual abuse.

A third of staff said young people abused others in residential care. Half the staff suspected they did and 16 per cent said they did not. In more than eight out of 10 establishments staff knew or feared young people were abusing others.

Mrs Lindsay said: "We need to invest in these children because we know that paedophiles' behaviour tends to increase with age, unlike ordinary offenders' behaviour which peaks in the early 20s. Paedophiles' behaviour tends to go on. We have to focus on this and become very good at it, develop a constructive approach and challenge behaviour."

People engaged in intensive work are themselves vulnerable to allegations of sexual abuse and Mrs Lindsay's report emphasises the need for a high level of training. "There are a lot of dedicated staff working their socks off and receiving very little remuneration," she said.

Elizabeth Maginnis, the local authorities' education convener, said: "I have no doubt these figures are correct. Many children who have grown up disturbed have experience of the worst extremes of sexual abuse and there are a lot of children who have experienced low level sexual abuse and we have turned a blind eye. Fortunately, there has been a shift towards the power of the child. "

The Kent report, published last November, recommended student teachers should be trained to deal with sexual abuse, paedophiles and bullying.

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