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Females who sexually offend against children: responses of the child protection and criminal justice systems

Executive summary

Front cover of Females who sexually offend against childrenBy Lisa Bunting (November 2005)

Females who sexually offend against children reviews what is known about female sex offending and examines the current policies for dealing with this issue within the child protection and criminal justice systems. It provides new insight into working with, assessing and treating female sex offenders, and suggests ways in which policy and service provision should be developed.

Background and aims

It is widely recognised that the sexual abuse of children poses a major threat to their safety and long-term emotional and psychological well-being. However, most of the focus on this issue has been on the male perpetrator, with the issue of female sexual abuse not being so readily addressed within the context of policy or research. However, there is compelling evidence of a wide variety of sexual offences known to have been committed by females, either independently or with a male perpetrator. These range from voyeurism and inappropriate touching to rape, penetration with objects and ritualistic, sadistic sexual abuse.

The main aim of this report is to raise awareness of female sex offending by highlighting what is currently known about this group of offenders and examining the policies and procedures currently in place within the child protection and criminal justice systems in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Methodology

The first stage of the research process was to carry out an extensive review of the international literature on female sex offending based on a search of the NSPCC library catalogue, as well as various academic databases such as Web of Science, BIDS, OCLC and Child Data. Additional literature was also identified through following up references listed by authors in journal articles, books etc. This review highlighted the need to develop a clearer understanding of the ways in which child protection and criminal justice systems respond to female sex offenders within the UK, and to identify ways in which they might be improved. As such a multi-strategy research process was developed which consisted of a review of current policies relating to sex offending and sexual abuse within the child protection and criminal justice systems, including: official statistics; in-depth interviews with a number key professionals and practitioners working in the area of female sex offending; and electronic surveys of Area Child Protection Committees (ACPCs) 1  and Multi Agency Public Protection Arrangements (MAPPAs) 2  across England, Wales and Northern Ireland 3 .

The aim of the interviews was to explore professionals' perceptions of: the levels of awareness of female sex offending among those working in both the child protection and criminal justice systems; any differences in treatment needs between male and female sex offenders; current service provision for female sex offenders; and current policy issues around female sex offenders and how these might be developed. The aim of the ACPC survey was to provide an overview of any specific policies ACPCs across the UK (excluding Scotland) have on female perpetrated child sexual abuse and any training they have provided, or intend to provide, on this issue. The survey also explored any barriers to providing training in this area. The aim of the MAPPA survey was to identify the number of female sex offenders coming under multi-agency public protection arrangements over a one year time period and their assessed levels of risk. This survey also aimed to identify any perceived differences in the risk assessment and management processes of female sex offenders in comparison with those for male offenders and to explore the views of Strategic Management Boards (SMBs) 4  in relation to the need for different risk assessment and management processes for female sex offenders and ways in which policies, procedures and service provision might be developed.

Literature review

The research literature highlighted that females can, and do, perpetrate sexual offences and are responsible for up to 5 per cent of all sexual offences committed against children. These offences are often very serious and have a wide range of negative and far-reaching consequences for victims. Maternal perpetrated abuse emerges as a particularly damaging form of sexual abuse with a variety of studies indicating that female sex offenders commonly offend against their own daughters and sons. However, as well as emphasising the serious nature of female perpetrated abuse and its consequences, the literature also suggests the importance of being aware that sexual abuse perpetrated by females can take subtle as well as overt forms. This can cause particular difficulties for child welfare professionals in identifying some abusive situations, thus underlining the need for professionals to be open to the possibility that females, as well as males, may sexually abuse children and to be aware of the ways abuse might manifest itself.

The need for increased professional awareness and training with regard to females who sexually offend against children is further supported by the research literature, which suggests that professional responses, despite being an integral part of validating the victim's experiences, are not always what they should be. There are a number of references to incredulous and disbelieving reactions on the part of professionals, which in some instances led to the disclosures of children being dismissed as fabrication, or resulted in sexually abusive women having continued, potentially inappropriate access to children. Both Canadian and British research (Denov, 2003b, 2004; Hetherton and Beardsall, 1998) has highlighted the potential for female perpetrated sexual abuse to be taken less seriously than male perpetrated child sexual abuse by professionals working in the child protection and criminal justice system.

Although it is generally accepted that the victims of female perpetrators manifest symptoms similar to those of victims of other types of sexual abuse, there is evidence to suggest that the victims of female offenders might experience particular difficulties. An increased sense of isolation, betrayal and stigma emerges as a key issue which can act as a barrier to the disclosure of abuse. In some cases victims might disclose being abused by a man, later to reveal that the abuser was, in fact, a woman. Others may disclose abuse at the hands of a male and later, once they have built up a relationship, reveal that a female was also involved. Again professional training on female perpetrated sexual abuse and its impact on victims appears to be a key issue in raising awareness and understanding among professionals who work with this group. It also recommended that therapists and clinicians should routinely ask about sexual abuse perpetrated by females in order to demonstrate that this is an acceptable topic for discussion and that any disclosure will be met with understanding.

The research literature also highlights a number of differences between the treatment of male and female sex offenders, the most obvious being the comparative scarcity of programmes for females. While programmes for females clearly need to be developed to ensure equity in service provision and prevent further offending, the research also highlights a number of differences between male and female sex offenders which may impact on treatment needs. For example, it has been noted female sex offenders appear to have much higher rates of childhood victimisation than male sex offenders and are much more likely to co-offend than male offenders. Questions have also been raised about the best mode of programme delivery for female offenders and caution is advised when taking methods which have been successful with men and applying them directly to women.

The response of the child protection system

National child protection policy does not make any reference to the issue of female sex offending, while current child protection registration statistics do not provide information on the gender of the perpetrator in relation to sexual or any other form of abuse. The ACPC survey also highlighted that few ACPCs have local policies and procedures which specifically relate to dealing with females who sexually offend against children. While, in practice, general child protection policies and procedures should encompass both male and female perpetrators, the literature and in-depth interviews clearly identify a lack of awareness or acceptance of female perpetrated child sexual abuse as being a particular barrier to professionals identifying and responding to this type of abuse. Several of those interviewed also commented on the need for policy to make it explicit that sex offenders can be female as well as male. Only one ACPC was found to have taken this approach by explicitly acknowledging in their definition of child sexual abuse that both males and females can be perpetrators.

While it was encouraging to note that approximately half the ACPC survey responses reported the provision of some type of training around female sex offending, much of this appeared to make only a passing reference to female sex offenders. Nevertheless, other ACPCs allocated specific time for a more in-depth examination of female sexual offending, usually in the form of specialised courses on child sexual abuse or sex offenders, although some core or foundation child protection courses included some coverage of the topic. Many noted that the subject was included in rolling programmes such as core training or child sexual abuse courses and, as such, would be provided on an annual basis. Competing training priorities, with female sex offending not being identified as a training need, was the most commonly reported barrier to providing training on this subject, followed by limited funding and resources. Given these limitations it would appear that addressing female perpetrated child sexual abuse within wider, rolling programmes would be the most cost-effective means for ACPCs to raise awareness about this issue among a wide range of child protection professionals. While 'specialised' training on female sex offenders for professionals whose role requires more in-depth knowledge may not be necessary, the complexity of this issue means that it is essential that adequate time and depth of coverage is given to this issue within other child sexual abuse and sex offending courses.

The response of the criminal justice system

The official figures for convictions and cautions indicate that relatively small numbers of females enter the criminal justice system for sexual offences against children. However, as statistics are only available for cases in which the age of the child is identified by the crime, the precise figures for female sexual offences are not readily obtainable. Equally, while the figures are small in comparison with those for males, the research literature on this subject indicates that there are specific issues around identifying and prosecuting females for child sexual abuse. Anecdotal evidence from the interviews with key professionals also supports the concept that gender has an important role to play in how an allegation of child sexual abuse is taken forward. Key issues raised in the interviews included: a tendency towards disbelief or minimisation; a lack of acceptance that females might have an equal role or instigate abuse by themselves; an assumption that females are coerced by male partners and seemingly higher evidential requirements for prosecution. The importance of raising awareness among criminal justice professionals was considered a key means of dispelling these views.

The MAPPA survey also highlighted the fact that, while the figures are small in comparison with those for males, the majority of regions have some experience of managing female sex offenders. They also indicated that two in five females are classified as being medium or high risk sex offenders and, as such, require multi-agency assessment and management. A further two in five had not had a risk assessment either because of a lack of validated risk assessment tools for females and/or because they had come via the police caution route. The lack of risk assessment tools for female sex offenders was a common theme throughout the survey, with responses highlighting how this hindered the production of management plans and resulted in the downgrading of risk. In addition to raising concerns about a lack of risk assessment tools, the survey findings also suggested that there are variations in the way this issue is currently dealt with in different MAPPA regions. This was highlighted by the fact that the responses were quite evenly split between identifying differences in the risk assessment of males and females and finding no differences.

There appeared to be less of a mixed response with regard to management processes, with a majority of responses reporting no differences in their experience of managing female sex offenders. Where there were differences, a lack of risk assessment tools, available interventions for females and appropriate accommodation were raised. The lack of available treatment programmes was also a key theme in the professional interviews, with concerns being raised about the lack of resources and general inequity in terms of service provision for this particular group. The interviews also raised questions about how best to deliver treatment to females. Concerns were voiced about the use of group-work with women in terms of whether this was the most appropriate model of service delivery for the group, as well as the practicalities of having the numbers of participants required. While recognising commonalities between male and female sex offenders, a number of factors considered to be particularly important in treating females were identified. These included previous victimisation, attachment and dependency issues, self-esteem and assertiveness, greater difficulty in getting women to accept offending behaviour, self-identity and identity as a mother, and core beliefs about power and control.

Another common theme to emerge from the survey responses was the fact that many SMBs had never discussed the subject of female sex offenders. This very much supports the view of one SMB that there is a lack of debate about this issue, which needs to be addressed. Nevertheless, despite a lack of discussion, a number of SMBs were able to make a variety of suggestions for developing policy which, again, highlighted the need to develop a research base as well as specific risk assessment tools and treatment programmes. More specific suggestions included the establishment of a national working group to take this forward, the issuing of a National Probation Directorate circular which offers guidance, and inclusion of female sex offenders within the current police/probation thematic inspection.

Equally, the suggestions for developing service provision highlighted the need for accommodation for females to be developed. These responses confirmed that housing both male and females together was often inappropriate, which supports the intention of the National Probation Directorate to end mixed sex provision and ensure that there is Approved Premises provision for women who present significant risks to others. Other suggestions put forward by the SMBs in relation to service provision included developing centrally funded outreach projects such as the Lucy Faithfull Foundation service, providing training for MAPPA members and developing national policies and procedures.

Recommendations

Recommendation 1
In addition to collating data on the age of children and the category of registration, the DfES and DHSSPSNI should require local authorities/health and social services trusts to provide information on perpetrators' gender. This would facilitate the provision of baseline information on cases of sexual abuse involving female perpetrators who come to the attention of social services and allow for the monitoring of any changes in this category.

Recommendation 2
The Home Office and NIO should collate information which allows for the identification of all sexual offences against children rather than only those in which the age of the child is identified by the offence, for example gross indecency with a child.

Recommendation 3
Both national child protection policy and guidance, for example Working Together to Safeguard Children (DoH et al., 1999) and Co-operating to Safeguard Children (DHSSPS, 2003), and local ACPC policy and procedures should explicitly recognise that while a majority of child sexual abuse is carried out by men, females do commit sexual offences against children.

Recommendation 4
In light of current inconsistencies in practice, national guidance on the assessment of female sex offenders should be issued to members of multi-agency public protection arrangements. This might take the form of a National Probation Circular which clarifies issues such as the appropriate assessment tools to be used with this group and how cases arising via the police caution route should be dealt with.

Recommendation 5
Research to establish the recidivism rates of female sex offenders is urgently required in order to inform the development of validated assessment tools for this group.

Recommendation 6
Consideration should be given to establishing a UK-wide special interest/national working group for the development of policies and procedures in relation to the management of female sex offenders.

Recommendation 7
Training on female sex offenders should be provided to a wide range of professionals within the criminal justice system in order to raise awareness and develop expertise. This should not only include police, probation and prison officers, but should also target solicitors, barristers and members of the judiciary.

Recommendation 8
While it is recognised that some ACPCs are already providing training in this area it is important that all ACPCs should give consideration to providing training on female sex offending. This should take the form of:

  • recognition of female sex offending and coverage of key issues (eg prevalence, victims' characteristics, perpetrators' characteristics, differences between male and female offenders) in basic, core or foundation programmes in order to raise awareness among a wide range of child protection professionals

  • provision of more specialised training which covers this issue in greater depth for key child protection professionals, either as part of wider child sexual abuse/sex offending courses or as specialist training courses.

Whilst the survey specifically focused on the training provided by ACPCs, it is important to note that a broad range of agencies, including voluntary organisations such as the NSPCC, are involved in child protection. These recommendations have implications for all such organisations, which also need to consider including female sex offending within organisational policies and procedures and providing appropriate training on this issue.

Recommendation 9
Professionals providing therapeutic services should routinely ask about female perpetrated sexual abuse in order to demonstrate acceptance and understanding of this issue.

Recommendation 10
Training for professionals who provide therapeutic services should include the issue of female perpetrated child sexual abuse, particularly in relation to the difficulties victims might experience in disclosing abuse and the impact it has on survivors.

Recommendation 11
Research which examines the way in which gender impacts on the identification and progress of female sex offenders through both the child protection and criminal justice systems would greatly increase our understanding of the barriers faced.

Recommendation 12
While it is recognised that an accredited programme for female sex offenders is under development, current services are scarce. Funding and resources need to be made available for work with this group in order to ensure that they have the same access to therapeutic treatment as males.

Recommendation 13
The development of a treatment programme for female sex offenders should adequately take account of potentially different treatment needs of female offenders raised by issues such as co-offending and high rates of previous victimisation.

Footnotes

1. Area Child Protection Committees are responsible for the development and dissemination of agreed local policies and inter-agency work. The ACPC is a multi-agency forum responsible for agreeing how the different services and professional groups should co-operate to safeguard children in that area, and for making sure that arrangements work effectively to bring about good outcomes for children. They are also responsible for helping to improve the quality of child protection and inter-agency working through specifying needs for inter-agency training and development, and ensuring that training is delivered.

2. Multi-Agency Public Protection Arrangements (MAPPA) were set up to manage the risks posed by dangerous offenders and sexual offenders in the community.

3. In Northern Ireland the MAPPA equivalent is the Northern Ireland Sex Offender Strategic Management Committee (NISOSMC). It is not constituted on a statutory basis but operates very similarly to MAPPAs in England and Wales, although it deals exclusively with sex offenders rather than both violent and sexual offenders.

4. The Strategic Management Board is responsible for overseeing the multi-agency public protection arrangements in each area and its members are senior staff within the services that constitute the Responsible Authority and those agencies with a duty to co-operate.

Full report:

Bunting, L. (2005) Females who sexually offend against children: responses of the child protection and criminal justice systems. London: NSPCC. [NSPCC Policy Practice Research Series].
ISBN: 1842280546