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How to find, understand and use statistics about child abuse

March 2014

A brief introduction to child abuse statistics.

We do not know exactly how many children in the UK are victims of child abuse. Child abuse is usually hidden from view and the children may be too young, too scared or too ashamed to tell anyone about what is happening to them.

There are however a number of different sources of information, including official government statistics and academic research, which give us an indication of the number of children who are affected by abuse.

Statistics on the incidence of child abuse
Statistics on the prevalence of child abuse

Statistics on the incidence of child abuse

National and local government statistics are usually published annually. They can be used to estimate the incidence of child abuse, that is the number of cases recorded in the previous year. However there is often a considerable delay between a child being abused and them telling anyone, so it does not mean that the abuse started in the last twelve months.

Child protection registers (or children who are the subject of a child protection plan)

When a local authority children’s services team learns that a child has been abused or is at risk of abuse, the team will undertake an assessment. If the child is assessed as being at ongoing risk of harm, then a child protection conference is convened to decide whether a child should be placed on the child protection register (or in England, made the subject of a child protection plan).

The register records the category of abuse, age, gender and ethnic origin of the child. The majority of the children on the register remain living with their families, while professionals from various agencies work with the family to ensure the child is safe. A child stays on the register for as long as they are assessed to be still at risk.

The local authority statistics are collated and published by the relevant government department in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland1. The statistics that cover England are published by the Department for Education (DfE). These include the number of referrals made to local authorities, the number of initial assessments and core assessments undertaken and the number of child protection conferences held.

Some of the referrals a local authority receives will relate to children who are already known to the authority, others may be from malicious callers, while in some cases, the abuse allegations cannot be substantiated. Sometimes the assessments that are undertaken will decide that the child is not at risk of harm but the family could benefit from other services; or sometimes the concerns will not meet the threshold for child protection intervention.

The proportion of children on the register varies considerably between different local authorities, which may suggest that different areas have different thresholds for recording a child as being at risk. Differences in practice, training and resources may also help explain why some local authorities have no children registered as at risk of sexual harm. (DfE, 2014)2.

The child protection registers in fact underrepresent the scale of child abuse in the UK because many children never come to the attention of the local authority. This may be because they do not realise they are being abused, or because they do not tell anyone what is happening to them, or because the adults they confide in do not pass this information on to the local authority.

The registers also do not include anyone who has been abused but is assessed as not being at risk of further abuse (for instance a child who died following abuse, or a child who was abused by someone unknown to the family).

Child protection orders

The Ministry of Justice publishes statistics on the number of applications for child protection orders made in England and Wales. These include:

  • care orders: these give parental responsibility to the local authority and usually mean the child is removed from the family home

  • supervision orders: these place the child under the supervision of the local authority, but usually mean they stay in the family home

  • emergency protection orders: these are used to secure the immediate safety of a child by moving the child to a place of safety, or by preventing the child’s removal from a place of safety.

Child abuse offences

If a crime has been committed, the police should be informed by the local authority children’s social care (Working together to safeguard children, p.31)3.  The police will decide, after discussion with the other agencies involved, whether it is in the best interests of the child to pursue a full police investigation.

The Office for National Statistics publishes the police statistics for the number of police recorded child abuse offences committed against children in England and Wales. There is no single category that includes all child abuse offences, but there are a number of different offences that constitute child abuse, which include: “cruelty to or neglect of children”, “causing or allowing the death of a child”, and “sexual activity with a child under 13”.

The statistics for child abuse offences underrepresent the number of children who are abused because not all child abuse comes to the attention of the police. Even if the police know about the abuse, it will not be recorded as an offence if it does not amount to a crime as defined in law.  There have also been some questions over the quality of police crime recording, leading in January 2014 to the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) removing police recorded crime's National Statistics status4

The Home Office's Crime in England and Wales 5 series shows the number of individual offences recorded by the police as well as the number of offences resulting in an offender being charged or cautioned.

The  Ministry of Justice's Criminal justice statistics 6 series shows the number of offenders who are cautioned or found guilty of child abuse offences.

The reason why we cannot compare the data in these two publications is that the Crime in England and Wales statistics series details the number of offences, while the Criminal Statistics series details the number of offenders.

Statistics about offences and offenders do not tell us how many children have been abused. One offender may have abused more than one child, or one child may have had more than one offence committed against them, by one or more offenders. Therefore it is not possible to tell how much child abuse results in a criminal conviction.

Child deaths

Reliable estimates of the number of children killed in England and Wales can be derived mainly from two government publications, both of which include the number of children who have died at the hands of another person:

  • Office of National Statistics Homicide, firearm offences and intimate violence statistics (previously Criminal Statistics )

  • Office for National Statistics (ONS) Mortality statistics.  

These are explained more fully in our briefing on Child killings in England and Wales 7.

Statistics on the prevalence of child abuse

Research studies can be used to help estimate the prevalence of child abuse – that is, the proportion of a population who were abused during childhood.

Research studies can give a good insight into the abuse that children and young people experience, but conclusions need to be drawn with caution.

Findings from research studies usually reveal much higher numbers of children who have been abused than official statistics. This gives an indication of how much child abuse does not come to the attention of the authorities.

Many children do not tell anyone of the abuse at the time because they are scared of the consequences or because they are unsure who to tell or how to tell someone.

More people will disclose abuse during research because they are able to do so anonymously and confidentially, without worrying about an investigation from the authorities or the effect on their family.

Most research is done with adults, who may find it easier to talk about something that is no longer happening. Some find that after keeping the abuse secret for so long, it is a relief to be able to talk about it. For others, it is only after many years that they come to realise what happened to them as children was actually abuse.

However there will be some people who never disclose what happened to them and there is no way of knowing how many people never tell anyone.

Factors to consider when using research statistics:

  • Design of the study
    Each research study is designed differently and tries to find out about something different, which makes it impossible to make direct comparisons between the findings of different studies.

  • Definitions of abuse
    The researchers will be using their own definitions of abuse and these may differ from the definitions used by the the participants as well as those used by the readers of the published research.

  • The size of the research sample
    A larger sample may increase the likelihood that the research findings will be representative of the general population. However, if the research is on a very specific issue, which affects only a small number of people in the population and/or the group is difficult to access, then the research samples used are likely to be much smaller. Research undertaken with adults will have very different findings to research undertaken with children.

  • How the sample was recruited
    There are a wide range of sampling techniques. More robust studies employ techniques designed to generate representative and reliable data. A self-selecting sample, such as an online survey, usually results in considerable bias in the data and hence lessens its quality.

  • The quality of the questions asked in the sample
    Questions should not 'lead' respondents to a particular answer. Leading questions may introduce significant bias into the results. Questions should be unambiguous and the language must be appropriate to the research subjects.

  • The age of the study
    More recent research findings always give a better idea of the current situation. However, sometimes studies have not been superseded, augmented and/or corroborated by more recent and authoritative research findings, and therefore it is necessary to look at older studies.

  • Where the research is published and who the study is by
    Research statistics published in peer-reviewed academic journals and/or official government publications are likely to be more robust.



1. Child protection register statistics.
Our annual summary of child protection register statistics for England, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland.

2. Department for Education (DfE) (2013) Table D2 and D4 in: Characteristics of children in need in England: 2012 to 2013.  London: Department for Education (DfE).

3. Her Majesty's Government (2013) Working together to safeguard children: a guide to inter-agency working to safeguard and promote the welfare of children (PDF). London: Department for Education (DfE). 

4. UK Statistics Authority (2014) Assessment of compliance with the code of practice for official statistics: statistics on crime in England and Wales (PDF). London: UK Statistics Authority (UKSA). 

5. Office of National Statistics (2013 and previous years) Crime in England and Wales.

6. Ministry of Justice (2013 and previous years) Criminal justice statistics: England and Wales.

7. Child killings in England and Wales: explaining the statistics.
Our briefing on how to interpret the available statistics relating to child deaths.

Contact the NSPCC's information service for further information on this or any other child protection topic

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