How we developed the harmful sexual behaviour framework

Professor Simon Hackett discusses the benefits of the harmful sexual behaviour framework, using evidence from pilot authorities

Boy drawing in a counselling session with a practitionerSometimes children are sexually abused by other children or young people. Around a third of child sexual abuse happens in this way.

We need to help children who have sexually harmed others to understand and address their behaviour. But, with no national strategy for tackling harmful sexual behaviour (HSB), many children have limited access to support. There are no services in some areas: this doesn't serve the needs of victims or of justice.

I have a long history working in the field of HSB, as a practitioner in the '90s and then as an academic researcher, based at Durham University. My research tries to understand the problem of young people with HSB. I use my findings to inform, educate and influence policy and practice so when I was asked to contribute to the HSB framework, I saw a landmark opportunity.

Feedback we've already received from pilot programmes illustrates how the framework can help local areas respond to this issue.

A national response to HSB

Attempts have been made to create a national response to young people with HSB, but a draft strategy submitted to the Home Office was not adopted. The "top down" approach appeared to be failing.

We continued to see either a "headless chicken" approach, with panic at the slightest expression of problematic sexual behaviour, or a "head in the sand" reaction, which didn't address anyone's needs.

In 2014, I wrote the book Children and young people with harmful sexual behaviours which presents a concise review of research into HSB, as we understand it, from the past 25 years (Hackett, 2014).

I wanted the book to present a clear guide, producing resources for practice.

When the NSPCC's Jon Brown and Pat Branigan decided to have another go at making a difference nationally, they thought elements of my book could be useful operationally.

Devising and developing the HSB framework

The NSPCC brought people together across professional boundaries, from the voluntary sector and academia, as well as independent experts, policy makers and relevant organisations.

We talked about influencing a national approach and how attempts to change policy had failed in the past.

The idea of a national HSB framework came out of these discussions; a "ground-up" approach to produce an operational tool with practical benefits.

Although some of the framework was written specifically, it was underpinned by elements of my book.

Different domains of activity kept the development of the framework consistent, including research, practice tools and the creation of an audit tool.

In our experience, we knew that professionals struggled to have the thorny issue of HSB taken seriously. There is, however, a difficult balance to be struck between intervening to help children at the earliest opportunity and labelling them (or, even worse, demonising them) as a result of their sexual behaviours. As professionals, we want to tackle HSB without stigmatising a child or young person or negatively affecting their life chances.

Therefore, it was important to include a tool that could be used to screen different levels of behaviours, clearly articulating the continuum of harmful sexual behaviour across childhood and adolescence.

We also wanted to develop guidance to create consistent assessment practice.

And we wanted to correct the mistakes of the past, namely when young people with HSB were seen as "mini adult sex offenders" rather than vulnerable children.

The HSB framework supports holistic, strength-based interventions and aims to communicate their benefits on a professional level.

Feedback from pilot authorities

In terms of finalising the framework, receiving feedback from the pilot authorities was a very important process.

A number of local authority areas, willing to trial the framework and its auditing tool, were found. These pilots helped us test if the framework could support local authorities in their development of HSB responses.

In a Research in Practice blog post Nathalie Fontenay from the Integrated Safeguarding Unit at Leeds City Council Children's Services, reflects on piloting the auditing tool and outlines the findings, action plan and progress so far.

The Leeds Local Safeguarding Children Board (LSCB) asked partner agencies to respond to audit statements across the five domains of the HSB framework

  • continuum of responses to HSB
  • early help
  • identification and referral pathways
  • assessment
  • intervention
  • and workforce development.

Fontenay writes:

"Each domain contained 10 audit statements or 'standards' linked to research within the field, to help representatives assess current knowledge, skills and service provision. "The findings from the audit suggested positive practice across Leeds, and areas which required further development."

With a clearer understanding of local HSB provision, Fontenay says:

"a standalone LSCB Harmful Sexual Behaviour strategy was formed, based on the audit domain headings, and an LSCB HSB action plan developed."

The development of this standalone strategy evidences how the framework can help local areas develop their strategic and operational responses to HSB, which is just what we hoped would happen.

Benefits of the HSB framework

Thanks to feedback from Leeds and the other pilot areas, we know the framework can be utilised by local authorities for a consistent and evidence-based approach to HSB. It helps professionals identify the signs of HSB, offering a range of tools and resources to support them at each stage.

In my view, its greatest strength is its potential to address the postcode lottery that currently exists between areas in the UK in the response to children and young people with HSB.

And the audit tool is hugely beneficial. It's easy to tell people what's wrong with the way they're working; the framework aims to help professionals get things right.

It provides a great opportunity for LSCB areas to promote safeguarding and review practice and policy. Unique in its approach, the audit tool adds real weight to that process, helping professionals identify strengths and areas for development, as we've already seen in Leeds.

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  1. Fontenay, N. (2016) Auditing the assessment and response to harmful sexual behaviours in Leeds. London: Research in Practice.

  2. Hackett, S. (2014) Children and young people with harmful sexual behaviours: Research Review. Dartington: Research in Practice.