Place-based approach to preventing child sexual abuse

Professor Richard Wortley discusses how we can help prevent child sexual abuse in the community, at home and online

Children writingIn February 2017 NSPCC had a spotlight week raising awareness and discussion about preventing child sexual abuse. As part of this spotlight our Head of Impact and Development Jon Brown interviewed Professor Richard Wortley from the Jill Dando Institute about situation prevention..

Based at University College London (UCL), the Jill Dando Institute is devoted to crime science and prevention. Its research looks at new ways to cut crime and increase security with a focus on architecture, economics, engineering, geography, medicine, psychology, statistics and town planning.

Professor Wortley’s particular interest is the prevention of child sexual abuse and this post highlights the key messages from his interview.

Place-based approach

Historically, the prevention of child sexual abuse has been dominated by tertiary and secondary prevention. This means:

  • working with offenders once they’ve been caught, (when the abuse has already been committed)


  • reducing the likelihood of sexual offences happening by working with at-risk groups to minimise their chances of offending.

These are worthy but difficult aims.

Less work has been done around primary prevention: trying to stop child sexual abuse before it happens.

UCL’s “place-based” approach recognises that for any crime to occur, including child sexual abuse, you need 3 things:

  • an offender
  • a victim
  • a location where the offence takes place.

The place-based approach looks at how we can intervene in all 3 areas to protect children more effectively and create safe locations for them.

Situational prevention

Situational prevention looks at places where potential offenders and victims come together.

All crimes, including child sexual abuse, tend to happen at certain places and times: examining these trends provides information about what makes those places vulnerable. Understanding this can reduce opportunities for these problems to occur.

For example, in the news we’ve seen stories of abuse against young football players by coaches. 

One way to combat this is better screening for coaches but some people won’t offend until they’re actually in the job. It’s the structure of the role that needs to be examined.

Better protocols for the way coaches and players interact, and detailed knowledge of the way coaches work with players, is situational prevention. It aims to redesign a risky situation, rather than trying to screen out all potential offenders, which may be impossible.

There are many organisations and institutions where there is potential to use situational prevention to safeguard children.

Safeguarding children at home

We know that the majority of sexual abuse occurs within the home and is perpetrated by either a family member or someone the child knows.

In this context, the place-based approach brings up awkward truths: we have to recognise that the home is one of the most dangerous places for children - a difficult thing to accept.

How do we protect children from people who might put them at risk, when those people are our friends and family? These ethical and social issues make better guardianship at home a challenge.

But parents and carers can be more aware of their children’s safety. They can think about conditions and situations where their child could be at risk, whoever their child is with, and build general safeguards around that.

Parents can also learn what some of the risk signs are, and use that knowledge, along with their intuition, if they’re not comfortable about someone their child is with, or who’s taking care of them.

We need sensible safeguards for children without creating a fortress society. We don’t want to create paranoia, or forbid our children to have meaningful and healthy relationships with extended family and friends.

We do have to be careful that these relationships occur in a safe environment.

The context of child abuse

Historically, we’ve had the idea that child sexual abusers are a predatory subsection of the community. This stereotypical offender does exist and is very dangerous - but offending also occurs opportunistically and sporadically.

The potential to perpetrate child sexual abuse extends further into the areas of society that we view as “normal”.

It isn’t comfortable for us to think about, but we need to understand there’s something wrong with locations where we see repeat offending. The interactions occurring there are pathological and need to be stamped out.

By thinking about the contexts in which child sexual abuse occurs we can move away from just thinking about the offender, working out what we can do to protect potential victims, provide better guardianship and make the places they live in or visit safer.

Watch the video of Jon Brown’s interview with Professor Richard Wortley.

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