Statistics on child abuse Incidence and prevalence

Girl hugging kneesNational and local official statistics look at the incidence of child abuse. This means the number of cases that are recorded by the authorities over the course of a year. 

Research studies give us an idea of the prevalence of child abuse. So a small sample of the population is asked about their experiences. The proportion of respondents who were abused is then extrapolated up to give an idea of what proportion of a wider population has experienced abuse.

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.

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.

Research studies can give a good insight into the abuse that children and young people experience. There are several issues to consider and conclusions need to be drawn with caution. 

  • 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 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 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, which lessens its quality. Some research studies use easy-to-reach samples, such as college students, but these groups are not always representative of the general population, or even representative of the subset of people who have experienced child abuse. 
  • 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 or corroborated by more recent, 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 or official government publications are likely to be more robust.

Statistics on the incidence of child abuse

Statistics available at a national level and a local level are usually published annually. They can be used to estimate the incidence of child abuse, which means the number of cases recorded in the previous year. There are a number of different indicators we can look at to give us an idea of the number of abused children who are known to the authorities.

Child protection registers or plans tell us about the number of children who have been assessed by the local authority as being at an ongoing risk of harm. The child stays on the register or plan for as long as they are assessed to be still at risk. 

The register records the category of abuse, age, gender and ethnic origin of the child. 

The data from the local authority about child protection registers or plans are collated and published by the relevant government department in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. 

These statistics are often published alongside other children’s services statistics such as the number of referrals made to local authorities, the number of assessments undertaken and the number of child protection conferences held. 

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. (Department for Education, 2013)

The child protection registers significantly 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. How safe are our children? 2013 estimated that for every 1 child on the child protection register, another 8 had been maltreated in the previous year (Harker, L. et al., 2013).

The registers also do not include anyone who has been abused but is assessed as not being at risk of further abuse, for instance where there is no longer any contact between the child and the perpetrator.

The Office for National Statistics publishes police statistics on the number of 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". Statistics for Northern Ireland and Scotland are published by the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Scottish Government respectively.

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 status (UK Statistics Authority, 2014).

The child abuse offences do not tell us how many children have been abused, because one child may have been the victim of several different offences.

Not all child abuse offences lead to criminal prosecutions. 

The Home Office's Crime in England and Wales 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 series shows the number of offenders who are cautioned or found guilty of child abuse offences.

We don’t know exactly how many child abuse offences result in convictions because we can’t match the offences in the Crime in England and Wales statistics series with the convictions in the Criminal Statistics series. 

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.

Neither Scotland nor Ireland publish statistics on prosecutions of child abuse offenders.

The Home Office publish homicide figures for children under 16 in in England and Wales. The Office for National Statistics publish mortality statistics by cause of death for children under 14 in England and Wales. 

These are explained more fully in our briefing Child killings in England and Wales: explaining the statistics (PDF)


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

  2. Harker, L. et al. (2013) How safe are our children? London: NSPCC.