A manifesto for children who have suffered abuse - NSPCC CEO Peter Wanless

Our call this election week: Number 10 must seize the momentum

5 years ago a drastic change to the political status quo saw the ushering-in of the first coalition government since the last war. During its time in office the impact of a series of child abuse scandals on the child protection landscape has been seismic.   

Many have recoiled in horror at the sexual rampage of Jimmy Savile in NHS hospitals and beyond, at the crimes of Rolf Harris and Max Clifford, increases in online abuse and grooming, the trafficking, raping and branding of young girls and some boys by grooming gangs in Oxford, in Rochdale and in Rotherham, where it is estimated there were as many as 1400 victims.

And still as we head towards the polling booths, although child sex abuse leads the news once again, the political focus is elsewhere.

Child sexual abuse is an unreported crime and many children suffer in silence

Sad little boy.We know sexual abuse is a massively under-reported crime and many continue to suffer in silence. Although around 25,000 cases of sexual assaults against under-18s are reported to police in England and Wales, this is the tip of an iceberg.  

Every day we are inundated with reports of children suffering all kinds of abuse and our research suggests 1 in 20 of the UK's children have experienced sexual abuse. 

Since 2010 the number of calls to Childline has shot up by 70% to 61,600 a year with sexual abuse related calls almost doubling.

We should recognise that this is a watershed moment in which we can finally do right by the many who have suffered in silence and I sense an atmosphere where people feel more confident that if they come forward they will be believed.

What should be done to help children who’ve suffered sexual abuse

However coming forward is the beginning of a long journey, which is fraught with difficulties and obstacles. So, as we prepare for another election, what would be in the NSPCC’s manifesto for children who have suffered abuse? In a nutshell:

  1. therapy for all victims of child sexual abuse
  2. a justice system that works for young witnesses
  3. more mental health services for children

Therapy for all victims of child sexual abuse

Firstly, survivors of sexual abuse aren't guaranteed the therapeutic support they need unless they can demonstrate they are an immediate danger to themselves or someone else.

Since 2011, NSPCC counsellors have given this essential therapeutic support to 2,700 young people who have experienced sexual abuse yet there are at least 50,000 others known to be in need of such help. This cannot be right.

A justice system that works for young witnesses

Secondly, once children have the courage to come forward what happens? Our Order in Court campaign highlighted children can feel exposed and frightened when taking part in criminal proceedings. The relentless questioning, sometimes by a series of defence lawyers, would be harsh enough to crush an adult, let alone a child. Vulnerable children have even bumped into their abuser in the court building. Arguably, the current system can only help offenders, not victims – especially when those victims are children. This is not fair justice.

More mental health services for children

Thirdly, The Sunday Times has been exposing the appalling lack of mental health services for the young. Children tell ChildLine about suicidal thoughts, self-harm, depression, eating disorders and body image problems. 

Mental health counselling through the service more than doubled last year to around 200,000 sessions. Young people we speak to are buckling under the 24-hour nature of online bullying, harassment to send sexually explicit pictures, and other insidious pressures.   Too many tormented children must often wait years to get the mental health support they need, and then have to travel miles to their nearest unit. This has to change.

The work of the Justice Lowell Goddard Inquiry into historical sexual abuse will soon start in earnest.  But we must not forget the children suffering abuse right now. Whoever gets the keys to Number 10 must seize the momentum. Every childhood is worth fighting for and abuse can be prevented, lives can be turned around. Ignorance is no longer an excuse.