“Alarming gaps” in knowledge about abuse within families means “substantial numbers” of children are not adequately protected, England’s deputy children’s commissioner Sue Berelowitz said yesterday.

Her warning comes as a report based on an analysis of 57,226 research studies into child sexual abuse is published. The Office of the Children’s Commissioner has launched a two-year inquiry that will look at sexual abuse within the family. Charities have also been calling for more funding to tackle the problem.

The report, entitled It’s a Lonely Journey, was carried out for the Office of the Children’s Commissioner by researchers at Middlesex University. It showed there were “glaring omissions” in what was known about abuse in family environments, said Ms Berelowitz.

These include an “almost complete lack” of research directly looking into children and young people’s experiences of what would help to prevent the abuse or to support those who have been abused. The report highlights a particular lack of knowledge about the experiences of disabled children and those from minority ethnic groups.

It also finds that most services to support people who have experienced child sexual abuse within a family context are targeted at adult survivors rather than at children. The report also showed that little is known about the prevalence of long-term psychological and physical harm caused by sexual abuse in family environments and almost nothing about the economic cost this places on society.

Ms Berelowitz said: “Some studies suggest as many as one in 20 children and young people experience sexual abuse, the majority of it perpetrated by people within the family or family circle. We know that at any one time, around 43,000 children have child protection plans, only around 5% of whom are on a plan for sexual abuse. These figures do not add up.”

Report author Dr Miranda Horvath said: “Child victim-survivors’ voices and first-hand experiences were absent from the vast majority of the research we reviewed for this rapid evidence assessment. It is imperative that future research and the work of the inquiry brings these to the fore using ethical but innovative methods, with the well-being of the child at the centre. At the same time, we need to know more about programmes that are focused on preventing family-based child sexual abuse before it occurs, in order to take a preventative rather than reactive approach.”

Announcing an inquiry into the problem, Maggie Atkinson, the Children’s Commissioner for England, said: “Most of our children are raised in secure, loving homes but I am sure very many of us will be disturbed by how much abuse within the family environment goes unreported and how little is done to support the children who suffer. As adults we are morally and socially obliged to protect children from harm. As children’s commissioner, I also have a legal responsibility to promote their right to protection.”

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