On 4 August 2016, the Office for National Statistics released their analysis of the annual crime survey for the year ending March 2016.
This survey asks households in Wales and England about their experiences of crime. What makes this year’s survey special is that it is the first time the Crime Survey has included questions about whether adults suffered sexual abuse as children.
To be clear, the questions in the survey related only to abuse carried out by an adult against a child – so children suffering abuse at the hands of other children would be excluded from these results.
The results were shocking: 7% of those aged 16 to 59 reported having experienced sexual abuse as a child. This equates to almost 1 in 14 adults.
To put that figure into perspective, it is more than 10 out of the 150 people who fit into a single London Underground tube carriage at rush hour. It is more than 2 out of every class of 30 A-Level students. It would be more than 4,000 people if the Manchester City football stadium was full.
Applying the above to the whole of England and Wales shows a terrifyingly high number of people who have experienced abuse as children. This reflects the reality of how widespread child abuse has become in our society. As an NSPCC spokesman stated, “This confirms the horrifying fact that a vast number of adults were abused as children.”
According to the survey, women were three times more likely than men to have experienced rape during childhood. Yet women were also almost four times less likely than men to have reported being abused by a person in a position of trust or authority, such as a teacher, doctor, carer or youth worker. Why are women not reporting abuse? This question goes to the very heart of our society.
Time limits for bringing a claim
These statistics reveal a wealth of startling information which should be analysed and understood by all of those involved in campaigning against child abuse, including lawyers campaigning for the reform of child abuse compensation law.
The court time limits for childhood sexual abuse survivors are very strict – their claim should be issued at court by the time the survivor has turned 21 years old. This is frankly a very challenging time limit – many people will still have not disclosed the abuse to anyone by the age of 21. For those who have disclosed the abuse, they may still be dealing with the psychological impact of the abuse and be unable to face the prospect of court proceedings.
The courts can waive this time limit but must decide whether to do so in each individual case. Survivors, many of whom have serious psychological injuries, must convince the court they had good reasons for the delay in bringing their claim. This inevitably means some survivors are unfairly denied compensation. It also increases the complexity of bringing civil claims as the case is at risk of being struck out if the courts decide not to waive the time limit.
For years, child abuse lawyers have been campaigning to have this unfair and unrealistic time limit removed in relation to claims relating to child sexual abuse. There have been victories along the way – the Scottish Government announced in March that they intended to lift this time limit – but much work remains to be done. The crime survey statistics might help us win the argument in England and Wales too.
Delays in disclosing abuse
The crime survey shows that almost 3 in every 4 sexual assault survivors did not tell anyone about the abuse at the time that it happened. Only 1 in 10 of all survivors of childhood sexual abuse reported what happened to someone in an official position and only 7% reported the abuse to the police at that time.
When compared to the adult survivors of sexual assaults, the survey clearly shows that children are less likely to report sexual abuse and reflects how child sexual abuse is hidden in our society to an even greater extent than adult sexual assault.
There are powerful psychological reasons as to why children do not report abuse. The most common reasons cited in the survey for not disclosing the abuse were embarrassment or humiliation, followed closely by thinking that they would not be believed. We each have a part to play in changing our culture to ensure that no child ever worries that they will be humiliated or not believed when they reveal they have been sexually abused.
Anyone who works with survivors will tell you that part of the reason that child abuse is so devastating is that it is associated with feelings of isolation, shame, fear and guilt – often engendered in the survivor by the abuser. These feelings, which stem from the abuse, also often have the effect of preventing survivors from reporting the abuse to the police.
The survey shows us how widespread child abuse is and how under-reported it is. Now, more than ever, we should be asking for a civil court system that respects and understands the harm caused by child abuse and does not punish survivors for a society-wide culture of silence when it comes to child abuse.