Treating child sexual abuse as a true crime

February 7, 1997

NO SINGLE agency should be expected to solve the problem of child sexual abuse, according to a researcher based at Edinburgh University. Sarah Nelson, research fellow in sociology, argues that child sexual abuse is a widespread social problem, akin to other large- scale abuses such as domestic violence, and the common belief that social workers alone can combat it is unrealistic.

At times, the work of social services can be ineffective and even counterproductive, she says. It would be better if the police had the main responsibility for investigating and assessing child sexual abuse, and left most social workers to play a supportive role, spotting signs of distress.

In the first of a series of social work department seminars at Edinburgh University, Dr Nelson argued that whenever there was publicity about alleged or proven bad practice in child abuse cases, the mantra was always that social workers needed more or better training and guidelines. "Social workers themselves, and university departments which train them, often believe this themselves," she said. "Nobody seems to stop to ask, training for what, guidelines for what? And are social workers being given more training to do an impossible task?"

There is no clear link between social class and child sexual abuse, yet social work is heavily skewed towards the poorest sections of society, said Dr Nelson. Not only could the middle classes be slipping through the net, but the profession lacks the status and power to challenge middle-class abusers able to hire expensive lawyers and expert witnesses, and "kick up hell" in the media.

"Increasingly we have had to face evidence that much child sexual abuse may be a lot nastier, more highly planned, and en-meshed with powerful and influential people, than we imagined even five years ago," she added. "The logic of regarding child sexual abuse as a crime, often a serious one, is that the police should be the lead agency in multi-disciplinary investigation and assessment of risk. Social work should be subsidiary."

But such police work will need social work skills and values. And, on the other side, social workers have much to learn from the police, since child sexual abuse involves a lot of detective work. Improved techniques for gathering evidence could reduce the need for the court testimony of children. Vast amounts of research on interviewing children already exist.

Dr Nelson is urging the social work profession to redirect re-sources to prevent child sexual abuse, and support safe babysitting schemes, public awareness campaigns, and voluntary organisations such as Women's Aid and Rape Crisis. "Making it as hard as possible for abusers to operate would save on social work investigations, court traumas and survivors' counselling," she said.

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