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Child sexual abuse is like a rat lurking at the back of a cupboard

judithAs a teacher & Designated Safeguarding Lead, I have the pure joy of teaching in Early Years part-time. A privileged member of our LSCB & Quality Assurance sub-group, my role recently includes collaboration with colleagues developing a toolkit for tackling CSE; Multi-Agency Case Audit analysis; creating a Section 11 audit tool for Early Years; and expansion of a Police project for 5-11 year olds on abuse and domestic violence awareness. I deliver safeguarding-related training across the partnership in a freelance capacity including CSE Prevention in Schools, Protective Behaviours, basic safeguarding awareness and Voice of the Child. I also work in schools providing commissioned direct work on Protective Behaviours with children. Engaging in work across the vast arena of safeguarding affords me the profound opportunity to keep the child at the centre in everything I do. You can contact Judith Staff on Twitter and read more about Judith’s efforts to combat the sexual abuse of children here.


Consideration of difficult topics can be processed through a parallel analogy. For child sexual abuse (CSA), I imagine a rat at the back of a cupboard, incessantly scratching, yet so deeply hidden in the shadowy space it remains out of sight. Knowing it’s there yet with no concrete evidence, child sexual abuse, like the rat, can lurk indefinitely, devastating childhoods, blighting futures.

Emphasising the need for physical evidence in safeguarding children hampers detection of CSA; children’s clothing conceals the very areas of their body susceptible to marks.  Equally obstructive is the culture of disclosure-led practice. CSA possesses an added silencer: shame.  A Sex Education Forum survey highlighted poor Sex & Relationships Education in schools, perhaps further inhibiting children from talking about sexual abuse.  What remains are behavioural indicators. As children’s behaviour can be in response to, or an attempt to communicate a range of issues, how can we rely on that alone when assessing risk of CSA?  As children face varying levels of vulnerability and complexity at home, teachers’ time is spent responding to challenging behaviour.  We know that “shame is a self-conscious emotion”  [pg 338]  Resultantly, a child may hope to go unseen/unnoticed; the aura of invisibility further impeding observation of visible indicators. Additionally, determined to affect change for children, practitioners may be so focussed on addressing the most prominent issues, they risk chasing the sexual abuse further into the back of the cupboard.

Data related to under-reporting of CSA is horrifying –  by estimation “1 in 8 come to the attention of statutory authorities.” [pg 7]  This can feel oppressive, if not suffocating in terms of the unfulfilled responsibility and no way forward.  Knowing all this, we cannot admit defeat.  We cannot do that for a single child, let alone thousands of children every day experiencing sexual abuse.

At a recent conference event Donna Peach encouraged delegates to ask themselves this: “What can I do?” The intonation did not reflect resignation, but instead hope and motivation, inviting participants to reflect on their own role in “meeting the challenge” of CSA.  Feelings of despair at the sheer intensity and epidemic scale of CSA, were replaced as people were encouraged to ask themselves what they can do – that day, the days ahead, future interactions.  Emphasising ‘can’ helps lift the cloud of oppression and dissolves the thought of living with the rat scratching forevermore.

Every day presents opportunities to stop and prevent child sexual abuse. It may involve direct work with a child or simply talking with an adult about CSA.  A children’s book, “The Dot” (Reynolds, P., London. 2004) reminds readers when feeling paralysed and overwhelmed, we can just make a dot as a starting point. A starting point could be supporting parents or colleagues to talk with children about touch; touch which feels safe, touch which feels unsafe – thereby challenging the shame which keeps us all from talking.  A conversation creates a “dot.” Talking about CSA, raising awareness, teaching why online risk is significant, recognising indicators of CSA and reporting concerns are all dots, starting points.

If we question ourselves “What can I do,” the dots created will build, making a big mark towards challenging CSA.  Recalling the rat in the cupboard, working together, we find a way to take the cupboard apart, leaving the rat nowhere to hide. It is through individual efforts and a collective, relentless perseverance that belief will grow, and we can stop and prevent the sexual abuse of children.






The sexual abuse of children: An issue of epidemic proportions