Assessing risk and safety

Child Sexual Abuse


Download PDF


One of the main difficulties in assessing risk of and safety from child sexual abuse is when there is no clear disclosure but where case workers observe concerning behaviour. In these instances, we need to assess risk and build safety to reduce the risk of harm and create a safe space for children that may help them to disclose.

Engage children

  • Try and place yourself within the child’s reality. Children who are abused are observant and hyper vigilant – they are immersed in their abuse.
  • Bring children into risk assessments and plans to ensure their own safety.
  • Ask children questions like: When do you feel safe? When are you not? How do you keep yourself safe? They might tell you where and at what times of the day they are most at risk. They may also let you know where and when they have periods of safety – this may be walking to school or on the bus.

Adopt an ecological perspective

  • Start with the child at the centre, consider who is around the child in their immediate environment (parents, carers), expanding to their neighbourhood (school, friends, other carers & supports) and the wider community.
  • How can you strengthen these relationships to increase the child’s safety? Remember, planning for safety involves keeping all children in the house safe not just the child who is the subject of a report.

Engage non-offending carers

  • Even if there is disbelief, engaging non- offending carers around a common desire to keep children safe is important.
  • Grooming, conditioning or the possibility or presence of intergenerational sexual abuse may stop them from seeing what is actually happening to their own child and impact on their ability to protect them. Talk with mothers about what things they did to keep themselves safe and how do they keep their children safe?

Understanding the perpetrator

  • Remember past behaviours of sexual abuse are a strong predictor of future behaviours. While keeping in mind a capacity to change, do your homework and find out as much as you can about the perpetrator.
  • What do you know about their past behaviour and tactics? What sort of image do they have or what role do they play in the community? Have they ingratiated themselves in the lives of the child and their family?
  • What access do they have to the child? Is it unsupervised or access only when other adults are present?
  • Look past the words; consider the potential grooming and conditioning behaviours and the risk they pose to the children.

Understanding family norms and culture

  • Get to know the language of the family, their family culture and intimate caring routines. Who does the caring? Who does the bathing, dressing, bedding routines? What does this mean?
  • Are there times you can increase safety by addressing these routines and reducing access?  Does the physical design of the house or garden pose a risk or allow sexual abuse to go unnoticed?
  • Be specific and realistic in the safety plan. Investigate grey areas –if mum goes to work or the shop, what can be done to keep children safe?

Poly-victimisation

  • Children exposed to one type of abuse are at greater risk of other forms of abuse and maltreatment.
  • Consider what we know about poly-victimisation.
  • Children living in the presence of domestic violence are six times more likely to suffer sexual abuse. Perpetrators claim a special ability to identify and target such vulnerable children.

Sexualisation

  • Be aware of sexualisation and denigration in the family – jokes, images or movies.
  • Look out for the presence of pornography. There is a strong association between exposure to pornography and sexually harming behaviours1.
  • Pornography may desensitise and normalise sexualisation and violence against women and girls.

Break down the isolation

  • Think beyond ‘therapy’ or counselling and look for services and opportunities that will reduce the isolation of children or non-offending adults and connect them with the community. This will mean more eyes are watching and provide more opportunities and people to help keep the children safe.

Multi-agency cooperation

  • Children’s safety should be the underpinning of inter-agency cooperation. Together with health, education, police and other services, articulate a joint vision to keep children safe.
  • Share risk across agencies; let the child’s safety guide your cooperation.
  • Get to know what different providers know and think about child sexual abuse.
  • Build relationships with people who have a good understanding of the dynamics of child sexual abuse.

Revise safety measures

  • Safety plans need to be revised regularly. This could mean daily, weekly or monthly.  Perpetrators are skilled at keeping ahead of everyone else and avoiding detection. They will be able to recognise and subvert activities designed to distance them from the child and keep the child safe.
  • Just when you think the children are safe, think about revising safety measures.

Watch a video on assessing risk and safety in cases of child sexual abuse from the Research to Practice seminar.