View Working Together View Working Together

4.4 Children who Abuse Others


Work with children and young people who abuse others - including those who sexually abuse/offend - should recognise that such children are likely to have considerable needs themselves, and that they may pose a significant risk of harm to other children. Evidence suggests that children who abuse others may have suffered considerable disruption in their lives; been exposed to violence within the family; witnessed or been subject to physical or sexual abuse; have problems in their educational development; or have committed other offences. Such children and young people are likely to be children in need, and some will be suffering or at risk of significant harm, and may themselves need protection.


Unborn Babies at Risk of Significant Harm Procedure


In September 2017 this chapter was updated throughout and should be reread.


  1. Key Principles
  2. Definitions
  3. Recognition of Abuse by a Child or Young Person
  4. Referral and Social Work Assessment
  5. Strategy Discussions in Complex Cases
  6. Section 47 Enquiries in Relation to Alleged Abusing Child
  7. Decisions About the Alleged Abusing Child
  8. Criminal Proceedings

1. Key Principles


Five key principles should underpin all work with children who abuse others:

  • There should be a coordinated approach between agencies;
  • The needs of such children should be considered separately from the needs of their victims;
  • A holistic assessment should be carried out, recognising that the reasons why young people abuse others are multi-faceted, and appreciating that these children may have considerable unmet developmental needs as well as specific needs arising from their behaviour;

  • Children and young people who abuse others should be held responsible for their abusive behaviour, while being identified and responded to in a way which meets their needs as well as protecting others;

  • Early and effective intervention with children and young people who sexually harm others may play an important part in protecting children, by preventing the continuation or escalation of abusive behaviour;

  • Young people who sexually harm others have a right to be consulted and involved in all matters and decisions that affect their lives. Their parents have a right to information, respect and participation in matters that affect their family.

2. Definitions

2.1 Physical Abuse

2.1.1 In deciding whether an incident of physical assault should be dealt with as a child protection matter relevant considerations include the seriousness of the harm, the intention behind the assault and the difference in power between the victim and perpetrator (e.g. size, age, ability, development etc.) Fighting between peers of equal standing would not therefore normally be subject to referral.
2.1.2 Bullying may be defined as deliberately hurtful behaviour, usually repeated over time, where it is difficult for those bullied to defend themselves. It can take many forms but the main types are physical, verbal and emotional. The harm caused can frequently be underestimated. It can cause distress to the extent that it affects the victim’s health and development and in extreme cases causes them significant harm (including self-harm). In extreme cases there may be times when the threshold for a Section 47 Enquiry is reached. To help prevent such situations arising, all settings in which children are provided with services or are living away from home must therefore have in place rigorous anti-bullying policies. See Bullying Guidance.

2.2 Sexual Abuse

2.2.1 The definition of Sexual Abuse by children is the same as for sexual abuse by adults. Abusive/inappropriate behaviour is often characterised by a lack of true consent, the presence of a power imbalance and exploitation.
2.2.2 The boundary between what is abusive and what is part of normal childhood or youthful experimentation can be blurred. The ability of professionals to determine whether a child’s sexual behaviour is developmental, inappropriate or abusive will hinge around the related concepts of true consent, power imbalance and exploitation. This may include children who exhibit a range of sexually problematic behaviour such as indecent exposure, obscene telephone calls, fetishism, bestiality and sexual abuse against adults or children and downloading child pornography from the internet.
2.2.3 Developmental sexual activity encompasses those actions, which are to be expected from children as they move from infancy through to adulthood, developing an understanding of their physical, emotional and behavioural relationships with each other. Such sexual activity is essentially information gathering and experimentation characterised by mutuality and consent.
2.2.4 Sexual behaviour can be inappropriate socially, inappropriate to development or both. It is important to consider what negative effects the behaviour has on any of the parties involved and what concerns it raises about a child. It should be recognised that the behaviour may be motivated by experimentation, but may cause significant upset, confusion, physical injury etc. It may also be that the child is acting out behaviour which may derive from other sexual situations which the child has been exposed to.
2.2.5 Abusive sexual activity is characterised by behaviour involving coercion, threats, aggression together with secrecy or where one participant relies on an unequal powerbase.

3. Recognition of Abuse by a Child or Young Person

Exploration during childhood is a normal part of development, and it is important that those working with children and families develop an understanding of age appropriate sexual behaviour.

3.1 Developmental Stages of Sexual Behaviour

These five stages simply provide a guide; professional judgement will need to determine whether and how they apply in specific cases:

  1. 0-4 years. Exploratory behaviours emerge - touch taste, looking, hugs and kisses. Periods of inhibition and disinhibition occur, such as wandering round naked. They imitate and copy behaviours of life around them including ‘mummies and daddies’ and ‘doctors and nurses’. Random masturbation can occur as this is a sensual stage in development. The distinction between toileting behaviours and comforting behaviours begins to emerge. Parents and carers are most influential, and children learn the social rules and what is permissible from them;
  2. 5-7 years. More exploratory behaviour with peers occurs, and there is comparison with others’ bodies and more questions. Masturbation is less random but more likely among boys due to gender socialisation. There is an increased desire for privacy. They know rude words and provoke reaction from adults although they might not understand the meanings. They are increasing their understanding of the taboos around sexual talk and behaviour. The influence of peers is beginning to emerge;
  3. 8-12 years. Cognitively children can understand and process information they gain, and they are learning about sex, procreation and bodies. Sexual language will have progressed and swear words will be learned and repeated although not necessarily with an understanding of the meaning. Myths about sex flourish at this age. The onset of puberty begins, with some young people will showing an interest in sexual activity at petting level. Competitive comparison of bodies begins. A few will progress on from petting. A development of anxiety about appearance and likability occurs. Those who are gay or lesbian begin to define themselves as feeling different and will feel pressure to conform.  Peers and media significant influence at this stage;
  4. 13-15 years. The beginning of the grown-up phase. Young people are gaining fully developed adult bodies. Some may have practiced low level petting behaviours and some might be moving onto advanced sexual behaviours. Emotional romantic attachments become important. There is a pressure to be seen to be knowledgeable. Anxiety is still present about status and performance. Peers and media provide a strong influence, and young people can be embarrassed to discuss questions or concerns with adults;
  5. 16-18 years. Adult phase. Knowledge, language and behaviours present as common, and there is competition with peers in these areas. The need for intimacy and emotional closeness is more important now. There is a return to the sensual stage - hugs and kisses reinforce attachments, along with sexual desire and pleasure. Young people can revisit cultural scripts of caregivers at this stage. 

3.2 A Continuum of Sexual Behaviours from Healthy to Harmful

Not all sexual behaviours displayed by children and young people are healthy; some are harmful and some fall within a mid- range (problematic) which are not the most worrying but nevertheless cause an issue. The term problematic is used to indicate that the behaviour is problematic for someone whether for the child or young person themselves or someone else who is uncomfortable with the invasion of their personal space by a child/adolescent with little sense of boundaries.

The following behaviours give a general indication of categories and are more applicable to younger children:

Healthy sexual behaviours are:

  • Mutual;
  • Consensual;
  • Exploratory and age appropriate;
  • Not intended to cause harm;
  • Fun, humorous;
  • Not marked by power differentials between participants.

Problematic sexual behaviours:

  • Displaying behaviours that are not age appropriate - e.g. invasion of personal space, sexual swear words in very young children;
  • Some ‘one off’ incidents of low-key behaviours such a touching over clothing;
  • Incidents where there is peer pressure to engage in the behaviour e.g. touching someone’s breast, exposure of bottom;
  • Behaviours are spontaneous rather than planned;
  • They may be self-directed such as masturbation;
  • There are other balancing factors such as lack of intent to cause harm, or level of understanding in the young person about the behaviours, or some remorse;
  • The child or young person targeted may be irritated or uncomfortable but not scared and feel free to tell someone;
  • Parental concern and interested in supporting the child to change.

Harmful sexual behaviours:

  • Not age appropriate;
  • Elements of planning, secrecy or force;
  • Power differentials between young people involved such as size, status and strength;
  • Targeted children feel fear anxiety discomfort;
  • Negative feelings (such as anger or aggression) are expressed by the young person when carrying out the behaviour;
  • The young person does not take responsibility for the behaviour and blames others or feels a strong sense of grievance;
  • Incidents are increasing in frequency and the young person’s interest in them is disproportionate to other aspects of their life;
  • They are not easily distracted from the behaviour; it appears compulsive and is persistent despite intervention.

Alongside sexually inappropriate behaviours there will often be difficult behaviours in evidence, such as conduct disorder, problems with anger management, anxiety, clinginess, aggression, disruption, or poor peer relationships. Other features that may arise in conjunction with harmful sexual behaviours include: neglect, emotional abuse and poor attachments with parents and siblings; lack of empathy; disrupted patterns of care; loss of a significant person; and a lack of role models. 

See also Brook Sexual Behaviours Traffic Light Tool for more useful guidance on this subject of sexual behaviours. These indicators are a guide and do not replace, but should assist, the exercise of professional judgement. 

The Difference Between Inappropriate Behaviour and Harmful Sexual Behaviour

In respect of sexual behaviours, there are sometimes difficulties in distinguishing between normal childhood sexual development or experimentation and sexually inappropriate or aggressive behaviour. The above indicators should be used as a guide only. Sometimes expert professional judgement may be needed within the context of knowledge of normal child sexuality. Referral and assessment units or Safeguarding Children Units can provide specific advice.

It is also important that workers do not over-react to the presenting situation as this can have long term consequences for the child, such as becoming ashamed about their sexuality or closing opportunities for them to develop and explore normal sexuality.


Under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 a young person under the age of 13 years cannot consent to any form of sexual activity. Therefore, a child protection referral is required in all such cases.

3.3 Non-Exploitative Sexual Behaviour - Action in Relation to 13, 14 and 15 Year Olds

Although mutually agreed, non-exploitative sexual activity between teenagers does take place and that often no harm comes from it, the Sexual Offences Act 2003 reinforces that the age of consent remains at 16. This group of young people is still vulnerable, even when they do not view themselves as such.

A child protection referral or referral to the police is not mandatory in all cases of sexual activity involving a child under the age of 16 years of age but an assessment in line with these procedures must be undertaken by the professionals making these decisions. This assessment should include consideration of whether the children are Gillick Competent using Fraser Competent guidelines. The assessment should take account of the young person’s competency to give consent, and of the nature of the relationship. It should also consider any differences of age, maturity, level of development, functioning and experience and the awareness of the potential consequences of their act.

4. Referral and Social Work Assessment

4.1 Anyone who has a concern that a child might be displaying inappropriate sexualised behaviour should refer their concerns to Children’s Social Work Services in accordance with the Making Referrals to Children's Social Care Procedure. This includes making contact to seek advice as to whether a referral is necessary within the context of a “Professional Conversation”.
4.2 Children’s Social Care will discuss the concerns with the referrer and identify any known information about the alleged perpetrator and victim to inform a decision as to whether it is necessary to hold a Strategy Discussion or conduct a Social Work Assessment.
4.3 The outcome and the decision will be recorded on the ICS record of the alleged abuser and victim and - where no further action is taken in relation to an incident - this record will be taken into consideration if any further referral of concerns is received regarding the individual child.

Where a Social Work Assessment is conducted or a Strategy Discussion is held, separate enquiries and investigations will be pursued in respect of the victim and the alleged abuser.

Enquiries and assessment in respect of the victim will proceed as set out in Section 6 of these procedures and allegations of peer abuse will be taken as seriously as allegations of abuse perpetrated by an adult.
4.5 A Section 47 Enquiry will only be pursued in respect of the perpetrator child/young person when s/he is personally suffering or at risk of Significant Harm.
4.6 A social worker from Children’s Social Work Services will carry out a Social Work Assessment in respect of the child displaying inappropriate sexualised behaviour. Where relevant, this will be in conjunction with the Youth Offending Service (YOS).
4.7 Each Children’s Social Work Team has a qualified social worker to lead on assessment and management of cases involving Inappropriate sexualised behaviour and those co-ordinating assessments should seek consultation as necessary from that lead person.
4.8 Separate social workers will be allocated to the victim and to the child with the alleged abusive behaviour even if they live in the same household, to ensure that both their needs are fully assessed.
4.9 The Police will always consult with Children’s Social Work Services regarding cases that come to their notice to ensure that there is an assessment of the victim’s needs and that, in all cases, there is an assessment of the perpetrator child’s needs.

5. Strategy Discussions in Complex Cases

5.1 In complex situations where there are several victims and possible perpetrators, a Strategy Meeting will be held and it should appoint a Strategic Management Group to co-ordinate the overall investigation. This will normally be chaired by a member of the Child Protection and Review Unit. See also Complex (Organised and Multiple) Abuse Procedure.
5.2 If the children involved are the responsibility of different local authorities, each must be involved at the Strategy Meeting, which will usually be convened and chaired by the local authority for the area in which the victim lives.

6. Section 47 Enquiries in Relation to the Alleged Abusing Child

6.1 The remainder of this procedure concerns the process to be followed in respect of the alleged perpetrator child/young person.
6.2 If it appears that the child displaying inappropriate sexualised behaviour is suffering or at risk of Significant Harm, the Section 47 Enquiry process will be followed. Otherwise, the Social Work Assessment of the child will determine their needs and the most appropriate approach to intervention to meet those needs.
6.3 In cases of sexual abuse, the social worker will consult with the Sexualised Inappropriate Behaviours Services (SIBS) lead within the Team whose role is to consult and possibly attend Assessment Planning Meetings and contribute to assessments whenever possible and appropriate.

In assessing a child who abuses another, relevant considerations include:

  • The nature and extent of the abusive behaviours. In respect of sexual abuse there are sometimes perceived difficulties in distinguishing between normal childhood sexual development and experimentation and sexually inappropriate or aggressive behaviour. Expert professional judgement maybe required, within in the context of knowledge about normal child sexuality;
  • The context of the abusive behaviours;
  • The child’s development, and family and social circumstances;
  • The child’s needs for services, specifically focusing on the child’s harmful behaviour as well as other significant needs;
  • The risks the child poses to him/herself and others, including other children in the household, extended family, school, peer group or wider social network;
  • Whether there are grounds to suspect that the child has been abused;
  • Historical information relating to the subject child, siblings and parents which may be relevant; and
  • Whether a specialist intervention service offering behavioural and or therapeutic service to the alleged abuser or the victim is required.

7. Decisions About the Alleged Abusing Child

7.1 No Further Action

7.1.1 If there is a balance of probability that nothing abusive took place, then no further action may be required. However in cases of alleged sexual abuse, it is important to keep this separate from the issue of denial. Strength of denial by the child and/or the family should have no bearing on any decision about no further action.

7.2 Child in Need and Possible Significant Harm Present

7.2.1 If there is a continuing risk of significant harm, an Initial Child Protection Conference should be held. If the child is the subject of a Child Protection Plan, the co-ordination of services will continue through the Core Group, which should address the child’s inappropriate behaviour as well as the concerns which resulted in their need for a Child Protection Plan. 

7.3 Child in Need but no Significant Harm


Where the child is “in need” but is not suffering or at risk of Significant Harm, the team carrying out the assessment should hold a meeting as soon as possible to co-ordinate the overall plan for the child including:

  • Developing a written risk management plan; including educational and accommodation arrangements;
  • Planning any future assessment; and
  • Coordinating services to be provided. 
7.3.2 The Lead Professional and review process should be identified at this meeting.
7.3.3 The meeting should involve the referring agency, school (including sibling’s schools), health agencies as appropriate, the social worker co-ordinating work with the victim, parent/carers and the child (subject to age and level of understanding).

The decision to end the involvement of any specialist services should be made on a multi-agency basis. Factors to consider in reaching this decision include:

  • The level of risk to self and others;
  • Whether the intended outcomes of the intervention have been achieved;
  • The capacity of the parents or care givers to respond appropriately to the child’s needs;
  • The need for provision of ongoing support to the child/family.

7.4 Home Safety Planning

7.4.1 It is possible that a decision will be taken to remove a young person from the family home as a protective measure for siblings. If a decision is made that the young person can remain at home then a Home Safety Plan should be undertaken by the professionals involved to provide some rules and guidelines about what is permissible. It should also be completed in any other setting where a young person is placed – whether that is in a residential setting or a foster placement or with other family members.

The Home Safety Plan should include as a minimum:

  • A realistic level of supervision that must be provided;
  • The living environment is free from confusing sexual behaviour and information i.e. DVDs, magazines, language, behaviour;
  • Sleeping arrangements need to be considered including making arrangements with extended family members;
  • Clear rules on privacy;
  • State of dress around the house;
  • Limitations on play fighting.

8. Criminal Proceedings

8.1 When the child is 10 years or over, the police will consult other agencies before seeking a decision from the Crown Prosecution Service to determine the most appropriate course of action within the criminal justice system.
8.2 In cases where criminal proceedings are taken against an alleged abusing child, Children’s Social Care must undertake a Social Work Assessment of need and the YOS should be added to the list of attendees at any meetings. Both the compilation of the YOS “ASSET” Profile and the Assessment will inform the overall needs of the child or young person required to address their harmful behaviours.