Harmful sexual behaviour by children and young people: Expert Group report

This report sets out proposals from the Expert Group on Preventing Sexual Offending Involving Children and Young People to improve prevention and early intervention in response to harmful sexual behaviour involving children and young people.

Executive Summary

The background to this report

Research[1] commissioned by Scottish Government and published in September 2017, highlighted that sexual crimes had increased by five per cent from the
previous year.

Further research[2] estimated that around half of the growth in all sexual crime reported to the police between 2013-14 and 2016-17 was due to growth in sexual crimes that had been committed online and that such crimes are much more likely to have younger victims (mainly female) and younger perpetrators (mainly male). In cyber enabled crimes, three quarters of these victims were under 16 in 2016-17, with an average age of 14. In a quarter of cases both the victim and perpetrator were under 16.

In addition much of the research in the UK and in other jurisdictions suggests that at least around one third of all harmful sexual behaviour towards children and young people is committed by children and young people[3].

Against that background, the Expert Group was established by the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and the Solicitor General in order to bring together expertise, from across child protection, education, health, justice, and service providers in the third sector in Scotland, to:

  • consider the evidence relating to occurrences of harmful sexual behaviours[4] by children and young people which harm other children and young people;
  • review current responses; and
  • consider potential further actions to better prevent and respond to such behaviours

Who and what are involved in meeting the challenges?

Issues raised by sexual harm caused to children and young people are among the most emotive and troubling that we face as a society.

Keeping children and young people safe is something for which all adults are responsible.

When the person causing the harm, or at risk of doing so, is another child or young person then the complexity and scale of the challenges increase for parents and carers, professionals working on the front line with children and young people and for the policymakers and legislators.

Primary prevention activities are those aimed at all children and young people; secondary and tertiary are more specialised for the much smaller numbers involved in, and at risk of, increasingly serious harmful sexual behaviours.

Ensuring that the right intervention is made, as a response to serious behaviours, forms part of the prevention process as it diminishes the risk of that child or young person causing harm to another in the future, or of moving on to even more serious behaviours.

Effective preventative approaches depend on multiple factors being in place.

Professionals involved in preventing and responding to harmful sexual behaviour need to have an understanding, appropriate to their involvement with children and young people, of the causes, the circumstances that allow it to happen and to be alert to the emergence of new threats.

Adults in day to day contact with children and young people, in family, early learning, school and recreational settings, need to have the knowledge, competence and confidence to take the right actions, at the right time, to identify and minimise risks; and to respond swiftly and appropriately if it seems harm is occurring.

Children and young people need to be given the information about potential sources of harm, how best to keep themselves safe; and, if they feel at risk, what to do and who to turn to for help.

Our nation's progress

Scotland has a deserved reputation for enlightened and effective approaches to child protection in its widest sense as it seeks to meet the articles of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Fifty-five years ago the ground-breaking Kilbrandon Report of 1964 shifted emphasis of responses by the State onto the needs of the child whatever the situation - whether they are being harmed or causing harm.

Over the last five decades, substantial frameworks consisting of policies, legislation, strategies and practices have been developed building on the Kilbrandon principles. These include Getting It Right For Every Child, Equally Safe, and the Relationships, Sexual Health and Parenthood segments of the Curriculum for Excellence. These frameworks have resulted in the continuous updating of practice across social work, health, education and justice working in partnership with third sector organisations.

During the life of the Expert Group a number of further pieces of work commissioned by the Scottish Government were concluded or launched which will also contribute to improving preventative work and responses. These include the Review of Personal and Social Education and the consultation on the Scottish Psychological Trauma and Adversity Training Plan (which reported, and concluded, in February 2019, respectively), continuing work on Scotland's National Action Plan on Internet Safety for Children and Young People, and the launch of the Review of the Child Protection Guidance (both due to report in 2019).

The Expert Group considers that work required to deliver improved prevention and responses can be delivered within existing frameworks.

The Expert Group's conclusions, findings and proposals

This Report sets out the evidence gathered by the Expert Group of current prevention activities and responses in respect of the wide range of harmful sexual behaviours (HSB) which children and young people can become involved in. This included examining the issue of taking and sending of intimate pictures of those under 18, which although illegal, can take place between children and young people in many different contexts, some of which are harmful and some not.

Examination of the current position and the latest available evidence reinforced some findings which were previously widely known. For example, there are much higher numbers of adolescent boys who cause harm; and higher numbers of those harmed are girls. This suggests that there needs to be further tackling of causal factors in adolescent boys and corresponding preventative measures. The Group also considered emerging findings which will require further research and analysis to provide effective preventative measures and responses around new types of behaviours involving use of the internet.

The Report explains the Expert Group's findings regarding the nature and causes of HSB, the frequency of, and responses to, HSB which contribute to prevention; and proposals for further actions that the Expert Group considers would lead to better interventions, responses and ultimately greater prevention and protection for children, young people and the public across Scotland.

While it will be for Scottish Ministers to decide whether to accept any or all of the proposals, the members of the Expert Group hope that their review of the available evidence, and exploration of many of the issues and tensions involved, will play a part in improving further the prevention approaches and responses across Scotland.

Summary of Expert Group Proposals

Harmful sexual behaviour by children and young people can cause long lasting and devastating consequences for all those involved. Cultural and technological change that affects children and young people is fast-paced and it is essential that statutory authorities are aware of, and keep pace with, the changing nature of risk around HSB involving children and young people. The solutions for those affected are complex and require significant collaborative working between statutory authorities and professional disciplines.

The Overarching Expert Group Proposal

A multi-agency Group should be established to oversee the implementation of the Expert Group proposals and to ensure continuous improvement across all statutory authorities, so that the preventions and responses delivered across Scotland meet the needs of all children and young people, their parents and carers and the professionals who work with them. It should report on progress to the National Child Protection Leadership Group and the Minister for Children and Young People.

Expert Group Proposals, by Chapter

Chapter 3: The Nature of Harmful Sexual Behaviours (HSB)

All relevant guidance for professionals working with children and young people in statutory authorities, and third sector organisations involved in the delivery of their services, should make reference to the Hackett Continuum and Brook Traffic Light Tool.

All relevant guidance published for use by parents and carers should make reference to the Hackett Continuum and Brook Traffic Light Tool.

The Brook Traffic Light Tool should be revised and adapted into a version specifically for use in Scotland.

Chapter 4: Theories about Causes of Harmful Sexual Behaviour

Research in Scotland should be commissioned into potential causes of HSB involving children and young people causing harm to other children and young people; and all current preventative responses and other interventions should be evaluated.

In particular there should be focus on aspects of HSB which are specific to

  • experiences of those children and young people with Intellectual Disabilities and other neurodevelopmental disorders (including Autism, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder)
  • intra-familial incidents
  • younger children
  • childhood experiences leading to vulnerabilities which increase the risks of harming or being harmed by HSB involving other children and young people
  • the impact of access to pornography in childhood

The research should include consideration of situational crime prevention and safeguarding approaches.

Chapter 5: Evidence of Frequency of Harmful Sexual Behaviours; Further detail of the background to some cases

Agreement should be reached between Scottish Government, Statutory Authorities and Third Sector organisations working with children and young people about the Data that should be collected and analysed to obtain insight into the numbers of incidents and the needs of those children and young people involved.

Chapter 6: Theories and Practice of Prevention

The Relationships, Sexual Health and Parenting (RSHP) web source, created by the recent review on Personal and Social Education (PSE) should be promoted as the 'go-to' place where professionals can seek out relevant current resources; and should also be promoted to parents and carers so that they can access what their children and young people are being taught at school, and view additional primary prevention materials designed to help them discuss the topics with their children.

The GLOW network is a valuable conduit for primary prevention materials and consideration should be given to it being promoted as one of the main 'go-to' places for children and young people.

A matrix should be developed (similar to those available in other public health scenarios) to guide all front line practitioners regarding the evaluated services available for children and young people, and how to access qualified professionals who can facilitate contact for early assessment and referral to suitable services.

Decisions on how to proceed in respect of a child or young person accused of harming another child or young person by reason of their HSB should be informed by appropriate assessments.

A national expert resource (such as IVY) should be available to local services who provide assessment and interventions, and need support with respect to more challenging presentations.

The majority of the Expert Group support the proposition currently being considered by the Justice Board and the Child Protection Leadership Group that there should be an extension of the Children's Hearing System to allow all under 18s over 16 and not subject to a compulsory supervision order to be considered for referral to the Reporter rather than automatically processed in the adult criminal justice system.

CARM should be used to manage the risk of HSB consistently across Scotland. The Expert Group welcomes Scottish Government's consideration around CARM and the introduction of CARM within youth justice standards.

Chapter 7: Statutory Authorities Knowledge and Responses - the NSPCC Audit Tool

CPCs should review the NSPCC Audit Tool in consultation with the NSPCC to agree on any adaptations necessary for its use across Scotland.

Data about children and young people who display inappropriate, problematic or abusive sexual behaviour in schools or the community should be systematically collected for consideration by CPCs and reported on, together with information about outcomes for the children and young people involved.

There should be a 'Scottish Positive Sexual Behaviours Training Plan' (modelled on the Scottish Psychological Trauma and Adversity Training Plan), outlining core training needs at different levels for practitioners directly involved with children and young people, and covering how organisations audit their own learning needs.

The current Review of the National Child Protection Guidance should address the similarities and differences between CSE and HSB, and refer to contextual safeguarding. The section on 'Children and young people who display harmful or problematic sexual behaviour' should be updated, particularly with respect to technology-assisted HSB and use of CARM.

Chapter 8: The Views of Young People

The Scottish Government should commission regular surveys of significant samples of children and young people on their concerns and experiences around HSB involving children and young people including their use of internet; and use the feedback to inform policymakers and practitioners to allow improved design of services. The survey questions should be co-designed with children and young people.

Preventative messaging by Scottish Government and statutory authorities should be co-designed with children and young people.

List of Group members

Chair and Secretariat

Independent Chair - Catherine Dyer
SG Secretariat - Lead - Lucy Smith
Centre for Youth and Criminal Justice (CYCJ) - Fiona Dyer


ADES Network - Lesley Stopani
Coalition of Care and Support Providers in Scotland (CCPS) - Dr Ruth Friskney (Barnardos), Mary Glasgow (Children 1st), Joanna Barrett (NSPCC)
Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) - Duncan Clark
Child Protection Committees (CPC) Scotland - Dr Anne Houston
COSLA - Eddie Follan, Nicola Dickie
Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service - Stephanie Blair
Child Protection Committee Scotland - Moira McKinnon, Andrew Lowe
Education Scotland - Monica McGeever, Pauline Lynch, Lorna Aitken
Forensic Network Clinical Lead for Intellectual Disabilities and Vice Chair of the Intellectual Disability Faculty of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Scotland - Dr Jana De Villiers
NHS - Elizabeth Mansfield
NHS CHC Group (Consultant in Public Health Medicine) - Dr Tamasin Knight
NHS CHC Group - Dr Lynne McNiven
NHS Chief Medical Office - Dr Kate McKay
Police Scotland - Det. Supt. Elaine Galbraith, DI Coleen Wyllie
Rape Crisis Scotland - Sandy Brindley, Kathryn Dawson
Scottish Children's Reporter Administration - Gordon Bell
SG Child Protection Team - Judith Ainsley, Lindsay MacDougall
SG Social Work Professional Advisors - Belinda McEwan, James Cox
Scottish Youth Parliament - Suki Wan, Peter Rigg, Laura Pasternak, Chloe Whyte
Social Work Scotland - Jacquie Pepper
Stop it Now! Scotland - Stuart Allardyce
Violence Reduction Unit - Will Linden
Victim Support Scotland - Kate Wallace, Susan Galloway
Young Scot - June Osborne
Youthlink Scotland - Jane Dailly, Gillian Lithgow

Members of Sub-groups

Children and Young People with Intellectual Disabilities - Chair Dr Jana de Villiers

Prof Ethel Quayle CBE - Professor of Forensic Clinical Psychology, COPINE Research, Clinical & Health Psychology, School of Health in Social Science, University of Edinburgh
Dr Keith Bowden - Programme Director - Learning Disabilities Psychology, NHS Education for Scotland and Honorary Senior Lecturer, School of Psychology and Neuroscience, University of St Andrews
Dr Helen Smith - Consultant Forensic Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, Forensic CAMHS, NHS GGC, and West of Scotland Clinical Lead for CAMHS
Stephen Barry - Clinical Team Manager/Lead Clinician, Avon and Wiltshire Mental Health Partnership NHS Trust, Be Safe Service, Bristol
Stephanie Rose - Constable, Safer Communities, Equality and Diversity, Scottish Crime Campus
Monica McGeever - HM Inspector, Education Scotland
Emma Hanley - Child Protection Health Consultant, CELCIS

Collaborative Working - Chair Elaine Galbraith

Coleen Wylie - Inspector, Safer Communities, Police Scotland
Jane McCarren - Detective Sergeant, Public Protection, Police Scotland
Kate Wallace - Chief Executive, Victim Support Scotland
Will Linden - Assistant Director, Violence Reduction Unit
Moira McKinnon - CPC Scotland
William Manson - Stop It Now! Scotland

Data and intelligence - Chair Kate Wallace

Stephanie Blair - COPFS
Gordon Bell - SCRA
Joanna Barratt - NSPCC
Susan Galloway - NSPCC

Intra-familial Behaviour - Chair Dr Peter Yates

Stephen Barry -Clinical Team Manager and Lead Clinician, Avon and Wiltshire Mental Health Partnership, NHS Trust Be Safe Service, Bristol
Gordon Bell - SCRA
Anna Glinski - Deputy Director, Knowledge and Practice Development, Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse, London
Vince Mercer - Restorative Justice Co-ordinator, Aim Project, Manchester
Abbie Newman - Chief Executive Officer, Montgomery County Child Advocacy Center, Pennsylvania
Michael Seto - Director, Forensic Research Unit, Royal's Institute of Mental Health Research, Ottawa
Leslie Slingsby - Executive Director, Montgomery County Child Advocacy Center, Pennsylvania
Dafna Tene - The Paul Baerwald School of Social Work and Social Welfare, Hebrew University, Jerusalem

Internet Pornography - Chair Elaine Galbraith

Coleen Wylie - Inspector, Safer Communities, Police Scotland
Jane McCarren - Detective Sergeant, Public Protection, Police Scotland
Kate Wallace - Chief Executive, Victim Support Scotland
Will Linden - Assistant Director, Violence Reduction Unit
Moira McKinnon - CPC Scotland
William Manson - Stop It Now! Scotland

Additional input was received from Mary Sharpe CEO, The Reward Foundation

Involvement of Younger Children - Chair Moira McKinnon

Emma Bilsland - HALT Project
Ann Brady - HALT Project
Stephen Evans - Chartered Forensic Psychologist, Forensic Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service, NHS GGC

Use of the NSPCC Audit Tool - Chair Stuart Allardyce

Lorna Aitken - Education Scotland
Pat Branigan - NSPCC
Fiona Dyer - CYCJ
Eddie Follan - COSLA
Susan Galloway - NSPCC
Helen Gazzola - NSPCC
Andrew Gillies - Social Work Scotland
Moira McKinnon - CPC Scotland
Monica McGeever - Education Scotland
Eve Mullins - Edinburgh Napier University

Peer on Peer Abuse - Chair Ruth Friskney

Donna McEwan - CYCJ
Emma Bilsland - HALT Project
Jane Dailly - Youthlink Scotland
Kathryn Dawson - Rape Crisis Scotland
Pauline Lynch - Education Scotland
Tamasin Knight - NHS Tayside

In addition, organisations consulted by this Sub Group included LGBT Youth Scotland, Respect Me!, Scottish Women's Aid, Angus Women's Aid and Zero Tolerance

Risk Assessments and Responses - Chair Dr Lorraine Johnstone

Carole Murphy - Forensic Psychologist, Practice Development Advisor, CYCJ, University of Strathclyde
Sarah Graham - Trainee Forensic Psychologist, Stop it Now!
Fiona Dyer - CYCJ

Additional contributors and presenters

Ross Gibson - CYCJ
Jamie Lipton - COPFS
Professor Simon Hackett - Durham University
Peter Yates - Edinburgh Napier University
Susan Steel - Kibble
Paul Kane - Police Scotland
Russell Cockburn - Scottish Government
Stuart Downes - Scottish Government
David Smith - Scottish Government Analyst
Dr Carlene Firmin - University of Bedfordshire
Professor Ethel Quayle - University of Edinburgh
Professor Michele Burman - University of Glasgow
Anni Donaldson - University of Strathclyde
Melanie McCarry - University of Strathclyde
Winnie McCarthy - Welltree


Email: Child_Protection@gov.scot

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