NSPCC regional head Caroline Watts on the help available to the parents of children and young people who display harmful sexual behaviour:

IN THIS week’s column I would like to share with you Julia and Michael’s story.

Child sexual abuse is truly horrifying and its impact can be shattering, cruelly depriving children of their childhoods. What might surprise you, is that we know that around a third of child sexual abuse is committed by other children and young people. This can be hard to imagine, traditionally the focus, rightly so, is largely on helping victims and a need to prevent it from happening in the first place. Young people who sexually harm others are frequently misunderstood. They may not fully understand what happened, or that what they did was wrong. It is understandable for their parents, that the news your child has sexually abused another, can be a body blow with emotions of guilt, shame, confusion and anger threatening to overwhelm. For the past six years the NSPCC’s Turn The Page service has been helping children and young people regain control and overcome feelings that have made them harm another child sexually. Through that work, the NSPCC has recognised a need to provide support for their parents too and has developed a new service, Safe Home. Safe Home is a pilot project developed by the NSPCC’s National Clinical Assessment & Treatment Services (NCATS) for parents and carers of those children and young people who have displayed harmful sexual behaviour. It is run at a number of sites across the UK from London to Carlisle including at our service centre in Leeds/Bradford.

In the following story all names have been changed to protect their identities, Julia and her husband became foster carers for Michael, a young teenager who had experienced a chaotic childhood with neglect and abuse damaging not only him but his siblings too. Sadly, one of his siblings died. Michael had also displayed harmful sexual behaviour towards other children and as a result was referred to the NSPCC’s Turn the Page service, designed to help children understand what makes a healthy relationship. Julia was referred to the NSPCC’s Safe Home programme.

Julia said: “When Michael came to us, we just clicked, we haven’t stopped laughing together as a family, my world has been transformed, I feel I have a new lease of life. But it has been hard work, not only in accepting Michael’s background and experiences but also the impact it would necessitate for us. That is why Safe Home has been so beneficial.” Like so many of the parents and carers whose children have displayed harmful sexual behaviour Julia found it hard to come to terms with Michael’s experiences of abuse and neglect. She said: “The enormity of his actions and the support he would need for some time to come, in assessing relationship boundaries for example, was overwhelming. I would lie awake at night worrying. On a practical level for example, he loves to play football and Safe Home helped me understand harmful sexual behaviour, to think about adult supervision and the safeguards needed to be put in place.”

It is so important for the whole family to be able to explore what has happened and the reasons why in an open, curious, collaborative, and non-judgemental way with our skilled practitioners. That non-judgemental aspect is critical as Julia explains: “Michael’s background has to be kept as confidential as possible so I couldn’t reach out to my friends and family and to be honest it is quite a taboo subject. I was concerned that people would make unfair judgements when they heard that Michael has displayed harmful sexual behaviour to other young people and forget the horrors he too has also faced.”

For Julia, Safe Home has been transformative, she added: “I am so proud of Michael’s resilience, he has such character despite the terrible loss he suffered, the separation from his other siblings and the abuse he has faced in his life.”

Thanks to your support and the voluntary donations we receive here at the NSPCC, therapeutic services such as Safe Home make it possible for children and families affected by abuse and neglect to access the support they need, so that the effect of abuse doesn’t impact adversely on their lives. As Julia said: “Safe Home helped me talk though Michael’s experiences. We hadn’t known what to expect and had no understanding in dealing with such a heart-breaking experience. Safe Home offered me a safe space to talk.”