UK Family Law Reform

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A Study of the Prevalence of Child Abuse and Neglect

The NSPCC has undertaken a major piece of national research to explore the childhood experience of young people in the UK, including their experience of abuse and neglect. This is the only UK study, and one of the few world wide, to examine child maltreatment comprehensively, in a large random probability sample of the general population. The 2,689 young people, aged 18-24 years, were interviewed using Computer Assisted Personal Interviewing (CAPI) and able to enter their answers directly to ensure confidentiality.


Common stereotypes about child abuse are overturned in the NSPCC's largest ever study of child maltreatment.

* Myth: the most common form of abuse suffered by children at home is sexual abuse.

Fact: children are seven times more likely to be beaten badly by their parents than sexually abused by them.

* Myth: most sexual abuse occurs between fathers and their daughters.

Fact: this type of incestuous relationship is rare, occurring in less than four in a thousand children. The most likely relative to abuse within the family is a brother or stepbrother.

* Myth: adults are responsible for most sexual violence against children and young people outside the family.

Fact: children are most likely to be forced into unwanted sexual activity by other young people, most usually from someone described as a boyfriend. Less than three in a thousand of the young people reported sexual behaviour against their wishes with professionals working with children.

* Myth: sexual attacks on children from strangers are common.

Fact: sexual assaults involving contact by strangers are very rare. Even with indecent exposure, only seven per cent of the young people reported ever having been flashed at, and just over a third of these said the person was a stranger.

* Myth: most physical abuse is carried out by men, especially fathers.

Fact: violent acts towards children are more likely to be meted out by mothers than fathers (49% of the sample experienced this from mothers and 40% from fathers).

NSPCC Director Mary Marsh says: Modern myths about child cruelty have emerged from the public attention given to horrific and frightening cases of child abuse by strangers. Other traditional stereotypes come from a historical wellspring of children's stories about wicked adult bogey figures. These stereotypes have become part of popular culture. This report challenges us to re-examine preconceived ideas about child cruelty. In some cases it calls on policy-makers and professionals to overhaul thinking and reconsider how to approach different kinds of child maltreatment.


Child abuse destroys children's lives. Over the last 100 years the NSPCC has helped to protect hundreds of thousands of children from cruelty. Yet, at the start of a new millennium, we do not know the true scale of child abuse and neglect in the UK. Official data does not paint the whole picture. There are large numbers of abused children who never see a social worker or police officer and suffer in silence. In March 1999, the NSPCC FULL STOP Campaign was launched to create the conditions whereby cruelty to children can be ended. Hundreds of thousands of people and organisations from all sectors of society have joined the campaign since. But if we are to achieve our ambitious goal, we need to know much more about those cases of child abuse which go unreported. With this in mind, the NSPCC conducted a major piece of research which forms the most authoritative study of child abuse and neglect yet undertaken in the UK. It is called Child Maltreatment in the United Kingdom - a study of the prevalence of child abuse and neglect.

The study has three main objectives:

To help the NSPCC and others develop strategies to prevent child abuse
To help the NSPCC and others plan effective child protection services
To provide a benchmark by which the NSPCC and others can measure progress towards the goal of ending cruelty to children

For ethical and practical reasons, it would have been wrong to interview children on this subject in this type of survey. So the study is based on interviews with young people aged 18 - 24 conducted by survey research company BMRB International between September 1998 and February 1999.

This is the only UK study, and one of the few world wide, to examine maltreatment comprehensively, in a large random probability sample of the general population. The 2,869 young people, aged 18-24 years were interviewed using Computer Assisted Personal Interviewing (CAPI) and able to enter their answers directly to ensure confidentiality. They were contacted through addresses taken randomly from the Postcode Address File, the method used in all major national surveys.

The interviews covered broad aspects of childhood experience, including aspects of family life, social relationships, perspectives on child abuse and experience of abuse and neglect in the family and other contexts. The sample was drawn from all parts of the UK. Most (56 per cent) were still living with their parents. Another 18 per cent were living with partners, while 8 per cent lived alone and 15 per cent had their own children.

The interview questions did not define abuse or neglect but asked the young people if they had experienced a range of treatments, some positive and some negative, as children. Respondents who indicated possible childhood abuse or neglect were asked more detailed questions about their experiences. The survey achieved a response rate of 69 per cent which is unusually high for surveys on this topic. Almost all (98%) of the respondents felt the survey was worthwhile and 85 per cent said that they would definitely be willing to take part in further NSPCC research.


More than nine in ten of the young people said they grew up in a warm and loving family.

Child abuse and neglect is largely a family affair. But we should not lose sight of the fact that most parents and carers are trustworthy - very few are abusers.

An overwhelming majority of the young people interviewed in this study - 92 per cent - agreed that they had had a warm and loving family background, with 77 per cent strongly agreeing this. The vast majority had been praised, hugged, cuddled, kissed or told nice things such as that they were cared for. Nine out of ten respondents reported close relationships with their mothers and eight out of ten with their fathers.

Most respondents had some unwelcome experiences during their childhood. One in three respondents also reported that there was sometimes 'a lot of stress' in their families and the same proportion reported financial pressures and worries. Three quarters said they had been shouted or screamed at some point, four in ten had been called stupid, lazy or a similar name, and over a quarter said they had been sworn at. Over three quarters of these experiences had occurred at home.

A smaller number of the young people interviewed gave a picture of a darker childhood in which they were rarely or never shown affection or were regularly hit, shouted or sworn at, or went hungry. More than a quarter (26%) reported violence between their parents and for five per cent the violence was constant or frequent. A quarter of respondents also said there were things that happened in their childhood that were hard to talk about. One in ten strongly agreed with this.


The uncertainty over the ages at which it is safe to leave children home alone, and the concerns about children allowed out late at night unsupervised by adults, are issues that can be better understood in the light of this study.

The general picture given by the respondents is one of close supervision by parents. Between the ages of five and nine only travelling to school alone was common, usually above the age of seven.

More independence arises after the age of ten but there was a clear pattern that most children in the UK (88%) are not left at home in the evenings without adult supervision until they are at least 12, and they don't stay at home unsupervised overnight before they are 14 (91%).

Asked when they were first allowed out overnight without parents knowing their whereabouts, more than four out of 10 respondents said that this had not been permitted until they were 16 or 17, and more than a third (36%) of these 18 ­ 24 year olds said that this still would never be allowed.

But there were some marked exceptions, which indicate that some children were left unsupervised at a very early age.

Neglect and potential neglect resulting from absence of supervision was assessed on three levels.

Serious absence of supervision included children first allowed to stay at home overnight without adult supervision under the age of 10, or first out overnight without parents knowing their whereabouts, aged under 14. This category included five per cent of the sample.

Intermediate absence of supervision included those first left unsupervised overnight aged 10-11, first allowed out overnight, whereabouts unknown at the age of 14-15 and under 12s frequently left in charge of younger siblings while parents were out. This category comprised 12 per cent of the sample.

A third group, three per cent of the sample, were rated as showing cause for concern because they were first left without adult supervision in the evening, or going to the town centre without an adult or much older child, when they were under 10 years old.

In total, 20 per cent of the sample, or one in five children, were assessed as experiencing less than adequate supervision at some point in their childhood.

Boys were slightly less likely to be supervised than girls on some measures, with girls far less likely than boys to have been allowed out overnight. Respondents in manual occupations were far more likely than those in white collar or professional occupations to have been allowed out overnight, whereabouts unknown. Apart from this measure, social grade differences were minimal.


More than four out of ten respondents had been bullied or discriminated against by other children or young people. For eight per cent this happened regularly over years.

Previous NSPCC research showed that more than half of children aged eight to 15 years sometimes or often worried about being bullied at school and that younger children worried most. This study throws more light on this problem, which is known to cause acute misery to many children.

Generally, bullying is defined as:

occurring over time rather than being a single aggressive act
involving an imbalance of power ­ the powerful attack the powerless
psychological, verbal or physical in nature

This study showed that 43 per cent of young people had, at some point in their childhood, experienced bullying, discrimination or being made to feel different by other children. Nearly all (94%) of these experiences took place at school.

When asked why they believed this had happened, the reasons given were usually personal characteristics over which the young people had no control. 'Size' was given as the reason by a more than a quarter of the respondents. 'Class' (eg. how they spoke or dressed) and intelligence were each cited as the reason by around a fifth of respondents.

Respondents from black and Asian ethnic groups were less likely than white respondents to say that they had been bullied (24% compared to 32%) but more likely to report discrimination (23% compared to 6%). Eight per cent of those who had been bullied or discriminated against gave 'race' as the reason. But this masked a huge difference between ethnic groups: almost seven out of ten respondents from minority ethnic groups who had been bullied or discriminated against put this down to their race, compared to just three per cent of white victims.

Name-calling, insults and verbal abuse were most common ­ almost nine in ten of those bullied said that other children had treated them in this way. This amounts to 37 per cent of all respondents. One in seven respondents had been subjected to physical bullying such as hitting or punching, and one in ten had been threatened with violence. Bullying and discrimination included damaging or stealing belongings, humiliating, ignoring/not speaking to them, and telling lies about them or deliberately getting them into trouble.

A fifth of those bullied, equivalent to eight per cent of all respondents, said that they had been bullied regularly over years. A quarter (10% of the whole sample) had experienced long-term effects as a result.

The study confirms previous studies suggesting that bullying and discrimination, especially at school, is one of the most common forms of harmful aggression experienced by children and young people in the UK.


Seven per cent of the young people suffered serious physical abuse by a parent or carer.

In England in the year to 31 March 2000, there were 30,300 children on child protection registers, of which 8,700 were registered for physical injury, sometimes allied to other forms of abuse and neglect.

The study attempts to distinguish seriously abusive treatment from more usual forms of physical chastisement. The young people were asked whether they had ever as a child experienced being:

Hit on the bottom with a hard implement such as a stick
Hit on another part of the body with a hard implement
Hit with a fist or kicked hard
Thrown or knocked down
Beaten up, being hit over and over again
Grabbed around the neck and choked
Burned or scalded on purpose
Threatened with a knife or a gun

A quarter of respondents said they had experienced at least one of these violent acts either in the family, at school or in another situation. Yet these are acts which both the present study and previous research have shown are unacceptable to the great majority (in most instances more than nine out of 10) of the UK population.

78% experienced this violence at home
15% at school
13% in a public place

Within the family it is primarily birth parents who mete out violent treatment. Of those who were treated violently in childhood:

49 per cent were treated violently by their mother
40 per cent by their father
5 per cent by their stepfather
3 per cent by their stepmother

Bruising was by far the most common injury suffered as a result of violence, but respondents also reported broken bones, head injuries, bites and burns.

The study graded the childhood maltreatment on three levels:

Serious physical abuse was where the violent treatment either caused injury or carried a high risk of injury if continued over time or throughout childhood.
Intermediate physical abuse was where violent treatment occurred occasionally but caused no injury, or where other physical treatment/discipline was used regularly over the years and/or led to physical effects such as pain, soreness or marks lasting at least until next day.
Cause for concern was where the injury or potential harm was not immediately serious but where less serious physical treatment/discipline occurred regularly and indicated problems in parenting or the quality of care which could escalate or lead to continued distress for a child.

The study found that seven per cent of the young people had suffered serious physical abuse at the hands of their parents or carers.

There was a strong link between the socio-economic status of the young person and serious physical abuse. Young people in semi-skilled or unskilled manual jobs were three times more likely to have suffered serious physical abuse than those in professional jobs.

Another fourteen per cent of respondents suffered at the intermediate level of physical abuse. And a final three per cent came from families where there was cause for concern about how children were treated.

In total, more than a fifth of respondents suffered physically to some degree. Their parents or carers, at least sometimes, breached the standards shown by previous research to be accepted by the vast majority of people.

Girls were slightly more likely than boys to be seriously physically abused by parents or carers but boys were a little more likely to have experienced physical abuse at intermediate levels.


Six per cent of the young people were subjected to serious physical neglect at home.

In England in the year to 31 March 2000, there were 30,300 children on protection registers, of which 14,000 were registered for neglect, sometimes allied to other forms of abuse.

Physical neglect: lack of physical care

Almost all the young people questioned took for granted that their parents or carers would provide food, clean clothes and medical care. Less than one in a hundred reported frequent failures of care on these issues. Small numbers of respondents also reported lack of care on other individual issues:

Three per cent often had to look after themselves due to their parents problems with alcohol or drugs
Two per cent regularly had to look after themselves because their parents went away
Less than one per cent said they were allowed to go into dangerous places, that their home was dangerous or unclean, or that they were abandoned.

As with physical abuse, lack of physical care and nurturing was assessed on three levels.

Serious lack of care was identified as lack of care which carried a high risk of injury or long-term harmful effects.

Those who were seriously neglected as a child

frequently went without food as a young child
frequently were not looked after or taken to the doctor when ill as a young child
frequently went to school in dirty clothes as a young child
regularly had to look after themselves because parents went away or had drug or alcohol problems
were abandoned or deserted
lived in a home with dangerous conditions

Intermediate lack of care was identified when the lack of care was less serious but happened regularly, or was serious but happened only occasionally (for example, occasionally went hungry because there was no food to eat).

Cause for concern was identified when the lack of care was not serious but indicated problems in parenting or quality of care (eg. respondents said that they had been given no dental care as a child, sometimes had to go to school in dirty clothes, or lived in an unclean home).

The study found that six per cent of respondents had suffered serious absence of physical care by their parents or carers.

The study underlines the links between child neglect and social disadvantage. Respondents in semi or unskilled employment were ten times more likely to have experienced serious absence of care in childhood than were respondents who were in professional jobs and almost twice as likely as those in higher education.

Another nine per cent of respondents experienced intermediate lack of care with a further two percent indicating some cause for concern. In total, 18 per cent of respondents experienced absence of care to some level in their childhood.


Six per cent of the young people were emotionally maltreated consistently in childhood

Emotional maltreatment is not a new phenomenon ­ history is littered with examples of emotionally abusive and neglected childhoods. However, in terms of child protection thinking in this century, emotional or psychological maltreatment is a comparative newcomer. It was only in 1980 that emotional abuse was introduced as a criterion for children on child protection registers.

Previous research concluded that emotional abuse is the most hidden and underestimated form of child maltreatment­ unlike other forms of abuse, it leaves no physical injuries. Emotional maltreatment is inextricably linked with all forms of abuse and neglect, all of which can create fear, guilt, loss of self esteem and self confidence, and isolation from the support of other people.

There is evidence that with all abuse and neglect it is often the psychological damage that lasts longest. But while other forms of maltreatment can show physical evidence, emotional maltreatment, when it occurs alone, is often not visible to others and is the hardest form to deal with through child protection procedures. This is why there has been so little research and so little evidence about it.

This study is the first general population research into the prevalence of emotional maltreatment in the UK.

The experiences of each respondent were grouped and analysed according to seven types of emotional treatment. Most maltreatment in these categories was by parents or carers.

Terrorising ­ threats to harm the child, someone or something the child loves, threatening with fear figures, threats to have the child sent away, making the child do something that frightens them.
Proxy attacks by harming someone or something the child loves or values. This could include deliberate attacks on the child¹s possessions or pets, and also includes violence between carers.
Psychological control and domination, including attempts to overly control the child's thinking, and isolation from other sources of support and development.
Psycho/physical control and domination - physical acts which exert control and domination causing distress rather than pain or injury, such as washing out the mouth with soap.
Humiliation and degradation ­ psychological attacks on the child's worth or self esteem, which could be verbal or non-verbal.
Withdrawal ­ withholding of affection and care, exclusion from the family (including showing preference for siblings and excluding the child from benefits given to other children in the family).
Antipathy ­ showing marked dislike of the child by word or deed

The most common emotional maltreatment was terrorising. Over a third of respondents reported some of the experiences in this category. The most common was of being sometimes really afraid of my father/ stepfather followed by threats of being sent away.

A quarter had experienced extreme psychological domination, with parents who were unpredictable and/or allowed them no freedom of thought or expression.

Almost a fifth of respondents had experienced physical punishments such as having their mouths washed out with soap or their noses rubbed in wet sheets, or had experienced constant verbal attack such as being told throughout their childhood that they were stupid, or that their parents wished them dead or never born.

One in ten had loveless childhoods, reporting that parents never showed them affection and excluded them from treats the other children were getting, while a similar proportion had experienced seeing a parent or a pet harmed or had treasured possessions destroyed in proxy attacks.

Most people have unpleasant, frightening or embarrassing experiences at some time, even with loved members of their families, but these experiences are usually occasional events. Emotional maltreatment is persistent and pervasive to a level that can destroy the child¹s self confidence, happiness and trust in other people.

The research assessed this by looking at how many of these experiences the child had on the seven dimensions and assigning a score between 0 and 14. A score of seven or more meant that the respondent had experienced damaging treatment on at least four of the seven dimensions.

In all six per cent of respondents had scores of seven or more and were assessed as experiencing serious emotional maltreatment. Young women were twice as likely to have high scores as young men.

These findings indicate that a small proportion of respondents experienced multiple attacks on their emotional well-being within their family for much or all of their childhood.

However, the study also shows that a much larger number of the respondents experienced parenting which was at times insensitive. Parents who tell their children that they wish they were dead or had never been born, for example, may be reacting to stress or family crisis rather than expressing a genuinely held long-term view, but it is hard to imagine a more hurtful thing to say to a child.


One per cent of the young people suffered sexual abuse by a parent or carer and three per cent by another relative.

In England in the year to 31 March 2000, there were 30,300 children on protection registers, of which 5,600 were registered for sexual abuse, sometimes allied to other forms of abuse and neglect.

Sexual abuse within the family

The laws on sexual offences against children are currently under review. In July 2000, a Home Office Review proposed replacing current sexual offences such as incest with a range of new offences including familial sexual abuse, adult sexual abuse of a child and sexual activities between minors. This study increases our understanding of the way that sexual offences affect children, whether committed inside and outside the family.

In the study, 18-24 year olds were asked whether they had ever experienced any from a list of sexual acts when they were under 16. Respondents were also asked whether these activities had taken place against their wishes or with their consent, at what age it had happened and how old the other person was. This information was used to assess whether they had experienced sexual abuse.

Their answers were grouped as follows according to the nature and seriousness of the activities.

Penetrative or oral acts involving sexual or anal intercourse, oral sex, or the insertion of finger, tongue or object into the vagina or anus.
Attempted penetrative or oral acts, as above.
Touching or fondling the respondents' sex organs or private parts, getting the respondent to touch a person's sex organs or sexually arouse them.
Sexual hugging or kissing.
Being videoed for pornographic purposes, shown pornographic videos, magazines, computer images or photos, or being made or encouraged to watch other people having intercourse or performing sex or pornographic acts
A person exposing sex organs for to excite themselves or to shock the respondent

Relatively small numbers of the young people had experienced sexual abuse by family members.

One per cent of the young people had been sexually abused by a parent or step-parent, nearly always the male parent. Nearly all involved sex acts involving genital or anal physical contact. Very few said they had been used by a parent to make pornography, made to watch sex acts or exposure. Male and female respondents were equally likely to have been abused by parents.

Three per cent of the young people had been sexually abused by a relative other than a parent. Three quarters of this group were young women. A wide range of relatives were involved - nearly all were male, with brothers and step-brothers mentioned most often. Again, most of this involved genital or anal physical contact, with one per cent being used to make pornography, or made to watch sex acts or exposure.

One in ten of the young people had experienced penetrative sex, oral sex or attempts at these against their will by people known but unrelated to them. A large number reported the use of physical force or threat.

Sexual abuse outside the family

Far more of the respondents had experienced unwanted sexual behaviour with non-relatives than with family members. Nearly all occurred with people known to the child, the vast majority with 'boyfriends' and 'girlfriends'.

Penetrative or oral sex acts which occurred against the young people's wishes or with people at least 5 years older

70 per cent occurred with 'boyfriends' or 'girlfriends'
17 per cent occurred with 'someone recently met'
10 per cent occurred with a fellow student or pupil
6 per cent occurred with a friend of parent or sibling
4 per cent occurred with neighbours
4 per cent occurred with a female stranger
3 per cent occurred with a male stranger
2 per cent occurred with babysitters

Very few respondents reported sexual activity involving professionals responsible for their care, and none involving care workers.

The only unwanted sexual activity experienced frequently from strangers was indecent exposure. But even among the seven per cent who reported this, respondents were twice as likely to experience it from a known person than from a stranger.

Up to 75 per cent of those reporting sexual acts against their wishes or with someone much older were female. More than nine out of ten of these young women reported that the other person concerned was male. For the young men who reported similar experiences, the picture was more mixed.

Sexual incidents most often took place either in the respondent's own home or in the home of the other person. Other locations were rarely mentioned, except for indecent exposure, where 30 per cent of incidents occurred in an open place such as woods or parks, or abandoned buildings.

Where respondents reported actual or attempted oral or penetrative sex against their wishes, physical force and blackmail had been commonly used. Force had been used in six out of ten attempts to coerce them into oral or penetrative sex attacks and blackmail in four out of ten attempts.

Most sexual behaviour which is unwanted or involves a much older person occurs in adolescence. Around three quarters of male and female respondents who experienced actual or attempted oral or penetrative acts against their wishes or with an older person were aged between 13-15 years when it first happened.

Only 28 per cent of the young people who had experienced sexual acts which were unwanted or involving a much older person told anyone about at the time; 27 per cent told someone later, and 31 per cent had never told anyone. Of those who had told someone, most had told a friend, while a minority had told a parent or other relative. Hardly anyone had told police, social services or other professionals.

Six per cent of respondents reported having been involved in 'consensual' sexual behaviour when aged 13-15, with someone five or more years older than themselves.


Families are the primary source of love and nurturing for nearly all children. But significant minorities of children are confronted - either occasionally or regularly - by stresses, problems and abusive behaviour with which they should not have to cope.

For many children too, the wider world of school, friends and community is one which is fraught with the threats of bullying, discrimination and - particularly for girls - sexual harassment and violence.

This study underlines the need for children's voices to be heard by the people who can help them. Children need the self-confidence to speak out and someone they trust and in whom they can confide.

Large numbers of children find it too difficult to talk about the abuse and difficulties which they face in their lives. If they do tell someone, it is very unlikely to be a professional concerned with their care. In this way, distressing and harmful childhood experiences can remain hidden for many years.

In terms of severity and frequency, there are different levels of child maltreatment. When children at risk of significant harm are identified, children's services must act quickly and decisively to protect them. And firm action against carers may be appropriate when a child has suffered serious abuse or neglect.

However, not all cruelty to children is planned or intended to cause harm. Our approach to child protection must be a sophisticated one, geared up for preventing child abuse and neglect.

Although children from all social backgrounds can suffer maltreatment, the study found strong links between serious physical abuse or neglect and socio-economic grade. This indicates that children in families facing poverty and social exclusion are particularly vulnerable.

If we are serious about reducing the incidence of child cruelty, we must give more support to those families pushed to the limits by extreme stress, medical conditions or socio-economic pressures.

This report presents a challenge to society in general, and professionals and policy-makers in particular, to create the conditions whereby no child has to worry about going hungry or being assaulted in the family home.

It also challenges us to rethink the ways we support families in the UK and care for children both inside and outside the family setting. Most child abuse goes unreported or undetected. We need to find ways to reach its many hidden victims.

We know that cruelty to children can be brought to a full stop, if the will to do so exists.

Join us in campaigning for equality and justice.