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Tackling Child Sexual Abuse Strategy

In our latest guest blog, Professor Kieran McCartan, a Trustee for Circles South West and an academic who has researched the origins and causes of sex offending, looks at the Government’s new approach to the issue.

The Home Office has released its new strategy to protect children from sexual abuse. The strategy is a comprehensive look at the policies and practices that surround child sexual abuse, as well as exploitation, and has a focus on victims, reducing reoffending, and more proactive approaches to policing and community safety.  

It’s an interesting read, especially the literature review on what we know about people who sexually offend and the impact COVID-19 has had on offending.

 child suffering from abuse

 The new strategy addresses three key objectives:

  1. Tackling child sexual abuse and bringing people who have committed it to justice. 
  2. Preventing child sexual abuse 
  3. Protecting and safeguarding victims, children and young people. 

 In delivering these three objectives, the Home Office will:

  • Invest in the UK’s Child Abuse Image Database to identify and catch more people creating, downloading and viewing child sexual exploitation material.  
  • Introduce new measures, policies and practices, including technology, to advance police investigations to make sure they’re fast. 
  • Have a focus on officer and staff wellbeing and safeguarding, to make sure they’re not negatively impacted by exposure to child sexual exploitation material. 
  • Launch a review of the Child Sexual Abusers Disclosure scheme to make sure that applicants can access and use it effectively. 
  • Reinforce the need for stronger sentencing that is more fit for purpose.   
  • Support local areas to improve their response to exploitation through the Home Office-funded Prevention Programme. 
  • Introduce the ground-breaking Online Safety Bill to ensure technology companies are held to account for harmful content and don’t compromise on children’s safety. 
  • Improve the data that is available on people convicted of a child sexual offence, examining the characteristics of group-based child sexual exploitation.  

Does it go far enough?

The strategy is a mixed bag in its objectives and how to achieve them. 

It includes discussions around the importance of prevention strategies, and by default public health approaches to sexual abuse, as well as a focus on traditional conservative criminal justice values – increases in sentencing and punitive responses. Therefore, the new strategy moves the debate about responding to child sexual abuse forward, but the question is whether it goes far enough. 

The strategy needs to think about the ways in which it can proactively prevent and respond to child sexual abuse. It's not about just working harder, but about working smarter.

What are some of the most effective prevention strategies that can be used? Realistic and productive sentencing for people apprehended for offences involving child sexual exploitation material? A realistic debate about sentencing guidelines, especially for low-risk offenders? A review of Sarah’s Law that allows us to see if its fit for purpose, if it is working properly, and if the framing of it is useful? This might include moving from a punishment-based approach to a more rehabilitative version, such as that which is used in New Zealand.

Therefore, we really need to examine current practices and question if they are working, which would lead to a system change and not just tinkering around the edges.  

A 'what works' approach

If we really want to prevent Child Sexual Abuse, we need a ‘what works’ approach grounded in knowledge about how offenders go on to abstain from committing their crimes.

It also needs to be based on an understanding of harm reduction that hears the survivor’s voice in a way that takes account of the trauma they have experienced. And it needs to allow the state to work with offenders of all types, particularly people who are worried they may go on to offend – such as by looking at harmful material online – and want to access the help they need.

This is something that Circles South West understands and does, as it works in partnership with the state agencies, such as police and probation.

Under our Circles of Support and Accountability programme, members of the public volunteer to support the safe integration of people who have sexually offended. They do this by forming small support groups around people who want to have faith in themselves and to no longer offend, holding them to account for their behaviour.

The scheme, which began in Canada in the 1990s, has a strong track record in reducing reoffending behaviour.



Circles takes a community focused approach to understanding as well preventing and responding to child sexual abuse.

In many ways, Circles embraces the public health approach as well as the community safeguarding, staff support and victims’ rights approaches as suggested in the strategy. Having a strategy that is bespoke and rights-based means hearing the service user and building a service that they know as well as understand. 

Circles South West is currently recruiting new volunteers in Dorset. Please get in touch to find out more             

Professor Kieran McCartan

Sociology & Criminology

Leader of the Social Science Research Group

University of the West of England


Trustee Circles South West


Adjunct Professor in Criminology, School of Justice, Queensland University of Technology (QUT)

Visiting Research Fellow, Centre for Applied Childhood, Youth and Family Research, University of Huddersfield

International Chair  & Executive Board member, Association the Treatment of Sexual Abusers (ATSA) 

Conference Chair & Executive Board member, National Organization for the Treatment of Abuse (NOTA)

Sexual Abuse Blog:

NOTA Prevention Blog: 

Research Gate:


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