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With trust comes openness

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The following article was published in Social Work Matters, the College of Social Work magazine visit http://www.tcsw.org.uk/home/

Inquiries into a number of child abuse cases highlight a persistent failure to listen to children, many of whom live for years in abusive situations.  A timely report from the Children’s Commissioner for England, It takes a lot to build trust, makes an important contribution to identifying abuse and providing support to children.


The Children’s Commissioner, working with the Centre for Research on Children and Families at the University of East Anglia, focused on the experiences of children and young people. The extensive research helps us to better recognise children that are being abused and how to help them tell what is happening.  

This report put the voice of children and young people at its heart by ensuring that they were involved in all aspects. The project used trained young people with knowledge or experience of the issues to act as researchers alongside academics. The benefits of using these young researchers were that they shared an understanding of the environment of the young people who were the subject of the research, and being closer in age they were able to offer advice on how best to contact them.

A number of different approaches were adopted. These included reviewing literature, analysis of an online site where young people discuss issues of abuse and disclosure, interviews with 30 young people and six focus groups of children, young people, parents and practitioners who work with children. 

The aim was to learn from the experiences of young people and to translate that into clear practice recommendations to improve services. The findings led to a new approach - a three part process of recognition, telling and help.


Children don’t always recognise their experiences as abusive or neglectful. A whole range of feelings come into play, such as the belief that they deserve it; difficulty in acknowledging that a parent could be abusive; confusion between discipline and abuse and appropriate and inappropriate touching. The research suggests that for children it is often only around the age of eleven or twelve they begin to understand their situation when they compare their family to others.

Children however often come to the attention of professional services through their behaviour and demeanour rather than by disclosing abuse. Professionals cannot rely on children telling them directly about abuse so they need to be alert to signs and symptoms of distress.


It is very difficult for children to tell anyone about abuse. Reasons for this are complex, ranging from overt threats by the abuser to embarrassment. Children worry about what will happen to them and their family, if they will be believed, whether they might be taken away from home and if they are to blame.

Children need strong relationships of trust before they would consider beginning to tell. They may tell a friend, but many feel it’s too much of a burden for another child. A trusted person who can see something wrong may be able to encourage and support a child to disclose abuse. A young person’s past experience of a professional will greatly influence how comfortable they feel about telling them. 

Some children and young people do make the decision to tell someone. The chosen person needs to adopt an attitude of belief and reassurance to encourage the disclosure.


The earlier help is provided to a child and family the better it is. However sometimes there is a failure to recognise the steps that children and families take when trying to alert professionals that there is a problem. A lack of appropriate training for some professionals such as teachers was seen as a barrier.

It is vital that children who disclose abuse receive appropriate help and support. It can be difficult to break confidentiality but should be done to protect children. Doing it sensitively whilst supporting the child with a truthful explanation of what is happening, is important. Most young people in the study accepted that it was right in certain circumstances to break confidentiality.

Again trust was central to a successful relationship that provides help. Children can often experience abuse as being a loss of control so it is vital to support by listening to their needs and working in a transparent way.


This is an important study with a number of clear and specific recommendations for different services. Implementing them could make a significant difference to children who have been abused. Above all listening and developing strong relationships of trust between children and professionals is central in encouraging children to be open about their problems.

 ‘It takes a lot to build trust’ - Recognition and Telling: Developing earlier routes to help for children and young people available to view at:




Meg Munn MP

Chair of the Child Protection All-Party Parliamentary Group.

She worked in social work for over twenty years and was an Assistant Director of Children’s Services when she left to become an MP.


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