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Contextual safeguarding

Harmful sexual behaviour

Often the thought of Harmful Sexual Behaviour (HSB) can be unsettling and professionals can worry about how best to approach the subject or deal with emerging issues demonstrated by the young people they work with. One of the common issues people can have is that they struggle to identify which sexual behaviours are potentially harmful and which might represent healthy sexual development.

Here’s a quick guide to responding to an incident.

What is it?

Harmful Sexual Behaviours (HSB) are defined as:

Sexual behaviours expressed by children and young people under the age of 18 years old that are developmentally inappropriate, may be harmful towards self or others, or be abusive towards another child, young person or adult.

How serious is it?

It’s important to remember that sexualised behaviours occur on a continuum from normal to inappropriate, problematic, abusive and violent and that to ensure consistency in responding to an incident is taken, a standardised approach should be used to identify where the behaviour sits on this continuum.

Further information is available on the CYSCP Tools webpage.

Why do I need to take action?

It’s important that incidents of HSB are not ignored and that they are responded to in a timely and consistent manner. Early intervention in cases of harmful sexual behaviour can enable young people to adopt a healthy development pathways and proceed to make healthy relationships.

Taking decisive steps to respond to HSB helps to:

  • identify potential risk of repeated harmful sexual behaviour
  • identify risks to either the child/young person carrying out the behaviours or their actual/potential victim(s)
  • identify the child/young person’s needs including immediate sexual health needs
  • assess the child/young person’s motivation and capacity to engage in services and plans
  • identify the capacity of the parents/carers to manage and support the child/young person

What do I do now?

If concerns around HSB are identified by a professional or a disclosure of potential HSB is made to a professional then in the first instance you should check the information on the CYSCP Tools webpage.

See further information and resources regarding harmful sexual behaviour:

The Youth Justice Service can offer advice and guidance if you have concerns around potential Harmful Sexual behaviour. The Youth Justice Service can be contacted during office hours on their duty number, telephone: 01904 554565. They do not provide an out of hours service. If you have safeguarding concerns whereby you consider a child is at risk, you must contact the MASH immediately.

If there is concern that a child, young person or an adult might have been harmed by the behaviour of the child or young person then the behaviour should be reported to the Police if it has not already been done so. Allegations of peer abuse should be taken as seriously as allegations of abuse perpetrated by an adult. In cases of peer on peer abuse both young people will need to be considered and allocated separate Social Workers.

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A lot depends on whether there is going to be a police investigation or prosecution. If there is, then the young person will be supported through the process and the Youth Justice Service will ensure that any identified HSB will be assessed, and appropriate intervention delivered at the earliest opportunity. However where it is concluded it is either not in the public interest to do so or there is insufficient evidence to charge then there remains the need to address the identified HSB though targeted HSB intervention.

In April 2019 the Youth Justice Service (YJS) launched a HSB Service seeking to provide intervention work with young people around identified HSB concerns that had not resulted in ongoing police investigation or prosecution.

The Youth Justice Service has the opportunity to engage with children and young people displaying these behaviours with the aim of preventing offending and reducing re-offending. Using identification, assessment and intervention tools such as AIM3, the primary objective of Youth Justice Service intervention remains at all times the protection of victims, potential victims and the avoidance of any repetition of inappropriate or harmful behaviour. Government findings indicate that those young people offered early intervention benefit from the child centred approach of youth justice practitioners and their chances of rehabilitation improve. Such intervention can enable young people to adopt a healthy development pathway and proceed to make healthy future relationships.

The Youth Justice Service currently only take referrals for the HSB service directly from Children’s Social Care. The following information will be required on the referral before it is accepted by the Youth Justice Service:

  • basic information and contact details including phone numbers
  • confirmation of written consent from the young person and family for the referral
  • full details of all incidents of alleged Harmful Sexual Behaviour
  • concerns around risk to others including to professionals
  • safety and wellbeing concerns
  • education, training or employment details

Written consent from the young person and parents/carers for the referral to the Youth Justice Service HSB Service will be required. Referral forms are available upon contacting the Youth Justice Service on telephone: 01904 554565, and completed referrals should be emailed to: [email protected].

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We're now providing Multi-Agency training in Harmful Sexual Behaviour.

More information about the 'Developing an Understanding of Harmful Sexual Behaviour' is available on our multi-agency training courses page.

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Further information and guidance is available in the CYSCP HSB Procedure document:

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We've produced a useful Harmful Sexual Behaviour One Minute Guide for professionals.

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Ross Holden from the Youth Justice Service has produced a presentation regarding HSB. This was also delivered at the CYSCP Learning Masterclass Event in June 2021 which contains useful information in relation to Harmful Sexual Behaviour.

Please note this will download as a PowerPoint presentation on your PC. Once in PowerPoint you will need to click on Slide Show and play from start to listen to the recorded version.

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Peer-on-peer sexual abuse is sexual abuse that happens between children of a similar age or stage of development. It can happen between any number of children, and can affect any age group (Department for Education, 2018).

The NSPCC website has further information regarding this:

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Removing a child or young person's image online - Report Remove - A tool that works to help young people get nude images or videos removed from the internet has been launched by the NSPCC’s Childline service and the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF).

Further information is available on our child sexual abuse and exploitation page.

"‘TA-HSB’ refers to one or more children engaging in sexual discussions or acts - using the internet and/or any image-creating/sharing or communication device - which is considered inappropriate and / or harmful given their age or stage of development.” (Hollis & Belton, 2017)

  • Child Exploitation and Online Protection - Are you worried about online sexual abuse or the way someone has been communicating with you online? Make a report to one of CEOP's Child Protection Advisors.
  • NSPCC - Your guide to apps, games and social media sites.
  • Safe Internet - Your guide to staying safe online - A guide to staying safe on the internet.
  • NSPCC sexting guidance - Sexting is when people share a sexual message and/or a naked or semi-naked image, video or text message with another person. It's also known as nude image sharing.
  • The Marie Collins Foundation, who specialise in preventing and tackling online sexual abuse and exploitation of children collaborated with LadBible to produce a short story to raise awareness of how revenge porn can happen and the impact this abuse can have on a young person:

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An organisation who can help with working with children, young people, families and professionals to help understand the behaviour, build self-worth, keep safe and make the right choices to improve life chances.

Centre of Expertise on child sexual abuse research

Key messages from research on children and young people who display harmful sexual behaviour.

Contextual Safeguarding Research Programme

A useful website with research and publications.

Harmful Sexual Behaviour Support Service

Supporting Professionals with Harmful Sexual Behaviour Issues.

Keeping children safe in education

Statutory guidance from the Department for Education for schools and colleges on safeguarding children and safer recruitment.

NICE Harmful Sexual Behaviour guidelines

This guideline covers children and young people who display harmful sexual behaviour, including those on remand or serving community or custodial sentences. It aims to ensure these problems don’t escalate and possibly lead to them being charged with a sexual offence. It also aims to ensure no-one is unnecessarily referred to specialist services.

NSPCC - HSB Framework

This framework helps local areas develop and improve multi-agency responses to children displaying HSB. It provides a coordinated, systematic and evidence-based approach to recognising and responding to the risks and needs of this vulnerable group.

NSPCC - Learning Hub

This Hub has lots of useful information with regards to identifying Harmful Sexual Behaviour and also provides a lot of useful resources.

NSPCC - Responding to children who display Sexualised Behaviour

It’s important for health practitioners to be able to distinguish normal sexual behaviours from those that may be harmful, and make sure children get appropriate support. This is a guide to help assist with decision-making.

NSPCC - Sexual Behaviour in children

Information regarding healthy sexual relationships in children and young people.

ThinkUKnow warning signs

Recognising harmful sexual behaviour by young people.

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