COVID-19 and Child Abuse in Institutions

The implications of measures taken to reduce the impact the lockdown for children (and adults) who reside with violent, abusive or exploitative partners and family members have been widely highlighted. For those in such circumstances, ‘keeping the NHS safe’ and ‘saving lives by staying at home’ comes at a very high price.

It is well recognised that the majority of child abuse occurs in the home. However, government inquiries into child abuse within institutional settings have been ongoing since the early 1990s. The current national inquiry (see IICSA) into sexual abuse within institutions in England and Wales has been running since 2014.

At the Centre for Child Protection and Safeguarding in Sport, our research focuses on abuse and maltreatment in sport contexts. In my research with ‘survivors’ of child sexual abuse in sport, I hear repeatedly how they felt trapped within the relationship and unable to tell anyone about the abuse they were experiencing. For some, home was a sanctuary that offered some temporary respite.

So, for at least some children and young people experiencing abuse, home isolation and ‘social distancing’ may feel like a dream come true rather than their worst nightmare.

For any type of abuse, including that perpetrated online, opportunity is fundamental. Often (but not always) the opportunity to be physically close to a child, in an isolated space, is a key facilitating factor. Thus whilst close proximity with those outside the home is currently restricted, there may be a small window of opportunity to break the connection between some children and their abusers, permanently.  

Families are crucial to this. But – if you are a parent/guardian of a child who is being sexually abused or exploited, it is highly likely that your child will have made the decision to conceal what is happening to them. An abused child’s life becomes a near permanent exercise in deception. They quickly learn to employ all their creative resources to prevent those closest to them from discovering their secret. Of course, this does not mean they aren’t desperately searching for a way to escape the abuse.

Enforced social distancing may have presented some children with an alternative version of their reality. A glimpse of something different, better. Undoubtedly their abuser(s) will be working hard to maintain their hold, to keep the child trapped within their version of reality. Children who find themselves in a sexually or physically abusive relationship outside the home are hopefully experiencing some relief. But as they observe our determined national efforts to ‘return to normal’, they also sense this will be short-lived.

So, for some children, the current crisis does present an opportunity, but it is one that adults – within and beyond the family – must take advantage of.

Specialist organisations provide useful support on talking to children and young people and identifying signs of sexual abuse and exploitation. Further safeguarding advice, information and resources relating to COVID-19 are also available from the GOV.UK website. If you’re worried that a child or young person is at risk or is being abused contact the children’s social care team at their local council.

Dr Mike Hartill is Director of the Centre for Child Protection and Safeguarding in Sport (CPSS) at Edge Hill University.


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