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All nurses asked to be aware of signs of sexual abuse in children

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The Royal College of Nursing has welcomed “vital” guidance for nurses on detecting the signs of child sexual exploitation.

It called on all nursing staff to use the guidance, which was published this week by the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges.

The RCN particularly highlighted the important role that nurses working in schools, sexual health clinics and emergency departments played in identifying those at risk from abuse.

The guidelines – called Child Sexual Exploitation: Improving Recognition and Response in Health Settings – were drawn up following a meeting between the Department of Health and representatives from the Medical Royal Colleges, the NHS and the charity sector.

“This guidance will be of vital importance to staff, whether they work with those who could be at risk every day or have the occasional chance encounter”

Peter Carter

The prevalence of child sexual exploitation is currently difficult to capture, warned the document. It cited low levels of reporting by young people, difficulties around information sharing between different healthcare agencies, and confusion around the definition of abuse and whether a young person had chosen to enter into a sexual relationship.

Nurses working in sexual health and geno-urinary medicine services and community contraceptive clinics should look for indicators, such as repeated sexually transmitted infections, said the guidance.

Accident and emergency nursing staff could help to spot abuse by recognising signs associated with it, such as alcohol or drug misuse or overdose, or injuries from violence, it stated.

Meanwhile, mental health nurses might be able to recognise young people at risk of sexual exploitation, as well as suspected perpetrators of this abuse, added the document.

Also detailed within the guidance are the definition and indicators of child sexual exploitation, the legal framework around it and the scenarios in which it may take place. These include when a young person is drawn into sexual activities by their peers or when they are groomed by another person to view them as a boyfriend.

“It is important that health professionals are aware that children and young people who are sexually exploited can present across a range of health settings”

Tara Weeramanthri

The guidance document added that sexual exploitation was often not recognised as such by the child or young person themselves, because they believed the perpetrator was giving them something they wanted.

Child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr Tara Weeramanthri, a lead author of the guidelines, said: “It is important that health professionals are aware that children and young people who are sexually exploited can present across a range of health settings, with a variety of physical and mental health problems – and actively consider the possibility of sexual exploitation in their assessments.

She added: “Given how diverse presentations can be, we need to be alert to these concerns and play our part in assisting young people in this situation.”

Peter Carter, general secretary of the RCN, said: “Recent events have shown that sexual exploitation is often hidden and difficult to detect, but we should not underestimate how important it is to take every opportunity to help a vulnerable young person to disclose what is happening to them.

“This guidance will be of vital importance to staff, whether they work with those who could be at risk every day or have the occasional chance encounter,” he added.

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