We don't know exactly how many children in the UK experience child abuse. Child abuse is usually hidden from view. Adults in the child’s life may not recognise the signs that they are being abused and the child may not recognise they are being abused or be too young, too scared or too ashamed to tell anyone what is happening to them.
However there are a number of different sources of information, including data from services which work with children and research into children's and adults' self-reported experiences of abuse, which help build up a picture of the scale of abuse.
A number of services record information about child abuse. For example:
- children’s services record data about the number of children they come into contact with and work with due to concerns about abuse. This includes the number of children who are the subject of a child protection plan or on a child protection register
- police forces record data on the number of offences committed against children
- criminal courts record data on the number of offenders convicted of child abuse offences
- local registrars, coroners and procurators fiscal record the number of deaths caused by abuse
- national and local services run by organisations, like Childline and the NSPCC Helpline.
These figures provide a significant underestimation of the scale of abuse, as many children never come to the attention of services.
Our annual How safe are our children? report provides an overview of available statistics for the four UK nations.
Self reported experiences of abuse
A number of research studies have surveyed children and adults about their experiences of abuse. Their findings can be used to help estimate the prevalence of child abuse – that is, the proportion of a population who were abused during childhood.
Findings from research studies usually reveal much higher numbers of children who have been abused than statistics from services that work with children. This gives an indication of how much child abuse does not come to the attention of the authorities.
Many children do not tell anyone about the abuse at the time because they are scared of the consequences or because they are unsure who to tell or how to tell someone.
More people will disclose abuse during research because they are able to do so anonymously and confidentially, without worrying about an investigation from the authorities or the effect on their family.
However there will be some people who never disclose what happened to them and there is no way of knowing how many people never tell anyone.
Using and interpreting data
Although statistics help us to build up a picture of the incidence and prevalence of abuse, it's important to remember that all data sources have their limitations.