Horrific behaviour is often triggered by spiral of violence and neglect that goes back generations, says study. Nina Lakhani reports
A unique insight into why young children sexually abuse other children is to be revealed in a ground-breaking study. The research, which has yet to be formally published, was on boys aged 10 or under who have molested siblings, classmates, or friends. It found that they are invariably born into families in which abuse, violence and neglect has become routine over several generations.
The peer-reviewed study found that the boys were unable to form healthy relationships as a result of neglectful and hostile parenting. Even before starting school, they were anxious, angry and detached; bed-wetting, nightmares, self-harm and eating problems were common.
All of the boys in the study, which is to be published in Child Abuse Review next year, started abusing after being sexually abused themselves. By the time they received specialist help they had all perpetrated serious abuse against several children. This was not childhood experimentation: their victims were as young as six months; penetration and violence were common.
The research, conducted in the London-based National Clinical Assessment and Treatment Service (NCats), found that the authorities, as well as teachers, social workers and doctors, often missed numerous opportunities to intervene.
Colin Hawkes, the study's author and NCats service manager, said that professionals often ignore, dismiss or punish early warning signs such as a child exposing himself or talking explicitly about sex because they find it difficult to believe that children are physically or emotionally capable of such things. The study also found that in a third of the 27 cases in its sample group the birth mother was suspected of sexually abusing her child. But this social taboo was never tackled by the authorities.
So why does a six year old sexually abuse a three year old? The study asserts that in many cases they copy what adults around them are doing. They may also be seeking control in response to the cruelty and loneliness of their own lives, while spoiling the life of a "luckier or happier" child. Researchers were most shocked to find that many of the boys, like adult offenders, had learnt to groom and target vulnerable children.
The findings add to growing evidence about the devastating impact of early childhood abuse and neglect on brain development, which can lead to serious violence against one's self and others in later life. About a third of all convicted sex offenders carried out their first assault before age 18.
The study comes after two brothers, from Edlington, near Doncaster, were sentenced to a minimum of five years last April for beating, torturing and sexually abusing two boys. …