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Interagency Safeguarding Children ProceduresNottinghamshire Safeguarding Children Partnership (NSCP)
Nottingham City Safeguarding Children Partnership (NCSCP)

Harmful Sexual Behaviour (HSB)


This chapter was amended in January 2019. Information was added with regard to Technology-assisted harmful sexual behaviour (TA-HSB) and Keeping Children Safe in Education (KCSIE). The Further Information section was reviewed and updated.


  1. Definition
  2. Risks
  3. Indicators
  4. Protection
  5. Issues
  6. Further Information

1. Definition

Harmful sexual behaviour involves one or more children engaging in sexual discussions or acts that are inappropriate for their age or stage of development. These can range from using sexually explicit words and phrases to full penetrative sex with other children or adults (Rich, 2011).

2. Risks

  • Two thirds of contact sexual abuse is committed by peers;
  • History of abuse, especially sexual abuse, can contribute to a child displaying harmful sexual behaviour;
  • Children have greater access to information about sex through technology and this has had an impact on their attitudes to sex and sexual behaviour;
  • Children with harmful sexual behaviours who do not receive adequate treatment are more likely to go on to commit abuse as an adult compared to children who receive support.

3. Indicators

There are no diagnostic indicators in personal or family functioning that indicate a pre-disposition towards sexual offending although the following characteristics have been found in the background of some young people who sexually offend:

  • Attachment disorders - poor nurturing and parental guidance;
  • Domestic violence and abuse;
  • Previous sexual victimisation - a younger age at the onset of the abuse is more likely to lead to sexualised behaviour;
  • Social rejection and loneliness;
  • Poor empathy skills.

Many of these factors exist alongside typical family environments where other forms of abuse are present.

There is a significant minority of young people who display this behaviour who have a level of learning need - up to 40% in some studies. Their needs must be carefully assessed as some assessment tools are not suitable. Also, the intervention may need to be extended and involve a high degree of coordination between agencies.

The link between on-line behaviour and harmful sexual behaviour may also be a cause for concern. Technology-assisted harmful sexual behaviour (TA-HSB) can range from developmentally inappropriate use of pornography (and exposing other children to this), through grooming and sexual harassment. On-line behaviour may be a trigger for sexual abuse and the long-term effect of exposure to pornography can affect the ability to build healthy sexual relationships (see NSPCC Research and Resources for further information).

Concerns about children who display behaviour which may cause sexual harm to others (and in some cases to themselves as well) are some of the most challenging for professionals. To help determine whether a behaviour might be normal in terms of a child's development we suggest that professionals refer to the Brook Sexual Behaviours Traffic Light Tool.

4. Protection

A multi-agency approach to the early identification, assessment and intervention with children who sexually abuse is used to respond to them as children in need, who may also be in need of protection, and to prevent further offending.

Abuse using Information and Communication Technology (ICT), such as the internet and mobile phones, falls within the scope of these procedures and will be managed in the same way.

Any practitioner who has concerns that a child's sexual behaviour may be abusive should make a referral to Children's Services Social Care following their own agency child protection policy.

Both Nottinghamshire and Nottingham City Safeguarding Children Partnerships have processes in place to ensure that the needs of all children who come to the attention of the police, the youth offending service or Children's Social Care for sexually abusive behaviour have their needs considered within a multi-agency meeting. Within Nottingham City this is through Assessment of Sexual Harm Arrangements (ASHA) meetings, and within Nottinghamshire, this is through the HSB Panel process. Detailed practice guidance covering these specific procedures is available within Children's Social Care and the Youth Offending service of both authorities.

The purpose of these meetings is to:

  • Bring together the practitioners currently involved with the young person;
  • Discuss the outcomes of assessments, with a view to agreeing on the level and type of risk which s/he may pose in different settings (e.g. at home, at school, in public places);
  • Consider the holistic assessment, agree on how his/her needs are to be met in a service plan for him/her and the family and establish whether there is agreement to the service plan;
  • Specific input within the service plan to help reduce the risk of a pattern of sexually abusive behaviour developing;
  • Recommend actions to manage the risk of Sexual Abuse, bearing in mind any criminal justice action being taken.

The outcome of the meeting will vary depending on the needs of the case. In most circumstances a plan will be agreed to be managed and reviewed under child in need procedures. Where a level of risk is identified it may be appropriate for a risk Strategy Meeting to be convened or the child to be considered under the Multi Agency Public Protection Arrangements (MAPPA) if the child is convicted.

A child assessed as having sexually abused others should be the subject of a Child Protection Conference if he or she is also considered personally to be at risk of continuing Significant Harm.

Note Schools should follow the statutory guidance: Keeping Children Safe in Education which came into force on 3rd September 2018.

5. Issues

Young people may be in denial about having a problem with their sexual behaviour and this may be supported by parents who do not want to confront reality of their child behaving in this way. There is often no legal requirement for the child or family to accept help and it may be easier to ignore the problem than confront it. This is a common response to this issue, practitioners will need to be familiar with the proposed intervention if they are to encourage anyone to accept it. The offer of further work may be helpfully framed as an opportunity to understand how the young person came to be in a position where they behaved in a way considered to be abusive.

Support of parents and carers is extremely helpful in promoting engagements and successful outcomes. Parents need to be informed about the program to the extent that they are aware that sexually explicit conversations will take place, also they may be asked to speak to their child about sexual issues. They may also be asked to model appropriate and respectful sexual attitudes and language.

Delays in completing criminal investigations need not necessarily delay referral for specialist help; there is often a significant delay between completing enquiries and decision and a decision being made about whether to prosecute. Few young people are actually prosecuted for this behaviour, therefore the risk in waiting for a decision from CPS is that a decision not to prosecute may be interpreted as there being nothing to worry about. A programme of work can be agreed with police and CPS usually with the proviso that the victim and specific incidents are not discussed.