Abuse by organised networks


Most child sexual abuse will involve some degree of organisation.  This organisation is characterised by the purposeful and secret targeting, seduction and silencing of the subjects.  It can be perpetrated by one person on a number of children and young people.  However, organised abuse can also be abuse by multiple perpetrators, some or all of whom may be outside the immediate household of the victims, and who act together to abuse the child(ren).



This can include:


  • Networks based on family or community links.  Abuse can involve groups of adults within a family or group of families, friends, neighbours and/or other social networks who act together to abuse children either ‘on-or offline’.


  • Abduction.  Child abduction may involve internal or external child trafficking and may happen for a number of reasons.  Children cannot consent to abduction or trafficking. 


  • Institutional setting.  Abuse can involve children in an institutional setting (for example, youth organisations, educational establishments and residential homes) or looked-after children living away from home being abused by one or more perpetrators, including other young people.


  • Prostitution.  In some cases, children may be recruited or abducted for commercial sexual exploitation.


When the possibility of organised or multiple abuse emerges, senior officers of Social Work Service and Police must be informed.  The Police will arrange a multi-agency meeting to decide on how the incident will be managed to create a common understanding of how to proceed and co-ordinate responses to complex abuse.  All relevant agencies and services should be involved in these discussions.  Such cases require early involvement of the Procurator Fiscal and the Children's Reporter.  Police and social work services should agree a strategy for communication and liaison with the media and public.  If a large number of families, parents and carers are involved, social work should make special arrangements to keep them informed of events and plans to avoid the spread of unnecessary rumour and alarm. 


In all contexts, where a single complaint about possible abuse is made by, or on behalf of, a child, agencies should consider the possibility that the investigation may reveal information about other children currently or formerly, living within the same household, community or elsewhere.  Allegations of organised abuse are also often made historically.


Disclosures of abuse may come from adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse.  In these cases, it is important that links are made with the national strategy for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse.  Children surviving organised abuse may fear revealing their experiences due to:


  • fear of pornography, photographs and digital images being released;
  • threats of harm to other children;
  • belief that they are complicit in the abuse;
  • belief in the rituals used to silence them;
  • fear and distrust of police and social workers;
  • fear of their potential involvement in criminal activity; and
  • belief that their abusers are all-powerful and will punish them for disclosure.


Somechild protection cases are particularly complex because they can reveal or become entwined in other cases of alleged abuse.  It is not unusual for such complex investigations to extend beyond the boundaries of individual services or authorities.  Detailed planning at strategic level is critical to ensure a consistency of approach with clear areas of accountability and responsibility determined from the outset.  Chief Officers should be alerted in such circumstances, including where the concerns involve a child or children out with the area.  Senior managers from social work services and the police should ensure that arrangements for the joint investigation of linked cases are in place, so that children and adults are adequately protected.


Parents/carers are usually entitled to the fullest possible information.  In these circumstances, particularly where it may be unclear how many families are involved, decisions regarding about information-sharing will be particularly complex.  Agencies may need to restrict information provided to families and the public to avoid prejudicing criminal inquiries and this should be considered in the planning process.  Parental involvement may need to be limited in order to safeguard the child and the reasons for this should be recorded.


The investigation will be carried out by police officers from the Public Protection Unit and social workers in the Child Protection Team who are trained in conducting investigations and have a detailed knowledge of child protection processes.  It may be necessary to involve agencies which are trusted by the child or other witnesses and obtain specialist advice and support from agencies with particular knowledge of the issues.


It is good practice for the lead agencies to establish links with neighbouring authorities and agencies to ensure access to necessary resources when dealing with complex multiple or organised abuse cases, for example, skilled staff and specialist resources, such as video studios. Any arrangement should identify the roles and responsibilities of different authorities and agencies. It should be borne in mind that for a child used for pornography and constantly filmed or accustomed to their image being manipulated, recording of interviews may be particularly alarming.


Careful consideration needs to be given to the needs of the children or adults witnesses and victims in complex cases. Immediate, therapeutic, practical and emotional support may be required to allow trust to develop. A thorough assessment should be made of victims' needs, and services provided to meet those needs. It is good practice to provide a confidential and independent counselling service for victims and families. Agencies who know the child or adult, including third sector organisations, may be involved in the planning stages of the investigation to ensure the investigation is managed in a child-centred way taking care not to prejudice efforts to collect evidence for criminal prosecution of an abuser or group of abusers.


More detailed information about the support available to child witnesses can be found below:




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