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Legal, criminological and forensic, Professional Practice

Guidance on responding to disclosures of non-recent (historic) child sexual abuse: Safeguarding and support implications

The primary purpose the guidance is to outline the options which psychologists have in responding to disclosures of non-recent sexual abuse.

20 July 2023

This document builds on the previous version published in 2016. It has been written as practitioner psychologists have become increasingly concerned about how to respond to client disclosures of non-recent sexual abuse during assessment or therapeutic work. It aims to address some of these dilemmas.

Sexual abuse creates particular challenges in holding this dual focus of care for the current client and safeguarding, hence the focus of this guidance on non-recent sexual abuse only.

This guidance is aimed predominantly at supporting psychologists who are working with adults in mental health settings, and in varied therapy contexts, including individual, family and group work.

Additionally, this second iteration of the guidance also builds on feedback received from practitioners.

The guidance applies to practitioner psychologists working in all settings, including private practice. Practitioners are encouraged to read it in its entirety before reading individual sections as needed. This is to ensure that thinking is embedded within the context of numerous issues that arise around disclosures.

Download the guidance


Further information

Additional relevant documents

  1. Children’s Legislation: Key legislation outlines professional duties to ensure the welfare of children is paramount, and our responsibilities to ensure that they are protected from significant harm. These are The Children Act 1989, 2002, 2004; the Children (NI) Order (1995), The Children (Scotland) Act (1995) and supported by Working Together to Safeguard Children (2015).

  2. Mental Health Legislation: Key legislation concerning clients within mental health settings are The Mental Health Act (1983; 2007) and The Mental Capacity Act (2005) together with associated Codes of Practice.

  3. Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014: covering abuse of premises for child exploitation and forced marriage supported by professional guidance: The Right to Choose: Multi-agency statutory guidance for dealing with forced marriage and Multi-agency practice guidelines: Handling cases of Forced Marriage.

  4. Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003: dealing with the offence of FGM including the offence of assisting a girl to carry out FGM on herself while also creating extra-territorial offences to deter people from taking girls abroad for mutilation.

  5. Public Disclosure Act 1998: concerning the management of whistleblowing related to safeguarding concerns within organisations. Noting the availability of a national helpline providing support to those who have concerns and may who may need support in ensuring these are heard and acted upon.

  6. Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act (2006): A vulnerable adult is any person aged 18 years or over who is unable to self-care or who cannot protect him/ herself against significant harm or exploitation. This could apply to people who have mental health problems, disabilities, and sensory impairments or who are old and frail. The person may be in receipt of care at home, in the community or in an institutional setting. The adult has the right to live a life free from neglect, exploitation and abuse under the Human Rights Act (1998).

  7. Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015: from 13 April 2015, section 20 of this Act applies to individuals such as doctors, dentists and nurses and it states: "It is an offence for an individual who has the care of another individual by virtue of being a care worker to ill-treat or wilfully to neglect that individual."

  8. Health and Social Care Act 2008 (Regulated Activities) Regulations 2014: Regulation 13: To meet the requirements of this regulation, providers must have a zero tolerance approach to abuse, unlawful discrimination and restraint. This includes: neglect, subjecting people to degrading treatment, unnecessary or disproportionate restraint, deprivation of liberty.

  9. Human Rights Act (1998): applies to all public bodies within the United Kingdom, including central government, local authorities, and bodies exercising public functions requiring the courts to interpret all legislation in accordance with the European Convention on Human Rights. The Act deals with fundamental rights, for instance, against discrimination, inhuman and degrading torture; aiming to protect against, for instance, slavery or servitude or intrusions of privacy in respect of family life and correspondence.

  10. UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989, Article 19), sets out international commitment to signatory Governments ensuring children are protected from being hurt and mistreated, physically or mentally. 

  11. Royal colleges and professional bodies’ Intercollegiate Guidance: Safeguarding Children and Young People: roles and competencies for health care staff. (2014 ) published by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and other publications by this college stress the importance of ensuring appropriate safeguarding training for professionals.

  12. The Code for Crown Prosecutors: The Code, at paragraph 4.12(c), asks prosecutors to consider the circumstances and harm caused to the victim when considering whether a prosecution is required in the public interest.

Seven golden rules for information sharing

From the Oxfordshire Safeguarding Children Board website:

  1. Remember that the Data Protection Act is not a barrier to sharing information but provides a framework to ensure that personal information about living persons is shared appropriately; 
  2. Be open and honest with the person (and/or their family where appropriate) from the outset about why, what, how and with whom information will, or could be shared, and seek their agreement, unless it is unsafe or inappropriate to do so; 
  3. Seek advice if you are in any doubt, without disclosing the identity of the person where possible; 
  4. Share with consent where appropriate and, where possible, respect the wishes of those who do not consent to share confidential information. You may still share information without consent if, in your judgement, that lack of consent can be overridden in the public interest. You will need to base your judgement on the facts of the case noting the practice of involving the Caldicott Guardian and applying Caldicott principles in dealing with disclosure without consent; 
  5. Consider safety and well-being: Base your information sharing decisions on considerations of the safety and well-being of the person and others who may be affected by their actions; 
  6. Necessary, proportionate, relevant, accurate, timely and secure: Ensure that the information you share is necessary for the purpose for which you are sharing it, is shared only with those people who need to have it, is accurate and up-to-date, is shared in a timely fashion, and is shared securely; 
  7. Keep a record of your decision and the reasons for it – whether it is to share information or not. If you decide to share, then record what you have shared, with whom and for what purpose

Other relevant organisations

  • NAPAC – National Association of People Abused in Childhood

P O BOX 63632

NAPAC will provide support for clients and this charitable organisation’s national freephone Support Line may be contacted on: 0800 085 3330.

The NAPAC  has online information booklets and videos which clients may find useful. This organisation takes the approach that grading of abuse is inappropriate and that any abuse is wrong. For those advised that the CPS do not consider a case can be pursued, it is clearly relevant that support organisations will affirm that this does not belittle the experience of harm or make the abuse acceptable.

  • The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC)

Weston House,
42 Curtain Road,
London EC2A 3NH.

  • Children’s Rights Alliance for England
  • The Survivors Trust
  • Crimestoppers
  • Victim Support
  • You and Co – a new website that explains the court process and has a tour of a virtual courtroom.
  • ANON is another charitable organisation which runs peer-to-peer support groups for adult survivors of sexual abuse, which are led by facilitators. The coverage is limited to Aberdeen and some areas of London but expected to expand in 2016 .
  • Advocates Gateway

Gives free access to practical, evidence-based guidance on vulnerable witnesses and defendants.

The Advocates Gateway Toolkit 10, ‘Identifying Vulnerability in Witnesses and Defendants’ dated 10 July 2014.