21/11/2013 11:47 GMT | Updated 25/01/2014 16:01 GMT

Why We Must Intervene Early With Children and Young People With Harmful Sexual Behaviour

Even when you are dealing with the issue of child sexual abuse every day there are cases that shock you. This week I read that a ten-year-old boy had been found guilty of raping an eight-year-old girl on more than one occasion over a period of two years. During the trial it was revealed that the boy, now 13, had spent hours watching online porn from the age of nine.

It is very difficult for adults to contemplate the idea of a child sexually harming another child. But this is not an isolated case.

In fact the scale of this problem is significant.

The Home Office has estimated that at least one third of all sexual offences against children and young people are perpetrated by under-18s.

So why do some children sexually abuse others?

We have recognised the nature of the challenge for two decades. A 1992 report by NCH (now known as Action for Children) talked about the need for these children and young people to be treated as being in need of assessment and treatment rather than simply in need of incarceration. Sexually violent and harmful behaviour of course does not exist in a vacuum, it has its roots in a sometimes complex mix of disrupted attachment, emotional and physical neglect and of course sometimes (although not always) sexual abuse.

The internet and online contact grooming and coercion seems to, perhaps not surprisingly be playing an increasing role in this this harmful behaviour, and there are links to recent phenomena like 'sexting', but it would be far too simplistic to blame the internet and easy access to sexual imagery.

Over the past year there has been some welcome recognition of the need to take a more joined up and strategic approach to the challenge, for example with the establishment of the Home Office group on sexual violence against children and vulnerable adults. However, there remains one aspect of child sexual abuse that remains pretty much unaddressed and uncoordinated; that is the issue of children and young people who sexually harm other children and young people.

The NSPCC runs a programme called Turn the Page that includes the testing and evaluation of a manualised treatment approach. And I have seen some local authority Youth Offending Services beginning to get to grips with the issue, and academics like Simon Hackett at Durham University lead the way in research, but at the moment these remain relatively isolated beacons of good practice.

The evidence is that if we can identify the problem early, not avoid it (and many people would prefer to explain away harmful sexual behaviour as children playing games), undertake a good assessment and get children the individual treatment they need we will be saving society a whole heap of problems and costs for the future.

Prevention is vital and it is disappointing and worrying that we have not to date seen a clear government commitment to promote the good practice that we know is out there.

This nettle needs to be grasped and the momentum already created by positive government action elsewhere in the field of sexual abuse prevention now needs to be widened to include these children in need. We owe it to those they have harmed and to them.