Child abuse: can help-lines change behaviour?

Can anonymous telephone helplines assist in preventing child abuse? An evaluation of such programmes in the UK, Ireland and The Netherlands finds they can. And it suggests offenders might be more likely to seek help if confidentiality is assured.

Picture credit: STARS/Kristian Buus

The ‘Stop it Now!’ helplines offer information, advice, support and guidance to people concerned about child sexual abuse – including those worried about their own thoughts or behaviour towards children. Others who can use the helplines include members of the public or professionals who are concerned about the behaviour of someone else, or who are concerned for a child.

The programmes, which were established in 2002 in the UK and 2012 in the Netherlands, were evaluated by NatCen Social Research and by the de Waag psychiatric clinic, which helps to run the Netherlands scheme.

The evaluation found the helplines offered good value for money and could prevent offending. However, they were unable to meet high levels of demand and in the UK there were more than 2,000 missed calls each month on average.

The research included gathering information from helpline users through interviews and questionnaires as well as an analysis of the economic costs and benefits of the schemes. It also led to the production of a ‘toolkit’ to support the establishment of other child sexual abuse prevention helplines.

In 2013 around 40 per cent of calls in the Netherlands and 56 per cent in the UK were from people concerned about their own sexual feelings or behaviour towards children.

In the UK, a higher proportion of callers concerned about their own thoughts or behaviour had already abused a child. In the Netherlands 18 per cent of callers were at risk of sexually abusing a child, but had not yet done so. In the UK the percentage in that group was much lower, at seven per cent.

The researchers commented that this might be linked to wider advertising of the scheme on television in the Netherlands than in the UK. Also, the Netherlands’ confidentiality laws bar therapists from disclosing information about previous offending, although they do require them to share concerns about specific risks of future abuse.

Helpline users in the UK said they felt stronger after making contact, and that they had been supported to recognise and address their problematic behaviour. In the Netherlands, users reported feeling more in control after speaking to the helpline, and said they had learned more effective coping strategies.

“I’m not saying I’m ever going to be cured, but the strategies are in place to stop me re-offending now.”

(Stop it Now! UK user who had committed a child sexual abuse offence)

An economic analysis found the average cost per call was likely to be lower for well-established help-lines, as they generated a higher volume of calls. An estimate of the cost and benefit for UK helpline users concerned about their own feelings or behaviour suggested Stop it Now! generated savings equivalent to 120 per cent of its annual costs.

The toolkit on establishing and operating a helpline covers:

  • Mode: A helpline can be accessed using single or multiple routes such as phone, email and web-chat.
  • Content: Whether the service will offer information, advice and guidance; specialist counselling; or therapeutic support.
  • Structure: a helpline can operate as a support in itself, act as a gateway to other resources or services, or both.
  • Target groups: the Toolkit assumes a helpline would be aimed primarily at people who posed a current or potential threat to children and young people.
  • Promotion: how will the helpline be promoted so that the specific target groups are aware of it and know what it can offer them, and will this be combined with awareness-raising about sexual abuse?

For more information about the evaluation visit Stop it Now!

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