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Safeguarding children where there are concerns about harmful sexual behaviour


Last updated: February 2021

To be used in conjunction with the Wales Safeguarding Procedures

Who is this practice guide for?

This guide is primarily for practitioners working with children (up to the age of 18). This includes those working in early years, social care, education, health, the police, youth offending and youth, community and family support services (including the third sector) and foster care and residential care.

What is this guide for?

Safeguarding children is a responsibility shared by everyone in contact with children and young people.

The Wales Safeguarding Procedures support individuals and agencies across Wales to understand their roles and responsibilities in keeping children and adults safe. They support a consistent approach to safeguarding practice and procedures.

This practice guide provides additional information about safeguarding responses where there are concerns about Harmful Sexual Behaviour (HSB). It should be used in conjunction with the Wales Safeguarding Procedures.

Effective safeguarding arrangements in every local authority area should be underpinned by two key principles:

There are some issues which are common across safeguarding practice guides and some which are specific to the safeguarding issue being considered:


Harmful sexual behaviours' (HSB) can be defined as: sexual behaviours expressed by children and young people under the age of 18 years that are developmentally inappropriate, may be harmful towards themselves or others, or be abusive towards another child, young person or adult. This definition of HSB includes both contact and non-contact behaviours (grooming, exhibitionism, voyeurism and sexting or recording images of sexual acts via smart phones or social media applications).

This practice guide is not intended for use in cases of mutually consenting, non exploitative sexual activity between children aged 13-16 years old. Children under the age of 13 years are unable to legally give consent to sexual activity. Therefore, any alleged sexual activity concerning a child under 13 years and another child must be considered in line with the Wales Safeguarding Procedures and with reference to this practice guide.

An allegation of non consensual sexual activity concerning children, even where they are of a similar age, must be properly investigated in line with the Wales Safeguarding Procedures, whatever the age of the children involved.
Consent – The age of consent in the UK is 16 years old (the legal age to have sex). The laws are there to protect children. They are not there to prosecute under-16s who have mutually consenting sexual activity but will be used if there is abuse or exploitation involved.

To help protect younger children the law says anyone under the age of 13 can never legally give consent. This means that anyone engaging in sexual activity with a child who is 12 or younger will be subject to penalties set out under the Sexual Offences Act 2003.

Evidence base

A proportionate response

If any agency involved with the child has concerns that the child may have care and support needs that their parent(s)/carer(s) cannot meet without support, they should seek parental consent to refer the child to the home local authority Information, Advice and Assistance service for an assessment of their needs.

When a child has been reported under section 130, the local authority must consider whether there are grounds for carrying out an investigation under section 47 of the Children Act 1989.


These organisations are there for all children and young people in Wales. Professionals and practitioners should let children know about these organisations and how to contact them.

Meic is the helpline service for children and young people up to the age of 25 in Wales. From finding out what’s going on in your local area to help dealing with a tricky situation, Meic will listen even when no-one else will. They won’t judge you and will help by giving you information, useful advice and the support you need to make a change. You can:

You can contact the Children's Commissioner for Wales Investigation and Advice service which is free and confidential. It’s there as a source of help and support if children and young people or those who care for them feel that a child’s been treated unfairly. You or you parent/carer can:

Childline is a free, private and confidential service where anyone under 19 can access support and advice. The Childline website has information and advice pages as well as tools to help you work through problems yourself. If you want to talk or chat to Childline you can:

If you want to talk to Childline in Welsh see

1 Hackett, S (2010). Children, young people and sexual violence. In Barter, C and Berridge, D (eds) Children behaving badly? Exploring peer violence between children and young people. London: Blackwell Wiley.




5 Hackett, S., Phillips, J., Masson, H. and Balfe, M. (2013) Individual, family and abuse characteristics of 700 British child and adolescent sexual abusers. Child Abuse Review, 22(4): 232–245.

6 Child Welfare Information Gateway, Issue Brief, November 2009, Understanding the Effects of maltreatment on Brian Development , US Department of Health and Human Services

7 A Joint Inspection by HMI Probation, Care and Social Services Inspectorate Wales, Care Quality Commission, Estyn, Healthcare Inspectorate Wales, HMI Constabulary, HMI Prisons and Ofsted (2013) Examining Multi-agency Responses to Children and Young People who sexually offend: A joint inspection of the effectiveness, Criminal Justice Joint Inspection

8 S. Wareham and W.Steer, (2015) Girls Talk : Supporting Girls to Develop Healthy Sexual Relationships , Cardiff: Barnardo’s Cymru

9 Hackett, Simon (2014) Children and young people with harmful sexual behaviours. London: Research in Practice Research in Practice Research Reviews, 15.

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