What is organised abuse?

Organised abuse is a serious but poorly understood form of violence. Organised abuse involves multiple adults who conspire to sexually abuse one or more children. Organised abuse can include the sexual exchange of children between perpetrators as well as the manufacture of child abuse images and the prostitution of children for financial gain or other advantages. 

For some victims, organised abuse ceases in childhood, but organised abuse can also continue into adulthood. Many adult victims of organised abuse report that they continue to experience sexual assault and exploitation.

How common is organised abuse?

It is relatively common for children and adults in treatment for sexual abuse to disclose organised abuse. In clinical settings, up to one fifth of sexually abused women and children disclose organised abuse when asked. Surveys in Australia, North America and the United Kingdom indicate that between 10% and a third of mental health practitioners have encountered a client disclosing organised abuse.

Child protection agencies report frequent contact with organised abuse victims. A survey of child protection teams in the United Kingdom found that 41% of teams were aware of an organised abuse case in their region in the previous two years, and 20% had worked with children suspected of having been victimised in organised abuse. A large review of child protection cases in the United Kingdom found that organised abuse was involved in 3% of sexual abuse cases reported to child protection services nation-wide.

The sources for this information can be found in the literature review available here.

types of organised abuse

Experiences of organised abuse are very diverse, but there are particular factors that tend to cluster in the lives of victims and survivors. Below are a set of five categories that describe the most common types of organised abuse according to the available research. Victims and survivors may describe experiences that fit within these categories, span multiple categories, or relate to abuse experiences that are not detailed here. This list is not intended to be exhaustive.

Network abuse

Network abuse describes networks of mostly extra-familial offenders acting on a shared sexual interest in children. These groups usually target vulnerable teenagers and display a preference for one gender or another. Reports of network abuse are typified by a high number of victims, with some victims able to exit quickly from abuse while others are entrapped for longer periods of time. Recent examples of network abuse include the various 'sex grooming' scandals reported in the United Kingdom, where up to 1400 girls were sexually abused in Rotherham.

institutional organised abuse

Institutional organised abuse refers to the sexual abuse of children by people who work with them in an institutional setting, in which one or more staff members engage in or arrange the sexual abuse of children in their care. Institutional organised abuse has been reported in a range of child-focused institutions. Increased oversight and screening of people working with children appears to have decreased although not eliminated the risk of organised abuse in institutional settings. 

Familial organised abuse

Familial organised abuse involves cultures of sexual abuse within families, in which children are subject to sexual abuse by family members and adults outside the family. It appears that parents (and particularly incestuous fathers) are the most common perpetrators of organised abuse. This type of abuse tends to involve a comparatively small number of victims who are extensively victimised, with the early initiation of abuse, quick progression to serious abuse, and a high intensity and prolonged duration of victimisation. 

Ritual abuse refers to incidents of organised abuse that is structured in a ceremonial or ritualistic fashion, often incorporating religious or mythological iconography. Ritual abuse is a characteristic of particularly abusive groups, and is typically associated with the torture of children and adults and the manufacture of child abuse material. Despite vocal skepticism about the existence of ritual abuse, it has been a feature of high-profile child sexual abuse convictions in the United States and the United Kingdom. Professionals in a range of contexts continue to report encountering child and adult victims of ritual abuse.

Ritual abuse

Technologically-facilitated organised abuse involves the sexual abuse of one or more victims by multiple adults that is facilitated by technology in some way. It is often assumed that abuse groups form over the internet, however analyses of law enforcement data suggests a more complex picture. Abusive groups may form offline (within families or elsewhere) and then make use of the internet and other technologies to contact other offenders, distribute or solicit child abuse material and abuse other children. Perpetrators may also connect with other perpetrators or potential victims via the internet.


impact on victims

Organised abuse victims and survivors typically present with complex trauma, typified by “the core problems of affect dysregulation, structural dissociation, somatic dysregulation, impaired self-development, and disorganized attachment patterns” (Ford and Courtois, 2009: 13). Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) is a common diagnosis in this group. DID develops in response to early, overwhelming and chaotic traumatisation. Survivor testimony suggests that some perpetrator groups may encourage or induce the development of dissociative responses in child victims in order to inhibit disclosure and ensure their compliance during sexual exploitation. Guidelines for the treatment of organised abuse survivors with DID can be found here. Survivors report significant improvements across multiple clinical domains when they receive treatment from clinicians trained in DID and complex trauma.