More than half the sex abuse cases reported to government watchdogs last year were child-on-child assaults, the Minister for Justice and Attorney-General has revealed.

Kathy Lynn Simmons told the Senate that 51 per cent of sex abuse allegations referred to the Department of Child and Family Services in 2018 involved child-on-child abuse or sexual behaviour.

Debi Ray-Rivers, the founder and executive director of child abuse charity Scars, said the problem had existed for generations and hundreds of Bermudians were affected.

She said: “I’ve personally heard hundreds of stories of child-on-child abuse.

“What we believe is happening now is that people are becoming educated about inappropriate touch and they are reporting.

“This is what happens when a community becomes educated in appropriate healthy touch and inappropriate unhealthy touch.”

Ms Simmons, in a debate on the Budget for the Ministry of Legal Affairs on Wednesday, said 244 of the 1,139 cases referred to the Intake, Assessment and Investigation Unit in 2018 involved sex abuse.

She added: “The investigation team continues to see an increase in the number of children referred for child-on-child sexual abuse or sexualised behaviour.

“This accounts for 51 per cent of the number of sexual abuse referrals.”

Ms Simmons said 465 of the referred cases involved neglect, 200 involved physical abuse, 100 involved behavioural problems, 84 involved emotional abuse and 46 fell into other categories.

She added: “Children exposed to domestic violence has consistently accounted for the highest number of neglect referrals in the past five years.

“In 2018, the department received 209 referrals for children who were exposed to family violence. This accounts for 45 per cent of the neglect referrals for 2018.”

Ms Simmons said that the bulk of referrals were made by the Bermuda Police Service and the island’s schools.

Ms Ray-Rivers said the figures on child-on-child abuse mirrored those seen by Scars.

She said the charity joined forces with the Bermuda Health Council in 2017 to carry out a survey to measure how widespread sexual abuse was in Bermuda.

Ms Ray-Rivers added: “Out of the 5,000 who received the survey, the BHC received over 700 respondents quite quickly.

“According to our survey, 45 per cent of those who had personally experienced sexual abuse as a child were sexually abused by someone less than 18 years old.

“This tells us that this has been going on for generations.”

Ms Ray-Rivers said she hoped the numbers would start to fall, but that community education about abuse was vital.

She said: “This can be addressed when adults, who bring children into this world, become educated in prevention.

“They talk to their children about body safety early, and often, they monitor their electronic devices, they pay attention who their children interact with, they work towards reducing isolated one-on-one situations, they demand standards of youth-serving organisations.

“They also recognise some signs early on of bullying behaviour and other signs and they react responsibly when they see something or hear something.”

Ms Ray-Rivers added that Scars’ Darkness to Light Stewards of Children abuse prevention course was designed to help people recognise danger signals.

She said parents learnt to talk to their children about body safety and boundaries.

Ms Ray-Rivers added: “The training encourages people to start early and talk often.

“Sexual behaviour among children can be simply exploring, it can be simply uninformed children about body safety and crossing boundaries of others, it could be bullying behaviour.

“It could be they have witnessed something in the home, or watched something on TV or online, or it could be that child is being abused themselves and copying the behaviour or being told by their abuser to do it to another child.”

By Owain Johnston-Barnes The Royal Gazette