Sexual assault and abuse

Sexual assault and abuse are serious crimes which continue to have a significant impact on our society. The devastating consequences for any victim can often be misunderstood and neglected. Despite this, the vast number of victims remain hidden due to a fear of coming forward, a lack of faith in organisations and not being aware of the existence of support services, such as sexual assault referral centres (SARCs).

As the lead commissioner for SARCs, NHS England has developed strategic partnerships with the Home Office, local police and crime commissioners and the Ministry of Justice to help address these issues and improve services for the victims and survivors of sexual assault and abuse.

Sexual assault referral centres

Sexual assault referral centres, or SARCs, provide a safe space and dedicated care for anyone who has been raped, sexually assaulted or abused. They offer a range of services, including crisis care, medical and forensic examinations, emergency contraception and testing for sexually transmitted infections. They can also arrange access to an independent sexual violence advisor (ISVA), as well as referrals to mental health support and voluntary sector sexual violence support services.

In 2013, NHS England took on the lead commissioning role for these services, together with police and crime commissioners. The service specification for SARCs is available on our website and sets out the public health functions to be exercised by NHS England when commissioning these services.

For more information on SARCs and where they are located across England, visit

COVID-19 impact

Since the implementation of COVID-19 social distancing measures, there has been a significant increase in the number of people ringing domestic violence and sexual abuse helplines and accessing associated online support. This is in contrast to the Crime Survey for England and Wales (year ending September 2021), which shows a noticeable decline in reported sexual offences during the three lockdowns in 2020 and 2021. The periods that followed these restrictions, however, saw a greater level of reported offences, including a 12% increase in sexual offences in the year ending September 2021 (the highest number of sexual offences recorded within a 12 month period, totalling 170,973). Rape accounted for 37% of these sexual offences and at 63,136 is the highest annual figure to date.

In line with fluctuating numbers of reported sexual offences over the last couple of years, referrals to SARCs have followed a similar pattern.

To help address this issue and raise awareness of SARCs, NHS England and NHS Improvement launched a three-month campaign on 7 February 2022 to raise awareness of SARCs and encourage victims and survivors to seek help.

As part of campaign activity, we issued a letter to colleagues, asking for their support with the delivery of this campaign to ensure that anyone who has experienced sexual assault and abuse, regardless of how long ago, knows where to get help. Whether this applies to our patients or staff, SARCs are available to everyone.

In addition, we are developing good practice resources to support SARC staff to deliver high-quality care that is responsive and understanding of the needs of the target audiences identified for our campaign. You can view the good practice guide for supporting the needs of male survivors of sexual assault and abuse on our website.

Information on the campaign and associated activity, is available on Public Health England’s website.

Strategic direction for sexual assault and abuse services

NHS England has made progress with the six priorities outlined in the 2018 Strategic direction for sexual assault and abuse services, which sets out what is needed by 2023 to improve service provision and consequently patient experience for those who have experienced sexual assault or abuse.

This work is underpinned by strategic partnerships with the Department of Health and Social Care, Department for Communities and Local Government, Home Office, Ministry of Justice, UK Health Security Agency, children’s and adult safeguarding Boards and third sector survivor organisations. These partners, together with the victims and survivors of sexual assault and abuse, have welcomed the opportunity to work together to co-develop a health and well-being focused strategy, which takes into account a lifelong pathway of care for survivors and seeks to drive the improvement of services now and in years to come. Central to our work is the voice of survivors and victims of sexual assault and abuse, which is championed through our national Sexual Abuse and Assault Services Lived Experience Group.

The paediatric forensic healthcare practitioner capabilities framework for child sexual abuse assessment

The Paediatric forensic healthcare practitioner capabilities framework for child sexual abuse assessment identifies and describes the professional knowledge, skills and behaviours required by forensic healthcare practitioners to deliver a high-quality, patient-centred service.

It is intended to inform the standards of education and training and continuing professional development, which includes peer review and supervision of the workforce undertaking forensic and clinical assessments of children and young people from 0 and up to the age of 18 years. This document is for regulators, service commissioners, employers, education and training providers, supervisors and healthcare practitioners involved in paediatric forensic healthcare.

The development of this document has been informed by a project steering group, which includes representation from the following organisations to whom we are grateful for their guidance, expertise and support:

  • Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse (CSA Centre)
  • NHS England
  • Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH)
  • Royal College of Nursing (RCN)
  • Skills for Health
  • The Faculty of Forensic and Legal Medicine (FFLM)
  • The UK Association of Forensic Nurses and Paramedics (UKAFN)
  • The Havens Sexual Assault Referral Centre, London