When children tell adults they are being abused, their confidants only take action in just over half of cases, according to a study by the NSPCC. Eight out of 10 abused under-18s tried to tell an adult, according to research based on interviews with 60 young adults. But adults acted in only 58 per cent of cases.
The insight comes as several high-profile cases reveal the failure of social services and other agencies to react to signs of children being ill-treated.
Previous research concluded that abuse is under-reported and that most children don't speak out, often carrying their secret for years. This has led some to dismiss the idea of asking children themselves what is going on.
One young woman described how police and social workers bungled her attempts to report her sexually abusive father. "The first time I told, I told my teacher, and then a social worker came, and two police officers.
"But they invited my mum and dad and sat them in the room with me. Then they asked me what happened, and so I denied it and said, 'No, nothing's happening,' because I could see my dad in the corner and I just thought, 'Oh my God!'"
It took an average of seven years for those children who had been sexually abused to successfully tell someone about what was happening and to get help.
Pam Miller, co-author of the report called No One Noticed, No One Heard, which is published tomorrow, said: "We were surprised at the number of people who had told someone about their abuse as a child, particularly given the extreme amount of abuse they suffered.
"We keep hearing in these serious case reviews of all these missed opportunities …. We, as professionals, don't pay attention often to what the child might say, because our minds are already closed to the idea that they might tell us stuff.
"In most of these cases, the abuse was within the past 10 years. The system has moved on, but I don't think we've moved on very much. If we had, we wouldn't have all these serious case reviews that say we're not talking to children."