Mission Kids’ International Journal Publication receives national recognition from National Children’s Alliance
Mission Kids was featured in National Children’s Alliance’s weekly newsletter on Monday, November 25, 2019
November 25, 2019 – A Profound Family Crisis: Sibling Sexual Abuse
Good morning and happy Monday. I hope this finds everyone well. This morning, I want to take some time to focus on sibling sexual abuse cases. These cases are complicated, troubling, and often heartbreaking. Reactions to these cases can swing between one extreme of dismissing them as harmless “exploration” or the other of labeling a child as a “perpetrator.”
More recently, however, we have begun to understand and recognize the nuances and complexities that make these cases so difficult. Beyond mere semantics, we no longer label children as “perpetrators,” but rather refer to them as youth with problematic sexual behaviors (PSBs). We do this not because we seek to minimize the impact of their actions, but because we seek to focus on the root causes of those behaviors and healing the damage they have caused.
How far have we progressed in these efforts? What is the current status of therapeutic and legal interventions that CACs have at their disposal, and what challenges do we face in implementation and practice? These are some of the questions researchers explored in a recent study published in Child Abuse & Neglect, titled “Child Advocacy Center intervention with sibling sexual abuse cases: Cross-cultural comparison of professionals’ perspectives and experiences.”
The researchers used focus groups to compare the experiences of professionals working in two CACs—one, Mission Kids Child Advocacy Center, located in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, and the other, the Beit Lynn Jerusalem Child Advocacy Center, located in Jerusalem, Israel. At first glance, it may seem odd to compare two centers from two different countries—particularly since the legal structure for responding to these cases in Israel is completely different from that of the United States. But the contrast is actually a useful way to understand the responses of the MDT members from each center in the larger context of the legal structures in which each operates, for better or for worse.
In the United States, every state has laws mandating reporting of child abuse. In cases of sibling sexual abuse, depending on the age of the child with PSBs, the case may or may not be reported to law enforcement but certainly would be reported to child protective services. Although the victims in cases of sibling sexual abuse would have access to therapeutic services regardless of whether the case proceeded through the civil or the criminal justice system, this is not always the case for the child with PSB. Oftentimes, that child may only get treatment if the case proceeds through the criminal justice system.
In Israel, the system works quite differently. Israel has mandatory reporting laws similar to the United States, but it also has a special committee called the “Exemption Committee.” Id., p. 5. The Exemption Committee has the power to essentially defer the involvement of the criminal justice system, sometimes indefinitely, in favor of therapeutic intervention for the entire family, including the child with PSB.
The researchers found that the framework within which each CAC operates influenced the approach and philosophy toward these cases by the MDT members. In particular, it influenced the way in which each MDT tended to interpret the reactions of the parents. In both CACs, “[p]articipants described parental struggles as including the necessity to protect the victim’s siblings from further abuse, ensuring that they receive therapy while, in the meantime, accompanying the sibling with PSB throughout legal proceedings.” Id., p. 7. Moreover, both also “described the harsh conflicts parents confronted, realizing that their children were now categorized by authorities as ‘victims’ and ‘child with PSB,’ and that they themselves found it so difficult to understand that the same definitions should now be internalized by their family.” Id.
The researchers found that the team in the United States viewed resistance by the parents to adopting these definitions, and their sometimes outright rejection of them and minimization of the situation, in terms of how it reflected on their support of the victim child—and that, in turn, influenced the response of the team. For example, one team member stated, “It really depends on the parents’ response. If they are minimizing, it impacts the team negatively. If parents want to help both kids, there is a more positive response [from the team]. It’s tough to see and hard to accept when parents totally side with the perpetrator vs. hearing them say ‘Let’s try to help our kids.’” Id., p. 8.
By contrast, the team in Israel experienced this same resistance, but tended to view it in the larger context of the parents’ circumstances: “The Israeli team perceived the legal intervention as often leaving the parents with great responsibility towards the sibling with PSB (navigating through prosecution or being asked to supervise the sibling with PSB at any given moment in order to prevent further abuse), while the victims, as perceived by participants, tended to receive more support from the formal authorities.” Id. Moreover, because the Israeli team had the option of referring the case to the Exemption Committee, they felt that they could alleviate some of this tension by taking legal ramifications out of the equation, leaving the parents with more flexibility to focus solely on therapeutic interventions without fear of legal ramifications.
On the other hand, the Exemption Committee may not be the panacea it was intended to be. Some participants worried that supervision of the children will be insufficient and will expose the victim to further and ongoing abuse. Other participants expressed doubts as to whether the Committee “provides justice to the victims in the short and long term.” Id., p. 10.
If nothing else, this study reiterates the incredibly complex nature of these cases, and the near-impossible situation it creates for parents: “Parents face intense emotional complexity when they are expected (by professionals) to adopt an unequivocal position in favor of the victim, when the sibling with PSB is also their child. Absolute support for the victim may also be perceived as coming at the expense of supporting the child with PSB as well.” Id. The researchers wonder aloud about the best way to respond to sibling sexual abuse, “and whether, and under what circumstances, it is best regarded as a family issue requiring a therapeutic intervention or an issue of criminality requiring a legal intervention.” Id., p. 11.
As CACs and MDTs, I believe that our answer can be a “yes, and” rather than an “either/or.” While we do not have the option of an Exemption Committee here in the United States, we do have a strong and growing trend toward providing therapeutic services for youth with PSB, not in connection with prosecution, and right here in our own centers. It is a trend that takes a more holistic, family-centered approach to these cases, taking the needs of all the family members into consideration while still focusing strongly on protecting the victim’s safety. If you are not already familiar with therapeutic practices and interventions focusing on youth with PSB, I urge you to start with NCA’s Learning Center on NCA Engage, which offers a wealth of information including a Fact Sheet on Effective Treatment, new as of October 2019. In addition to the resources for CACs, there are resources for agency partners, caregivers, and an entire video training series NCA produced in partnership with the National Center on the Sexual Behavior of Youth.
Sibling sexual abuse is a serious problem, and one that affects the children and families we serve on a broad scale. I strongly encourage you to download this article and share it widely with your team members and colleagues; additionally, I hope that you will take advantage of all the resources that NCA makes available to you through our Learning Center. These cases are, indeed, difficult and heartbreaking, but we are up to the challenge.
As always, I thank you for all your hard work and dedication and for all that you do on behalf of children and families.
Full text of this publication may be found in the National Children’s Advocacy Center’s Child Abuse Library Online (CALiO™) or by contacting the NCAC Research Digital Information Librarian. CALiO™ is a service of the National Children’s Advocacy Center (NCAC). To access the article, please sign into CALiO™, then hover over Registered CAC Resources, then click on Journals; then click on Child Abuse & Neglect; then click on Articles in Press; then scroll down.
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