Responding to sibling sexual abuse: What to do and why

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Siblings - courtesy of Camille via Flickr

Siblings - courtesy of Camille via Flickr

The mishandling of sibling sexual abuse disclosures in the Duggar family has brought to the surface a painful topic that most of us would prefer to pretend doesn’t exist. Unfortunately, that is not an option. Juveniles’ account for more than one-third of those known to police to have committed sexual offenses against minors. Many of these young offenders are victimizing their own siblings. One study found that juveniles who sexually abuse siblings do so at a rate of approximately five times the rate of parent-child sexual abuse.   Because this horror is almost too much to comprehend, most adults have not stopped to consider what to do if it is discovered that one of their children is sexually abusing another child.

I have received many emails in the past weeks from parents and other adults asking this very question. Here are some of the first basic steps parents should take after being confronted with the almost unbearable horror that your child has sexually victimized one of your other children:

Siblings - courtesy of Camille via Flickr

Siblings – courtesy of Camille via Flickr

Report the crime. The sexual abuse of a minor is a criminal offense in all 50 states regardless of the age of the offender or the location of the offense. Though each state may have slightly different definitions of sexual abuse perpetrated by a minor, such abuse will usually be defined as something like, any contact or activity of a sexual nature that occurs between children, with or without the consent of either child, when one child has power or perceived authority over the other child. Please know that it is no less of a crime if the offending child is a sibling. If a parent has any question as to whether the actions of their child constitute sexual abuse, they should immediately contact law enforcement. Lastly, it is important to note that the crime has not been reported if a parent merely discusses the matter with a personal friend who is a law enforcement officer.

Here are just a few of the many reasons why it is critical to report the crime to the authorities.

  1. It’s a crime. Let’s make sure we all understand that child sexual abuse is not just a “sin” or a “mistake”, it is a serious crime. In most states, failure to report this crime is itself a crime. For a more substantive discussion on reporting sexual abuse offenses, see my prior blog post.
  2. Reporting the abuse says to the victimized child that they are believed and cherished. It also communicates that mom and dad are their greatest advocates who love them even to the point of making the difficult decision to turn in another dearly loved child to the authorities. This unconditional love and support by parents is so needed in the life of a confused and traumatized child. Reporting the abuse will also open the doors to many very helpful resources made available to victims through the criminal justice system.
  3. Reporting the abuse communicates the gravity of the offense to the juvenile offender. Very few offending juveniles will be able to ignore the severity of a an offense that prompts their parents to formally report them to the police. Parents who decide not to report the offense send a very dangerous message to the juvenile offender. A message that says, “What you did was bad, but not that bad.” Unlike what some parents may think, the failure to report is not a demonstration of love to the offending child (or to the victim for that matter). It is a demonstration of fear that all too often is the catalyst for continuing abuse.

Separate the siblings.   When a parent discovers that a child has allegedly sexually abused another child who is living in the home, it is critical that the offending child be immediately removed. Not only does this guarantee the safety of the victimized child, but it also protects any other vulnerable child living in the home. Due to the complex dynamics of sibling abuse, a child victim may initially be confused or even feel guilty about the removal of the perpetrator from the home. Parents will have to help the victimized child understand the need to remove the offending child and to make sure that the child isn’t blaming himself/herself.   In some circumstances, the temptation may be to remove the non-offending child from the home due to challenges of finding a temporary placement for the offending child. Doing so can have devastating impacts upon the victim who will in essence be the one being punished for reporting the abuse. Between family, friends, church, and government resources, a temporary placement for an offending child can usually be found in a short period of time.

Victim Assistance.   Providing the child victim immediate professional help must be the top priority of a family that learns of sibling sexual abuse. Unfortunately, what often happens is the offending child gets most of the attention because parents are feeling anxious (and sometimes guilty) that they have reported their own child to the authorities. Being sexually abused by a sibling can have incredibly unique and complex effects upon a victim that must be addressed immediately by a trained professional. Please understand that a trained professional is not a lay counselor or a pastor. A trained professional is not just anyone with a counseling license or degree.  A trained professional is an educated, licensed, and experienced therapist who specializes in childhood trauma. Contacting your local child advocacy center or rape crisis center is a good first step in finding the right therapist for your child.

Perpetrator Treatment. Some recent reports have shown that juvenile sexual offenders are often more responsive to professional treatment than their adult counterparts. As a result, there is some evidence that they have a lower recidivism rate than adult offenders. The best way to reduce the possibility that your offending son/daughter re-victimizing another child is to confront the situation head on and immediately begin looking for the best available long term sexual offender treatment for their child. Such specialized treatment is often made available through the criminal justice system. Ignoring treatment or providing treatment that has not been approved by licensed sex offender treatment experts is taking a short cut that will not help the offending child. An offender who fails to receive substantive help will most likely reoffend.

Family Support. The effects of sibling abuse can be complex and confusing to the other siblings in the family. Oftentimes, parents are so focused on addressing the immediate needs of the victimized child or the perpetrating child that they inadvertently overlook the less obvious needs of the other children who are struggling. Finding professional support for the other children in the family will equip them to know how to best process this family trauma.

Because parents often respond differently to devastating situations, many marriages have crumbled as a consequence of sibling sexual abuse. Spouses must seek out the the much-needed tools that will help them process and work through this immeasurable pain and suffering together. Finding professional assistance that will help them navigate through what will undoubtedly be one of the most difficult and trying seasons of life will provide a beacon of hope to a family that finds itself drowning.

Reconciliation?? One of the crucial mistakes often made in responding to sibling sexual abuse is the push to reconcile the victim with the perpetrator.   In professing Christian homes, such a push is often carried out by a guilt. A guilt that is justified by the distorted interpretation and application of Scripture.   When reconciliation becomes the primary objective, the needs and best interests of the victim become marginalized for the “greater good” of the family. The long-term harm suffered by victims who are manipulated into “reconciliation” is often more damaging than the underlying abuse. It is imperative that parents always prioritize the well being of the victimized child when even considering any type of reconciliation. This must be done by listening to the child and trusting the recommendations of the professionals who are helping the victim and those who are treating the offender. Also, keep in mind that decisions regarding reconciliation must be subject to any contact limitations imposed by the court. Finally, parents must be prepared to accept the difficult reality that reconciliation may never be an option if doing so compromises the emotional health or physical safety of the victimized child.

A child’s home should be the safest place in their world. A child’s siblings should be the safest people in their lives. Tragically, we live in a world where the opposite is all too often the dark reality in the lives of too many little ones. Our response to this heartbreaking reality can either help restore hope and bring healing or fuel the never-ending nightmare that is all too real. Which will it be?

  • Boz, this is a wonderful article. Thank you. I was wondering if you could specify whether or not you consider certified biblical/nouthetic counselors to be among the sort of licensed professionals you recommend using in this sort of situation (I assume you don’t). If you don’t, have you written, or would you consider writing, about why you think that approach to counseling tends to be unhelpful and even damaging to victims of sexual abuse? I grew up in a conservative evangelical/fundamentalist environment and biblical counselors were the only kind of help that anyone would even consider using (on the off chance that a victim was offered any help at all). Now my mom is one, and the sorts of things she says about abuse and healing from it make me cringe at the thought of her saying them to a victim (e.g. “the fact that you continue to think about what happened demonstrates that you have not truly forgiven and are bitter and in sin”).

  • Aletheianna – Thank you for your kind note and excellent question. I think one of the best resources you could read on the impact that such counseling can have upon victims of sexual abuse is the GRACE Final Report on it’s investigation of Bob Jones University. Though it’s a painful report, I hope it provides you some helpful insights. See the below link:

    http://www.netgrace.org/s/Bob-Jones-U-Final-Report.pdf

  • This is wonderfully done. It is indeed crucial to respond quickly to any safety concerns in the family. Children’s sexual behaviors are very different than adult’s sexual behaviors. A child may be struggling with an impulse control problem, may have seen something more sexually explicit than appropriate for their age, or may be acting out sexually because of other external environmental stressors. But what is crucial is that the behavior is taken seriously, that children are kept safe and that there is professional help. The toll-free helpline at Stop It Now! (www.stopitnow.org) is available for any parent or caregiver – any adult – who want to talk confidentially about concerns about a child’s safety. We’ll provide support, guidance and information on responding, reporting and safety planning.

  • Jenny – Thank you for your added words of wisdom! Stop It Now is a great resource for people who have questions and concerns. Thanks again.

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  • Boz, do you know of any statistics about the incidence/rate of sister to sister sexual abuse? And how that rate compares to sexual abuse by brother against sister, and brother against brother?

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  • Sair

    Dear Boz,
    I don’t know if I could turn a child of 10, for instance, over to the police and “The system” knowing how unforgiving our incarceration culture and “handling” of sexual offenders seems to be. It appears as if you are offering advice in a vacuum where the justice system, foster system and juvenile hall environments (not to mention the psychiatric care) of children who commit such crimes function well and transparently.

    To me that’s less likely than more likely to be the case.

    So could you offer some hard truth with that in mind? Because it really seems like you advise parents in that situation to choose one child over the other. Which sounds black and white until you are talking about a 9 year old and a 6 year old, for example. I can see why parents don’t report it. You are going to have to do better than that.

    Please do. I am looking forward to your answer.

  • Sair

    Just to be clear:

    I myself would always report abuse to the police. But I wrote my original statement from the perspective of parents with small children at risk of being perpetrators and victims – which I believe, was who you are writing to in yoru post.

    Therefore I am challenging you from that empathetic position, because we DO need sound guidance for families on this subject more than ever.
    (I hope this ensures there is no confusion about my compliance with the law on this matter)

  • It is a wonderful article. I live in Australia, I am a Psychologist and i specialize in abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence.
    My own daughter was a victim of sexual abuse by a family member.
    I know the torment first hand that a victim goes through.
    My own daughter almost lost her life because of the sexual abuse…she tried to take her own life three times.
    She started cutting herself, then she developed anorexia, and again almost died.
    My daughter was sexually abuse around the age of four from what she has recalled, it lasted a number of years, un be-known to myself.
    This is also very common, with a child so young.
    My daughter suppressed those memories, then around the age of twelve through a trauma, those memories started to slowly come back.
    Her own father, my then husband was the one who had been sexually abusing her, he was very good at covering his tracks.
    The sexual abuse almost destroyed her life, she is not the same beautiful vibrant girl she once was.

  • Terry

    Something that I didn’t see is that often times the abuser has been sexually abused before s/he became an abuser. It can be a learned behavior.

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  • Monica

    Read the definition of sexual abuse by Boz again, might help clarify matters. In pre-pubescent children close in age, that is a very different situation than an adolescent abusing a younger sibling. it’s still alarming and concerning (I would suspect some form of abuse elsewhere inciting such young children to behave that way), but might not fit the definition of an abusive power dynamic.

  • Monica

    I think it’s because that connection is overblown and lends to the false stigma that if you were victimized as a child you are at high risk of sexually abusing others. There’s some association, but not to the degree that many people think (often they excuse abusers by assumign someone must have abused them). The vast majority of victimized children never victimize others, and many who endure no abuse do unspeakable things to children.

  • Deanna

    I was sexually abused by my brother. I am having difficultly in finding information when the siblings are close in age. First of all we were both adopted from different birth families. Second, he was only 9 months older than me. He was 14 I was 13 when he started abusing me (I fought him off in the beginning but gave in to get it over with faster later). It lasted nearly 4 years. At one point he almost raped me.
    Catholic family. No police ever involved but a priest came to the house. Many years later my mother now believes that was normal/natural for the two of us to explore sexually since we were so close in age.
    I was the one who was dragged to the counselors and eventually removed from the home. I got in trouble for speaking about it outside the house.He never was reprimanded.
    What is normal? What should have my parents done? This was in the 80’s. This has torn the family apart because it is the unspoken elephant.

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  • KT

    Mr. Tchividjian,

    Thank you for your words of guidance and encouragement- very much appreciated.
    My situation- married with 4 children. My wife and I recently discovered our oldest son (my step son) has (for years) been engaging in “inappropriate” behavior with each of the younger 3 siblings. One of his siblings, my biological daughter, lives >2000 miles away. Since our discovery I’ve yet to visit her due to our situation.
    Here’s what my wife and I have learned thus far:
    – if it’s a crime, no matter how much it hurts- REPORT IT
    – no cure all exists that will work for all situations; perform you due diligence as a PARENT and list out your options
    – you may find your initial decision isn’t working
    – if so, go back to your first list of options and make a change
    – we’ve found NCA approved centers are your best option by far
    – if you’re married, get ready…hold on to one another and don’t let go.
    – this is equally as hard on parents as it is…

  • Harold

    Hi Boz, I have a situation at hand, and am seeking your insight as to what should be done. There are six boys in my family. My oldest brother sexually abused all of us as kids. At the time of the events that occurred, my oldest brother was well above the age of accountability. Nothing was ever done by my parents for what he did to us his brothers. He has kept his deeds a Secret from his current family about what had happened to us. Well, here is the kicker. He sexually abused his own children also. His children, both grown up now have approached him concerning what he did. Both him and their mother blew them off, and their mother refuses to believe that anything like that did ever happened. In the meantime, it has drawn a “wedge” between us his brothers, and his family because he did not want his wife and children to know what he did to us as children. At the same time, he did not want “Us” his brothers to know what he did to his own children. It is so sad.

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  • Concerned victim

    My older brother started abusing me when I was 6 until I was about 9 or 10, he was 16. I finally got the courage to tell my mom because I felt guilty, like I was in the wrong. My parents did everything they could to help me. They reported the crime, got me into counseling, and I was able to work thorough it. Not that it wasn’t hard, and didn’t cause problems, but I’m doing fine now. It hasn’t had any negative effects on my relationship with my husband. I was even able to forgive my brother, and we have a great relationship now. The problem was my parents didn’t really help my brother get the he’ll he needed, too. What he did was very wrong, and there’s no excuse for it. But he had many issues too. He struggles now with guilt and depression, being unable to forgive himself. I think had my parents handled our situation better, he might have had a better chance at healing as well. (Side note – I don’t blame my parents. They did the best they could in a tough situation) continued…

  • Concerned victim

    Cont. from above…

    This is a helpful article, but it bothers me just a bit. It seems to focus mostly on getting the victim help, which is truly important, but it doesn’t say much about helping the perpetrator. The perpetrator definitely needs help as well. S/he may have been abused themselves (which doesn’t excuse the abuse- not at all) or maybe something else is going on. In my case, my brother had been abused at a young age. He definitely needed help as well.

    I was lucky. The abuse hasn’t caused any issues for my family. We’re all very close. My brother never did anything like that again. He has a wife and kids of his own, and we have a great relationship. I would even let him babysit my kids. But if he had received the he’ll he needed, he may not struggle so much now. I love my brother, dearly. And it hurts me to see him struggle.

    I guess what I’m saying is this article feels a bit incomplete. I wish there was more info about how to help both the victim AND the…