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Responding to sibling sexual abuse: What to do and why

How do we respond to the horror that one child is sexually abusing another?

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?