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Responding to the risk of child sexual abuse

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This page was updated on 19 September 2022. To view changes, please see page updates

  • Look for the strengths and protective factors that can be built upon when addressing the risk of child sexual abuse.
  • Ensure that case work approaches utilised to increase the child’s safety identifies who the child trusts and how they will be able to access them to let them know if they feel unsafe.
  • Support for the whole of the family needs to be provided to promote healing when looking at interventions for child sexual abuse.

Safety and support networks

As practitioners undertake risk assessment, they will simultaneously be starting to case plan with the child, parent and alleged abuser (where they remain involved with the family). Practitioners will also be building links with extended family, other professionals and community members to develop a safety and support network.

In many child sex abuse cases, a parent and alleged abuser will deny the child’s disclosures of sexual abuse, and in the absence of full verbal acknowledgement that sexual abuse has occurred, child protection practitioners may find it difficult to move forward with their case work with the family and achieve meaningful engagement with intervention efforts. As a result, cases can become ‘stuck’. The Resolutions Approach promotes a rigorous response to child sexual abuse through creative scaffolding towards safety for the child and their family  (Turnell and Essex, 2006).

Using this approach, it is not necessary for child protection practitioners to hear the parent, alleged abuser and all members of the safety and support network acknowledge or accept the possibility that the alleged abuser is guilty of sexually abusing a child. Rather, the practitioner’s focus firmly rests with safety and wellbeing for the family, where it is the responsibility of the network to keep the child safe.

Note

A resolutions approach does not mean that the child’s disclosures are not believed or are ignored by professionals or others in the safety and support network. It means that the focus of planning is on how safety for the child can be developed and prioritised by the safety and support network into the future.

Importantly, the network collaborates so that the alleged abuser does not have access to the child and the opportunity to further harm the child. Moreover, there are assurances that the child has access to family and network members who will believe any future disclosures and take appropriate action immediately and as required.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families have been using a form of safety and support networks in the rearing of children and young people for generations. The care of a child or young person is not limited to the immediate family, rather there is a collective community focus. Traditionally, a collective community focus takes the approach of ‘one community, many eyes’. Someone is watching all the time, they know who you are, they know your name, they know what family group you belong to and what your responsibilities are. At the heart of the collectivist approach to child rearing is the emphasis on protecting children and young people and preserving their wellbeing. Extended family members and other community members, such as local Elders, are particularly valued for the ongoing support they offer parents, children and young people. The extended family network also provides lifelong learning opportunities for all family members. The collectivist approach provides parents with a sense of security, trust and confidence in the knowledge that others are always there to help them care for their children. This approach allows children to have a voice and allocates parents and safety and support network members some responsibility for monitoring the alleged abuser and ensuring the child is safe at all times.

Practice prompt

Through every step of case work with a family, continually assess whether the parent and safety and support network is able and willing to implement the safety plan so that the child is physically and emotionally safe. Do not simply take the parent or network’s statement on face value. Check and ensure as part of case work that they will supervise the alleged abuser as required and prioritise the emotional and physical needs of the child.

Further reading

Read the Safety planning section of this practice kit for detailed information and guidance on safety planning and effective supervisors.

Expanding the safety and support network

The development of a safety and support network is about building connections between children and safe adults and friends to increase safety. For some young people, the concept of safe friends may be just as important as safe adults. Children are more likely to talk about the abuse to people they are connected to. Children who are connected to safe people in their lives are more likely to talk about their abuse, tend to be more resilient and less vulnerable to further abuse.

Tip

Use the Circles of Safety and Support Tool with a child, where developmentally appropriate, to help identify people in their safety and support network.

Attention

Be mindful of the way you speak with children, and whether the alleged abuser is present with the child. Power imbalances may mean that the presence of the alleged abuser works against the successful development of a safety plan which increases safety for the child.  

The scripts below are for consideration when working with children and families to develop a safety and support network.

Practice considerations Conversation ideas

Find out more about potential safe people to be part of the safety and support network by:

  • asking about when, how often and the last time they saw the safe person - this will help to make sure they are present in the child’s life
  • being aware of the child’s body language when you are talking about people in their life, and asking about any signs of distress.
Important: Never assume that a person is safe for the child. Be mindful that that the process of coercion and manipulation around normalising sexual abuse to a child can distort the child’s sense of who a safe person is and what safety means

Talking to the child:

“When do you see [potential safe person]?

What do you like to do with them?”

“Is [potential safe person] an adult or a kid? How often do you see them? Tell me what they do to make you feel safe?”

“You looked a bit upset when I mentioned [potential safe person] just then, can you tell me about that?”

Talk to the parent about who they consider to be safe people. The Circles of Safety and Support Tool could be used to facilitate this discussion.

Talking to the parent:

“I can imagine thinking about your child being sexually abused must be terribly hard. Who can help you during this tough time? What do you think they will do to help?”

Establish if the child and parent agree on who the people in the safety and support network should be.

Talking to the child:

“Can we share with mum who you think might be a person who can be in the safety and support network?”

Talking to the parent:

“[Child] told me that they would like to talk to [teacher] about Child Safety worries. How would that be for you?’

Build connections for the child by helping the safety and support network to:

  • focus on the child’s experience
  • recognise and challenge language that marginalises the child or minimises risk
  • understand how important it is for the child to experience positive responses from people around them. For example, noticing how the child is feeling and responding with curiosity and empathy
  • understand the trauma that may be underlying the child’s behaviour.

Talking to safety and support network members:

“You said [child] is hitting other children in the playground. Why do you think they are doing that? What do you think they might need from you to help them stop?”

“What do you think life is like for [child] at the moment? How do you think they are feeling? What good things are happening for them? What hard things are happening at the moment?”

Reaching agreements with the family and network

Being a safety and support network member is a responsible role. Network members need to be able to understand what is required of them before they agree to undertake this role. They should also have some support systems in place to help them to manage the emotional toll of being a network member.

Practice considerations when case planning:

Conversation ideas when talking with children, parents and safe people:

Come to an agreement with the parent and child about:

  • what the safety and support network member can do to support the child
  • how much should they know about the concerns for the child.

Talking to the parent and children, using the Circles of Safety and Support Tool:

“What does your [sister / aunty / family member] need to know to be able to help you with the safety plan?”

“Who knows most things? Who needs to know more?”

Provide the safety and support network members with guidance on what they can do or say:

  • to support the child and show them they care about them
  • if a child discloses to them
  • to make sure they are emotionally supported by people in their safety and support network
  • to understand how alleged abusers may manipulate and coerce people who are close to the child so that the abuse can remain hidden.

Talking to the safety and support network:

“You are a really important person to [child]. I am worried they are being hurt at home. Sometimes kids don’t tell adults about all the things that are happening to them straight away. What do you think you could do to help [child] talk to you?”

“You can really help [child] by listening to their worries or fears and by letting them know you believe them and you care about them.”

“If you feel uncertain about how to best respond to [child], please call me so I can support and guide you so you can be there for [child].

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