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Decide whether the child with sexually reactive behaviours can remain at home

A key consideration for practitioners responding to sexually reactive behaviours (SRB) is whether or not to separate the child with SRB from the home. Short term separation (days or weeks rather than months) can provide immediate safety for the child who was abused and can help them to make further disclosures about sexual abuse. Short term separation can also allow practitioners to assess risk factors in the family environment, assess the parent’s capacity to effectively supervise the child with SRB, and involve the safety and support network in immediate safety plans and case planning. Consider the below points when exploring if separation is appropriate:

  • Services should adopt a very measured and individualised approach to separation of children following a disclosure of sexual abuse by another child in the home.
  • Long term separation is widely believed to be counterproductive as it removes the child (with SRB) from known protective factors such as a stable living environment, stable schooling and connections to family and peers.
  • The parents’ belief that sexual abuse occurred and a lack of denial or minimisation of the abuse are critical factors in determining the parents’ ability to supervise the child (with SRB). A period of separation can help parents to have time to think and evaluate their beliefs around the abuse through interventions and support.

Attention

Separation is not generally recommended where both children are under 10 years of age, unless factors in the home environment place the child (with SRB) or the child who was sexually abused at significant risk of harm.

Assessment is a complex and lengthy process and practitioners are likely to uncover more information about the SRB and home environment as the assessment progresses. The remainder of this part provides more detailed information to guide assessment and help make decisions that are in the best interests of the child who was sexually abused and the child (with SRB) where sufficient safety is not identified.

Safety indicators for the child to remain in the home

The section below describes safety indicators to be aware of when responding to sexually reactive behaviours. This is not a check list. It can be used to guide decision making around whether a child (with SRB) over 10 years of age should remain at home while an assessment is carried out.

The child (with SRB) is:

  • not currently at risk of abuse (physical, emotional, sexual) and neglect
  • able to understand and follow the safe family rules
  • able to understand why the safety plan has been put in place
  • receiving appropriate therapeutic treatment and support to change behaviour 
  • not currently demonstrating behaviour that makes the child who was sexually abused or their parents fearful or intimidated.

The child who was sexually abused:

  • is not currently at risk of abuse
  • is not fearful of the child (with SRB)
  • has had their experience of abuse believed and validated by supervising parents
  • understands what behaviours are sexually reactive
  • is able to understand the safety plan and why they have been put in place
  • can identify their emotions and signs that they are not safe
  • can demonstrate that they trust the supervising parent to enforce the safety plan, and identify other members of the safety and support network whom they can tell if they are feeling worried or unsafe.

The parents, along with safety and support network:

  • do not deny or minimise the SRB
  • acknowledge the likely impact of the sexual abuse on the victim
  • do not currently behave in ways that are harmful or neglectful to children in the home
  • are able to provide an environment that does not expose the child (with SRB) to known triggers for the sexually reactive behaviour. For example, domestic violence, sexualised language or acts, access to drugs or alcohol, or pornography
  • are not fearful of the child (with SRB) and can demonstrate they have been able to put limits in place to manage the child’s (non-sexual) behaviour where necessary
  • demonstrate that they are willing and able to implement the safety plan
  • demonstrate that they are an effective supervisor for the child (with SRB)
  • are able to maintain a connection to the child who was sexually abused and notice and respond appropriately to any cues of emotional distress
  • are able to maintain a connection to the child (with SRB).

Practice prompt

The section above refers to the parent’s ability to implement a safety plan and supervise the sexually abused child and the child with SRB. Thoroughly assess the ability of each parent and network member to effectively participate in safety planning. Do not take a parent or network member’s verbal statement that they will supervise the child as fact on its own.

Build a relationship with the child with sexually reactive behaviours

Practice prompt

Build a strong relationship with the child (with sexually reactive behaviours) and support their strong relationships with other safe adults. Strong relationships are fundamental to keeping children safe. Recovery for both the child who was sexually abused and the child (with SRB) is dependent on their connection to their parent and that strengths-based, family-focused interventions are the key to building safety.

Connect. Understand what they like doing, who they like spending time with, what they want or don’t want in a practitioner. This will help identify any protective factors that can be built on. It will also help understand all the ways that the child is more than their behaviour.

Be clear about roles including the differences between a CSO’s role and a therapist’s role, and the limitations to confidentiality. For example, say to the child “I am going to work with you and your parents and together we can come up with a plan. This is to support you in changing your behaviours so you no longer behave [describe sexually reactive behaviours] to other children.”

Talk about hope. For example, “What you’re experiencing is difficult and we know that with support, things can change. [Person / people supporting the child] will help you through all of this.”

Always be upfront about what will happen next, even if you think the child with SRB will find it distressing. This includes decisions around contact, or the child not returning home. For example, “We are all here to help you be at home and understand you may have some worries about making mistakes. We are making sure all the supports you need are in place and that safety plans are ready before you go back home so that you and others are safe.”

Be clear about your goal. For example, “I will be supporting you along with [parents, therapist and others] so you can go home.  I need to make sure you are safe and that [child who was sexually abused] is safe too. Everyone is working together to make this happen, including you.”

The below table focuses on building a relationship with the child with SRB and gathering information to inform an assessment of separation or reunification. Information on understanding triggers for the harmful behaviour and implementing the safety plan are explored later in the part.

Practice Considerations

Conversation Ideas

Gain a shared understanding of why you are hoping to talk with the child (with SRB).

Identify which harmful behaviours the child can acknowledge.

“I am here today to share with you some information that has been given to me and to gain a better understanding of what is happening.”

“I have some information that has been given to me by other people but I would like to hear from you what has happened.”

Name the sexually reactive behaviours.

“This may be hard to talk about but I am really keen to listen to you so we can do something to help [describe behaviour].”

“Some kids I have talked to before really worry about what they have done and what to do. I would really like to listen to you and help you do things differently to keep you safe and others safe.”

If possible, come up with a term that everyone can use to refer to the SRB.

This can help the child (with SRB) and their parents talk about the harmful behaviour. It can also be helpful when developing safety and case plans that are child and family focused.

Some ideas could include:

  • ‘the touching problem’ (for younger children)
  • ‘abusive behaviour’
  • ‘harmful / hurtful behaviour / decisions’.
Be sure that your language does not minimise the sexually reactive behaviour. ‘The touching problem’ may be appropriate for younger children. For older children, ‘sexually reactive behaviour’ will be more appropriate.
“Can you think of a name or phrase that we can all use when we are talking about the things you did to [child]. Having a word can help us to talk to your parents and other people who need to know about the behaviour.”

Gather and share information about the child with sexually reactive behaviours

Gather and share information about the child with SRB regarding the following key factors to inform decisions about contact and reunification with the child who has been sexually abused:

  • Gather information to ensure a thorough awareness of any additional disclosures by the child that may have been made since the child (with SRB) was separated from the home.
  • If the child has a counsellor or caseworker from other services, talk to them to obtain their views of the child’s progress including information about the child and family in the part 'Questions to ask to consider risk' in Risk assessment and decision making if a child has sexually reactive behaviours.
  • Meet any practitioners involved with the family early and come to an agreement on the case plan goals. For example, what will success look like? How will we keep each other up to date? How can we make sure we are giving the parents consistent messages?
  • In safety and support network meetings, case planning or review meetings and supervision, critically reflect and share information on how work with the child (with SRB) and family is keeping the child who was sexually abused safe from:
    • further sexual abuse
    • other forms of harm by the child (with SRB)
    • other forms of harm within the family
    • negative consequences from their disclosure.

The below table focuses on gathering information to inform your assessment of separation or reunification.

Practice considerations

Conversation ideas
Does the child with SRB have a good understanding of risk factors for their harmful behaviour, including triggers and high risk situations?

“How did you feel in your body and in your head before you [describe behaviour, for example, ‘touched your brother’s penis’?]"

“What was happening for you before you went into his bedroom?”

“Can you think of a time when you really wanted to do something different and you were able to?  What helped you stop? How did that feel for you?”

Does the child with SRB demonstrate genuine empathy for the child who was sexually abused?

Is the child with SRB able to identify the impact of their behaviour on the child who was sexually abused?

“How do you think [child] might feel about you coming home?”

“Do you know when [child] is feeling upset or sad or afraid or mad? Tell me how you know that?”

“I wonder if there are things that you could do to help [child]?”

Does the child with SRB have thinking errors which justify their harmful behaviour?

For example, the child says “He enjoyed it; I was teaching her about sex; I was making sure no one else would abuse him’?”

“Do you think [child] could have stopped you? Do you think they wanted to stop you? What makes you think that?”

Identify strengths and protective factors for the child with sexually reactive behaviours

The factors below are most likely to be observed in the medium to long term, especially in the therapeutic context. A child with SRB does not have to demonstrate all these protective factors to be able to return home. These factors can mean there is a decreased risk of the child engaging in SRB because the child is taking an active role in risk management, taking greater responsibility for their behaviour, and recognising the impact of their behaviour on others.

Note

Case planning is most effective where everyone is focused on the change they are hoping interventions will achieve. It may be helpful to use the strengths and protective factors listed in the table to create case plan goals and ‘terms of reference’ for formal therapeutic interventions.

Practice prompt

Regularly review the below factors since they are highly likely to change as the child with SRB matures and develops new skills aimed at modifying concerning behaviours.

Practice Considerations

Conversation Ideas
Does the child with SRB acknowledge the behaviours occurred?

“Remember when we did the safety plan together, do you think it has been working? Have there been times when you have thought about [describe SRB] but didn’t? How did you do that?”

Does the child with SRB demonstrate empathy for those they have harmed?

Are they demonstrating an ability to be a safe person?

“How do you think [child who was sexually abused] feels about the safety plan? How sure do you think they are that you are able to be a safe person?”
Does the child with SRB recognise that they may be exposed to stimuli that evokes SRB?

“Have there been times when you have known/thought about/felt like you wanted to [describe SRB]? What was happening? How did you stay safe and/or what did you do next?”

Has the child with SRB ever had therapeutic intervention to help address the behaviours?

“Have you ever had help from someone whose job it is to help kids address these behaviours? What was good about that? How did that help?”

“There are people whose job it is to help kids with these behaviours. How about trying it to see if it could help you?”

Consider key factors for the parent when making decisions about separation or reunification

Never underestimate what it is like for a parent to hear that one of their children has sexually abused another child, including another of their own children. After coming to terms with this knowledge, parents may also have the challenge of balancing the needs of both children and trying to understand the information from the perspective of both children. It is understandable that a parent’s first reaction can be to close down and disbelieve, or that they may waver between belief and disbelief as it all soaks in. Slow down and acknowledge these common parental experiences and feelings to help build a relationship with parents and assess their ability to implement safety measures. For example, say to the parent “Other parents have told me that it is incredibly difficult to be there for two children who are both hurt and both needing your attention and your care. What do you think each child needs right now? How can we work together to make sure they both get the support they need?”

Attention

Continue to assess the parent’s understanding of the harmful behaviour and their capacity to supervise the children as this is likely to change. Practitioners play an important role in making sure that any therapists and agencies working with the family develop collaborative and integrated therapy plans or case plans. Share updated information through regular safety and support network meetings.

The parent may have had experiences with different professionals before they meet with Child Safety. Ask parents about what they liked about these interactions and what they didn’t like to help understand how these interactions may have shaped their understanding of the SRB. It also helps establish a good working relationship.

Tip

Be mindful of the language used when talking with parents about their child’s SRB. Involve both the parents and the child (with SRB) in discussions about how to describe the behaviours.

Focus on shared goals with the parents. For example, “I can see you care deeply about both children and want them both to be safe. I am here for the same reasons”.

Talk about hope with the parent. Let parents know that children with SRB are not like adults who sexually abuse others and that most children who behave in ways that are sexually reactive do not go on to sexually abuse others as an adult.

Reinforce the importance of the parent. For example, “You are so important to your child’s recovery. Children who have parents who believe the abuse happened, and who can put rules in place to stop the abuse, are often able to fully recover.”

Clearly describe the purpose of your work role and the limits to confidentiality. For example, “I will be working with you on a plan that keeps both the children safe. I will also be trying to work out if it is safe for [child with SRB] to return home.”

Assess the parent’s ability and build their capacity 

A solid connection between a child and their parents is a cornerstone of safety for the child with SRB and the child who has been abused. However, a parent who is connected to their child with SRB but is unable to believe the abuse occurred, or is minimising the impact of the abuse, is likely to struggle with the level of supervision required to keep both children safe.

The below table provides ideas for assessing a parent’s ability to supervise the child (with SRB) while also building their belief and increasing their connection to their children.

Attention

Review the below factors regularly. They are highly likely to change as the child with SRB matures and engages in the therapeutic process, and the parent’s ability to respond to their child develops.
Practice considerations

Conversation ideas

Respond to disbelief.

Believing that the abuse occurred is one factor in assessing the parent’s ability to keep the child who has been sexually abused safe from further abuse through adherence to the safety plan. It is important to consider the impact on a parent to hear about sexual abuse between their children, and their responses will vary. 

Does the parent believe:

  • the child’s disclosure
  • that the child (with SRB) used strategies to sexually abuse the other child
  • the child who has been sexually abused has a right to safety
  • the child (with SRB) is responsible for the abuse?

If more information is disclosed, regularly review the parent’s ability to implement the safety plan.  

Use scaling questions, for example:

“I know you told me that it is hard to believe this could have happened. On this scale where one means you think [child with SRB] definitely did not sexually abuse [child] and 10 means that you think [child with SRB] definitely did sexually abuse [child], where are you sitting today?”

Use the scale to understand more about what this means for the parent:

“What is making you sit at an eight?”

“Why have you scaled yourself at a three?”

“What could move you up the scale one more?”

“Is there anything you think would support [child] to share their worries and fears more readily and/or request your direct protection?”

Respond to minimisation.

Parents will have heard the common myths about sexual abuse and may struggle to accept that sexual abuse can be perpetrated by children.

  • Ask the parents what they consider to be normal sexual behaviour and how they respond.
  • Be clear about what separates the harmful behaviour from ‘normal sexual curiosity’ or ‘rough and tumble’ play between siblings.
Emphasise that any sexual behaviour which occurs without consent, without equality or with coercion is abusive.

“There are moments when children tease each other about their bodies, tickle each other and do embarrassing things. They might even touch each other in an age-appropriate way. Have you seen any of this sort of behaviour? What did you do?”

“What do you think is worrying about [child with SRB] behaviours toward [child]?”

“In this jar are stones that represent power. People can have power over other people because they are stronger, know more, are older, have more money etc. How many stones would you give [child]? How many stones would you give to [child with SRB]?”

Use the ‘Traffic Lights’ resource: “The traffic lights resource might help you understand what is normal sexual exploration and what is concerning. Let’s go over it together so we are both clear about the worries we currently have.”

Be curious about the parents’ relationship with their children.

How connected is the parent to each child?

How empathetic is the parent to each child?

How does the parent respond to the needs of each child?

“What are your favourite things to do with [child / child with SRB]?”

“Tell me about [child] and [child with SRB] – what do they like, not like, what are they good at, not so good? Which of the children prefers routine and what is it like when they refuse to follow routine?”

“How would you describe your relationship with [child] and [child with SRB]?”

“What have you noticed about [each child's] behaviour lately? Why do you think they might be behaving that way? How do you think they might be feeling? What do you think their behaviour is telling us?”

“How does [each child] like to be comforted?”

Be curious about the parents’ own abuse history (particularly sexual abuse) and how this may impact on their relationship with the child (with SRB) or the child who was abused.

Any conversation like this is deeply personal, full of emotion and may prompt stories that have been hidden for years. Be respectful, compassionate and gentle with your questions.

“Many adults have experienced unwanted sexual attention or sexual abuse at some time, has this happened to you?”

“Many adults experience unwanted sexual attention. It can range from being whistled at or touched when you don’t want to be, or being in an unsafe position or place. Has that ever happened to you?”

“Did you tell anyone? What got in the way of talking about it? What would have helped you to feel more able to talk and seek support? Do your experiences impact on how you have responded to [child who was abused and child with SRB]?”

“Knowing your own experiences, what do you think might help [child]? What about [child with SRB]?”

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