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Responding to the alleged abuser or offender

The following part prepares practitioners for their engagement with the alleged abuser or offender in cases where it is reasonably believed that he will continue to have contact with the child. Guidance is provided on working with the alleged abuser or offender. addressing historic allegations / reports with the alleged abuser or offender and making decisions about contact with the alleged abuser or offender.

Note

Although figures vary, many studies have shown that people who have committed serious and repeated violent offences against adults or children have experienced poor quality childhood attachments and significant trauma in childhood as a result of neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse or other issues.

In general, isolation and alienation experienced by offenders is a critical factor in starting and maintaining their sexual abuse of children. Use this information in your casework to help understand and respond to the offender.

Prepare and plan to work with an alleged offender or abuser

  • Think about when to interview the alleged abuser or offender and the timing and sequence of interviews. Consider the pros and cons of interviewing the alleged abuser or offender before or after the child, the parent, and other agencies.
  • Gather as much information as possible (from police, agency partners, child protection history) before interviewing. Creating a time-line of events from the information gathered prior to meeting with the alleged offender and abuser is a useful point of reference for practitioners.
  • If child protection concerns have been raised with the alleged abuser or offender previously, understand how the concerns were raised, who raised the concerns and how the alleged abuser or offender responded.
  • Think about how the alleged abuser or offender may react to the child protection concerns and how you might respond to him. For example, plan how you will respond to charm, aggression, minimisation or denial.
  • Always have another practitioner with you when you meet with the alleged abuser or offender. Plan for how you will respond if there are children or other people close by when you interview the suspected offender.
  • If you conduct further interviews with the alleged abuser or offender together with other family members, plan for how you will respond to observable manipulation and coercion. For example, if the alleged abuser or offender is using negative labels to describe the child in front of the parent. Always plan for how you will make sure the children are not present or in immediate proximity when you are interviewing the alleged abuser or offender or other family members.
  • Be mindful of the QPS investigations and always ensure that the safety of children in contact with the alleged abuser or offender is a primary consideration.

Tip

Be aware of signs that you are becoming upset, angry or stuck. For example, raising your voice, clenching your hands, or becoming flushed. Work on strategies to calm yourself such as taking a big breath, taking a break, or seeking supervision. Discuss signs of stress with your colleague and plan for how they will step into the conversation if you become upset, angry or they believe the interview is becoming side tracked. Ensure debriefing with your supervisor occurs after the interview.

Further reading

Read the Safety planning part to understand key concepts for working with the child, parent and alleged abuser or offender to build safety for the child.

Work with the alleged abuser or offender to understand current concerns

People who sexually abuse children are generally seen as the most undesirable and the least worthy of support or connection in our communities. Practitioners commonly report feelings of disgust, mistrust and fear of the alleged abusers or offenders. While these feelings are common, they can be a stark contrast to the child and parent’s experience of the alleged abuser or offender, which may be quite positive. Monitor your feelings towards the alleged abuser or offender through self-reflection and supervision. This will help ensure your feelings towards the alleged abuser or offender do not prevent you from understanding the child and parent’s experiences, assessing risk and building safety.

Attention

Your capacity to build a professional relationship with the alleged abuser or offender is critical to gain an understanding of:

  • the experience of living with the alleged abuser or offender for the child and the parent
  • ways in which the alleged abuser or offender is representing themselves and the allegations to others
  • barriers that may be impacting on the child’s ability to tell others about the abuse
  • barriers impacting on the ability of the parents and the safety and support network,  to believe the sexual abuse allegations.

Practice considerations

Conversation ideas

Ask the alleged abuser or offender about the child.

  • How did they meet the child?
  • How would they describe their relationship with the child?
  • Do they have any worries about the child?

“I am here today to talk about [child]. Can you tell me about them? Can you tell me about your relationship with them?”

“If [child] was here today, what do you think they would say about you?”

“Do you have any worries about [child] at the moment? Does anyone else share these worries?”

Discuss the current child protection concerns directly.

  • Have they heard about the concerns from another person?
  • Where did they get this information from?
  • How have they responded to this information?

”Child Safety does not get involved with a family unless we have very serious concerns. What do you think I might be worried about? What makes you say that?”

“I have information that makes me worried [child] has been sexually abused. Why do you think I might be worried about that? Have you seen / heard anything that might make you worried also?”

“I am here because I am worried that [child] is being sexually abused. I am talking to you because a number of people have said things that make me think you might be hurting [child].”

Ask the alleged abuser or offender for their explanation about the child protection concerns.

This may provide you with information about how they are representing the concerns to others. It may also give you an understanding of their level of empathy for the child and their willingness to work with you.

”This kind of thing (child protection investigation about child sexual abuse) doesn’t happen in most families. There is normally a reason why it is happening. Do you have any ideas why?”

Discuss how and where the alleged abuser or offender spends time with the child.

This will give you an understanding of access and opportunity for sexual abuse to occur.

“What things does [child] like doing with you? How does [child] respond when you show them affection?”

“When do you spend time alone with [child]?’

Suspected offenders can be people who are closely connected to children. By asking about the kind of activities and relationships they have with children you are able to understand:

  • their relationships with children generally
  • the opportunities they have to sexually abuse the child
  • the way that they view their role in the child’s life
  • their ability to empathise with the child and notice their verbal and non-verbal cues
  • Be aware of the suspected offender’s:
    • activities that involve a significant amount of physical contact, nudity or near nudity
    • contact with children that is not closely supervised. For example, watching television on the couch while another adult is in the room but cannot see exactly what is happening
    • statements that indicate the alleged abuser or offender overly identifies with children or aligns himself with children. For example, ‘I am very childlike’.

“You seem to be someone who enjoys spending a lot of time with children - what do you like about children? What activities do you like doing with children?”

“Tell me about [looking after / spending time] with [child]. Where do you hang out? Who is there? Where do you sit? What about [child]?”

“How do you know when [child] is feeling safe?”

“How do you know when [child] likes what you are doing together? When is the last time that happened? Who else was there?”

“How do you know when [child] is not enjoying what you are doing together? When is the last time that happened? Who else was there?”

Be curious about the alleged abuser or offenders beliefs about:

  • what children need from adults
  • what children should know about sex
  • who teaches them about sex
  • when children should become sexually active (including differences between boys and girls).

Be aware of:

  • indicators that the alleged abuser or offender has been involved in prompting talks about sexual development with the child and parent
  • indicators that the alleged abuser or offender is heavily involved in offering advice or opinions about sexual development
  • beliefs that may indicate thinking errors that justify child sexual abuse. For example, ‘children like being close to adults’ or ‘children are sexual beings.’

“Who does [child] talk to about growing up, sex, relationships? Have you been there when [child and parent] have had these kinds of chats? What is your role in these kinds of chats?”

“What do you think children need from adults?”

“When do you think children should first find out about sexual things? How should they find out? How about [child]? What do they know? What do you plan to tell them?”

Ask about the future.

An alleged abuser or offender may find it difficult to identify any problems with their abuse now but may recognise the harm they are causing if they are asked questions about the future impact on the child.

“Let’s fast forward [15/30 / number of] years to when [child] is the same age as you are now. Children tend not to forget things like this. What do you think they will say about this time of their life? What will they say about you?”
Find the common ground you share with the alleged abuser or offender and focus on the shared desire to keep the children safe.

“We both want [child] to feel safe at home and we both want to be sure that they are not being sexually abused. What do you think needs to happen for me to be sure the children are safe?”

Discuss the child, the parent and other family members with the suspected offender. How does the alleged abuser or offender view them and represent them to others? What purpose does this serve?

Be aware of dynamics that isolate the child or signal they are ‘special’. Be aware of the alleged abuser or offender’s behaviour and beliefs that undermine the child’s relationship with their parent or other trusted adults in their life.

“What is [child] good at? What is frustrating about living with them?”

”Who is [child] close to? What do you think about this relationship?”

“Tell me about [parent]. What kind of a parent are they?”

“Are there things [child] finds easier to talk to you about, rather than [parent]?”

Involve other agencies in the safety and support network in noticing the alleged abuser or offender’s behaviour. Ask them to be actively involved in supporting the child and monitoring their interaction with the alleged abuser or offender:

  • talk openly to the agency and explain your child protection concerns
  • tell the agency how the alleged abuser or offender is likely to represent the concerns to them
  • invite the alleged abuser or offender to speak about the allegations in interagency meetings (where appropriate)
  • invite the alleged abuser or offender to consider who can be involved in the safety plan (where appropriate).

“We are very worried about [child] because [name the nonverbal behaviour, partial disclosure or help-seeking behaviour that is of concern]. This can be a sign of sexual abuse. We are worried about their contact with [alleged abuser or offender] but we don’t have enough information to say that [child] is definitely being sexually abused”.

“We would like the childcare centre to be involved in keeping [child] safe and we would like to have a meeting with everyone so that we are all on the same page. [alleged abuser or offender] will also be there. It is important that we listen to his version of events and that we are also very clear that [child’s] behaviour is very concerning.”

“It would be very helpful if you could come to the meeting to be part of explaining why Child Safety is involved with your family.”

Practice prompt

Offenders may sexually abuse children when they are in the same room as other adults. This can help to make the abuse appear ‘normal’ or ‘sanctioned’ by the other adults. When working with the child, supervising contact, or supporting other safe adults to protect the child, educate adults and be alert to times the alleged abuser or offender is with the child and opportunities may arise where supervision could compromised.

For example, all safe adults must be particularly watchful and aware of:

  • blankets or other items that could be used to cover up acts of sexual abuse
  • reading stories or watching television together while the child or suspected offender’s lap is covered by a blanket or other item
  • the child sitting on the offender’s lap
  • the offender offering to take the child to the toilet or assisting with the child’s personal hygiene.

Further reading

Read the Recognise disclosures and respond to children part for information on different ways that children may tell adults about their abuse. This information will help you notice when a child is trying to tell you about their abuse and how to respond supportively.

Volume 2 of the Royal Commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse final report (2017), ‘Nature and Cause

Chapter four of the New South Wales Office of the Senior Practitioner Child Sexual Abuse Literature Review for more information on the research by Cortini, Hanson & Coache (2010) and other studies on women who sexually offend against children.

Working with the alleged abuser or offender when there are previous reports of sexual abuse

Previous reports of sexual abuse should be taken very seriously, even if they were not investigated or substantiated at the time. Discussing previous reports with the parents and the alleged abuser or offender can also give insight into risk factors for future sexual abuse and the way the alleged abuser or offender is representing their past behaviour to others.

Practice Considerations

Conversation ideas

Discuss any previous allegations as this may provide an understanding of how the alleged abuser or offender is representing the allegations and himself to others.

Ask about:

  • the child
  • the parents
  • why the allegations were made.

“Tell me about [child who made previous allegations] who you lived with between 2000 and 2008.”

“Tell me about [child’s] parents?”

“Why do you think people were worried about your relationship with [child] back then?”
Be clear about your concerns.

“I have looked at the child protection records and I can see a pattern of reports about you sexually abusing children. These kinds of reports don’t just happen to all men. They tell me that something is not right. I am very worried for [child].”

Ask about what was happening at the time of the previous allegations. This may provide an understanding of patterns of behaviour, adaptive or maladaptive coping strategies and current risk factors for offending.

What is the suspected offender’s perspective on the allegations?

  • Does he agree that the allegations were true? If they were true, what were the consequences?
  • Did he attend counselling or seek any other kind of support as a result of the allegations? If so, does he give permission for Child Safety to speak to them?
  • What was happening for him at the time the allegations were made?
  • How did he respond to the allegations?
  • How did he cope with the allegations?

Note: the absence of risk factors like substance misuse is not an indication that the risk is reduced.

“Can you tell me about what was happening for you when the [specific sexual abuse concerns] came to light?”

“Most people have ups and downs in life. What do you generally do when things are tough?”

“What was it like hearing about the [specific sexual abuse allegations]? What did you do? How did you cope at the time?”

“Were the allegations true? Was there some part that was true? What did you do about the part that was true?”

Ask about the impact of the past allegations on others. Note whether the alleged abuser or offender acknowledges any impact on the child or parent, or if he is focused on the impact on himself.

“Who has been affected by these allegations?”

Ask about what is different now.

  • What has changed for the suspected offender?
  • What has changed for others?
“Two years ago you had Child Safety talk with you about another child. Tell me what has changed since then?”

Talking about an alleged abuser or offender’s criminal history

Tip

The Australian National Child Offender Register (ANCOR) is a national register that allows authorised police officers to register, case manage and share information about registered persons. Police use this to assist them to uphold child protection legislation in their state or territory. The National Child Offender System (NCOS) is a web-based application that allows Australian police to record and share child offender information. For further information click here.

When Child Safety obtains information that an adult in the household has an alleged offence, charge or conviction that presents an unacceptable risk to the child’s safety:

  • tell the adult that the information has been obtained, and discuss the worries for the child’s safety
  • encourage the person to share relevant information with the parents residing in the household.

If the person refuses to disclose their criminal history to the parents:

  • give the parent information about the person's criminal history, if releasing the information is considered to be in the child's best interests, including information about:
    • offences, charges or convictions
    • disclosure of charges or convictions under the Child Protection (Offender Reporting) Act 2004 and Child Protection (Offender Prohibition Order) Act 2008
  • assess the parent's ability and willingness to protect the child from the risk posed, based on their response to the concerns.

Attention

When discussing a person’s criminal history with a parent or parents, focus on the behaviours of the adult rather than just advising that they have a criminal history in relation to sex offences against children. 

In relation to adults who have been placed on the Australian National Child Offender Register (ANCOR), it is their behaviour that should be the focus, not that they are on the register.  If parents are provided with information about the behaviours they are better placed to put in strategies to identify these behaviours and take action to mitigate the risk this adult poses. 

Child Safety has duty to ensure that parents are informed if their child is having unsupervised contact with a person who has been convicted of sex offences against children.

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