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The context for working with alleged abusers

Child sexual assault is a crime that rarely leads to criminal prosecution. A US study of 500 child sexual abuse cases referred for prosecution, over a five year period from 2009 to 2013, found that less than one in five cases proceeded to prosecution and that only half of these cases resulted in a conviction or a guilty plea. There were two key factors impacting the prosecution of these child sexual abuse cases: medical evidence was available in less than 5% of cases and that cases relied heavily on the testimony of a child. (Block and Williams, 2019)


Practitioners might work with alleged abusers who have had allegations made about them that never progress to charges, a criminal prosecution or a guilty verdict. This does not mean that the offences have not occurred.

A crime of child sexual abuse is reported to the police but the police may not press charges. The decision to charge the alleged abuser is made very carefully. The decision is based on two things:

  • The police need enough evidence to prove in court beyond reasonable doubt that the offence occurred.
  • The police have only one opportunity to charge the alleged abuser with a specific count of sexual assault and therefore need to make sure the charges are likely to be proven in court.


The decision of whether or not to charge an alleged abuser is not related to the risk they pose to the child.

Child Safety is able to substantiate harm or risk of harm to a child as a result of sexual abuse without police taking any criminal action when Child Safety believes, based on the assessment of available information, that it is more likely than not that the person sexually abused the child, or is a risk to sexually abuse the child in the future.

Alleged abusers are generally closely connected to children (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2019). By working with the alleged abuser, we improve children’s safety by:

  • understanding the child’s relationship with him and how they view him
  • listening for discrepancies between his story and what we know from other sources
  • understanding how he is representing the child to others
  • understanding how he is representing the concerns to others.

Child protection practitioners require professional supervision when working with an alleged abuser to assist the practitioner in the following ways:

  • to reflect upon and manage their emotional responses to the alleged abuser
  • to notice, name and navigate the alleged abuser’s use of manipulation or coercive tactics used to intimidate, confuse or create doubt in the practitioner’s professional assessment, and
  • to reflect upon their personal values, attitudes and beliefs.

Child protection practitioners work with alleged abusers when establishing safety and assessing the risk of harm to a child. There may be times when practitioners are working with someone who has been substantiated as an alleged person responsible for causing harm to one child and they are assessing the risk he poses to another child. This part will assist practitioners to work with an alleged abuser, assess the risk he poses to the child and gain valuable insight about his relationship with the parent and the child.


Notice that in this part, the alleged abuser is referred to as male. This reflects the fact that the overwhelming majority of child sex abusers are men. It is however recognised that alleged abusers can be female.


This part is for alleged abusers who are over the age of 18. Many of the strategies used in this part would not be appropriate for children with harmful sexual behaviours. For information on this subject, refer to Working with children who display harmful sexually behaviours.

Practice prompt

The alleged abuser will generally be well known to the child and family. To these people he will be known and defined by his relationships and not by the title ‘alleged abuser’.

Use the child and family’s words when describing the alleged abuse (for example, uncle, and dad) and avoid bureaucratic language. Look for opportunities to show that you understand that the alleged abuser is someone the family are connected with.

Understanding the characteristics of alleged abusers

Current research has focused on assessing the risk that an adult male sex offender (who has been convicted of sexual abuse) will reoffend. This can make it challenging for child protection practitioners to assess the risk posed by an alleged abuser who has not been convicted through the criminal justice system (but who may have been substantiated as a person responsible or had a number of allegations of sexual abuse made about him).

While child sex abuse offenders do not differ significantly from those who sexually assault adults, they do have several characteristics which set them apart from non-sex offenders (Smallbone and Wortley, 2001). Understanding these characteristics can help assess the risk posed by an alleged abuser who may or may not have a conviction for sexual assault.

Alleged abusers are a diverse group of people. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (2017) states “There is no typical profile of a person who sexually abuses children” and that “there is often little that distinguishes people who sexually abuse children from the general population, other than their criminal behaviour” (vol. 2, p.94).

Practice prompt

When determining if an alleged abuser has sexually abused a child before, look at the pattern of previous allegations throughout Child Safety and the police records. Even if the allegations were not substantiated or investigated at the time, a pattern of allegations is a significant indicator that sexual abuse has occurred.

Due to the hidden and often secretive presentation of child sexual abuse, no obvious indicators may be present. At times, however, there are certain patterns of behaviour which could indicate that a child might be experiencing sexual abuse. Some of the main behaviours are summarised in the table below.

Things to look out for when working with alleged abusers What you might see
A general preoccupation with sex.

The alleged abuser may:

  • talk explicitly about sex during your conversations
  • be described by others as being ‘sex obsessed’
  • use pornography to the extent that it prevents them from engaging in other activities.
Behaviour that may indicate they have a preference for sexually abusing children over having sex with consenting adults.

The alleged abuser may:

  • consistently seek out opportunities to be alone with children
  • take holidays or overnight stays alone with children
  • sleep in the same bed / bedroom as children
  • have a history of allegations made about them sexually abusing children. These may or may not have been substantiated by child protection or proven in a court of law
  • not have had many long term intimate relationships with adults
  • prefer child exploitation material to adult pornography or watch ‘barely legal’ pornography (where adults are depicted to look younger or like children).

Behaviour that may indicate grooming of children and/or parents for future sexual abuse.

The alleged abuser may:

  • befriend families, especially single parents
  • befriend families who may be experiencing poverty
  • befriend parents with mental health and/or alcohol and other drugs use
  • offer to help the family with money and gifts
  • buy the children toys and gifts
  • offer to take the children on outings and holidays.
Has previously used intimidation and manipulation to sexually assault adults or children.

A pattern of intimidation or manipulation to sexually assault adults and/or children is observed in:

  • criminal history
  • police events
  • Child Safety records for the alleged abuser.
Has sexual interests that are likely to cause humiliation, pain or distress to others.

The alleged abuser may be viewing, creating or disseminating pornography or engaging in sexual behaviours that:

  • are without consent
  • are degrading
  • cause humiliation to others
  • involve animals
  • disregards the sexual needs of others.
Has attitudes that support the sexual assault of children / adults.

The alleged abuser may have attitudes that:

  • men are dominant over women
  • men are entitled to sex
  • men cannot control their desire for sex
  • children ‘flirt’
  • children ‘want sex’ or ‘like sexual activity’
  • children ‘lead adults on’.
Has emotional similarities to children.

The alleged abuser may:

  • identify children as his primary friends
  • identify himself as being ‘childlike’
  • identify that he prefers the company of children.
Lacks emotionally intimate relationships with adults.

The alleged abuser may:

  • have few adult friends
  • be observed to be more comfortable relating to children than adults.
Has low levels of self-control.

The alleged abuser may have:

  • difficulty managing his anger
  • difficulty managing personal finances
  • substance misuse issues.
Is experiencing chronic instability in many aspects of his life.

The alleged abuser may:

  • be unemployed
  • living in unstable housing
  • experiencing financial stress.
Has poor problem-solving skills.

The alleged abuser may have difficulty:

  • organising his thoughts
  • following through on plans
  • understanding complicated instructions.

These difficulties may be observed in his challenges sustaining employment or participating in safety planning/ case planning discussions with child protection or other agencies.

Is resistant to rules and supervision.

The alleged abuser may:

  • take pride in being ‘a rebel’
  • have difficulty sustaining jobs that require him to follow rules and procedures
  • be very resistant to child protection supervision or involvement.
Has negative social influences.

The alleged abuser may have friends that are or have been:

  • engaged in criminal activity
  • substance misusing
  • violent
  • known to child protection
  • alleged, charged or convicted of sexually assaulting children or adults.

Understanding female sexual abusers 

While most disclosures of child sexual abuse relate to men, girls and women also sexually abuse children. With females more often the primary carer of children, it may be that female sexual offending is under reported and more difficult to identify.

International studies suggest that female perpetrated sexual abuse against both adults and children accounts for a significant minority of sexual offending. In Australia, the rate is reportedly close to five per cent. However, the actual proportion may be higher. Many victims of sexual abuse by a female feel too embarrassed to tell others, or think they won’t be believed.

Female alleged abusers who sexually abuse children are often marginalised and lonely. They may have experienced abusive childhoods (including sexual abuse), poor attachment to adult caregivers, trauma, intimate partner violence and mental health issues (Ford, 2006; Vandever, 2002). As adults, they experience repeated domestic violence and isolation and may have a co-perpetrator who is participating in the sexual abuse.


While there is not a large body of research to draw on, what is written strongly suggests that a child who is sexually abused by a female will experience similarly negative impacts including depression, self-harming, suicidal ideation, fear, anxiety, social isolation and substance abuse. These negative impacts can be compounded by community perceptions that minimise and trivialise the abuse.

An Australian study of 231 psychiatrists, psychologists and child protection workers found that both male and female practitioners described sexual abuse by a female as less damaging and less worthy of professional intervention and criminal prosecution than male perpetrated sexual abuse, which is not the case. Every case of sexual abuse requires an empathic response from professionals that acknowledges and validates the child’s experience.  


Researchers who have developed models for understanding female offending advocate strongly for an approach that takes into account the female’s safety, her past trauma, her social and emotional functioning and her relationships with others.

Further reading

New South Wales Office of the Senior Practitioner Child sexual abuse What does the research tell us? A literature review (2016), Chapter 4, for more information on characteristics of alleged abusers.

Royal Commission Final Report, Volume 2, Nature and Cause from p.94 onwards, in particular chapter 5.

Understanding signs of manipulation and coercion 

Experts say…

In order to escape accountability for his crimes, the perpetrator does everything in his power to promote forgetting. Silence and secrecy are the perpetrator’s first lines of defence. If secrecy fails, the perpetrator attacks the credibility of his victim. If he cannot silence her absolutely, he tries to make sure no one listens.”

- Judith Herman (1997), Author and academic, Professor of psychiatry, Harvard University and psychiatric director at the Women’s Mental Health Collective in Somerville, Massachusetts.

The behaviours below describes common and well-evidenced techniques that may be used by the alleged abuser to deflect and distract the adults who are seeking to keep the child safe. This information is useful for practitioners to reflect on during supervision, discussions with your colleagues, case conferences, and to inform your own critical reflection.

Behaviours by the alleged abuser

Consider whether the alleged abuser is currently or has previously exhibited patterns or occasions of the below behaviour.

  • directly labelling the child or family as dishonest / unreliable
  • focusing on the parent’s ‘deficits’ or concerns about their parenting
  • focusing on the child’s ‘deficits’ or concerns about their wellbeing
  • influencing parents or community members by using language that discredits the child (liar, drama queen, promiscuous)
  • denies being responsible for the abuse, while presenting as highly concerned that the child “may be confused about who has sexually abused them”.


  • making direct or subtle threats
  • using his power and authority to intimidate
  • enlisting others to threaten or intimidate
  • making complaints to your manager or colleagues
  • discrediting you or your work to community members, other professionals, colleagues.


  • saying he will work with Child Safety
  • making himself indispensable to Child Safety, the parents and other community members.

Denying / minimising:

  • saying the allegation is false
  • blaming others for the allegation (vindictive)
  • suggesting the child has false memories
  • providing reasons for why the child is mistaken about the abuse
  • suggesting there is a cultural reason for the abuse.

Using the following as evidence that the abuse could not have occurred:

  • a retracted disclosure or a lack of disclosure
  • a disclosure that is ‘too fanciful’ or ‘too awful’ to be true
  • the child’s connection or attachment to him
  • parental separation leading to ‘vindictive allegations’
  • his position of authority/responsibility in the community.


Tactics that manipulate and coerce adults who are connected to the child and family are frequently used by alleged abusers to prevent adults from noticing and responding to their sexual abuse.


Manipulation and coercion is not just something that happens by chance. By being aware of manipulative and coercive behaviour, practitioners are in control of their responses and can better meet the needs of the child.

Manipulation and coercion of professionals and systems

Professionals who have regular contact with the child, the family and the alleged abuser may be deliberately manipulated and coerced. Without awareness, reflection and supervision, the systemic responses to reports of abuse allegations reflect this manipulation and coercion.

This table provides some reflective prompts to use in personal reflection, supervision or discussions with colleagues or professionals from other agencies such as police, education, early childhood and family support services.

Signs of manipulation and coercion

Reflective prompts

The professional or partner agency may:

  • describe the alleged abuser in a positive or unbalanced way
  • describe the children in negative terms
  • describe the mother and family in a negative way
  • minimise or deny the sexual abuse allegation
  • focus on the strong relationship they have with the alleged abuser
  • focus on the alleged abuser’s position within the family and community or within the agency.

“How might the child be experiencing this agency?”

“Where have these negative labels come from?”

“Whose agenda do these labels support?”

“What is the impact of the alleged abuser’s position in this community on the child/family?”

“Who is this professional focused on? Who are they advocating for? How might this impact on their perception of the alleged abuser?”


The community may react to the alleged abuser in a very negative, angry and blaming way. The alleged abuser may lose standing within the community, or lose paid employment and/or volunteer positions.

To avoid these impacts, alleged abusers put a significant amount of effort into making sure their abuse is not discovered, and not believed in the event that it is discovered.

Signs of manipulation and coercion in case work

Reflective prompts

Practitioners may:

  • use language in conversations and records that stigmatises the child or family and casts doubt on their reliability. For example, ‘[child] is promiscuous’
  • avoid interactions with the child or parent
  • be reluctant to engage with the alleged abuser and place the responsibility for safety on the parent
  • be overly worried about the alleged abuser's wellbeing and the impact of the allegations on him
  • be overly worried that the allegations are false.

Case work is focused on:

  • responding to the child’s behaviour rather than exploring the underlying reasons for the behaviour
  • responding to other risk of harm concerns and minimising the child sexual abuse concerns
  • fear of high level and costly complaints proceedings that the alleged abuser has instigated or threatened to instigate
  • making sure that the reported allegation is not malicious or otherwise rather than focusing on the child’s safety
  • the alleged abuser's versions of events rather than the child’s safety
  • making sure the alleged abuser is able to remain in the family home, particularly where his presence is seen as being central to the family’s functioning.

“What might the alleged abuser be doing to prevent me from seeing and understanding the risk they pose?”

“What is the impact of this label on the child?”

“What do I believe abusers look like and how might this impact on the assessment?”

“What would safety look like for the child?”

“Who is the central person in this story?”

“Where am I sitting on a scale of belief (1 = I do not believe the allegation, 10 = I completely believe the allegation)? Why so low? Why so high? Why am I sitting there? What would move me up one place?”

“How can I make sure the alleged abuser’s version of events does not divert me from building safety for the child?”

“If the alleged abuser is using these strategies to silence me, what strategies might they be using with the child?”

“What does this information mean for the sexual abuse concerns and the safety of the child?”

“Is the child’s relationship with their parent being impacted by the alleged abuser?”


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