correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that a 14-year-old boy was in his fourth residential treatment program for sexually acting out. The boy is in his third residential facility. The story has been updated.
correction: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized Darkness to Light’s definition of sexual abuse. It includes physical contact, as initially stated, but also non-contact acts such as exhibitionism, exposure to pornography and voyeurism. A statistic cited by the group, for the proportion of children sexually abused before the age of 18, refers only to physical contact. The story has been updated.
When it comes to sexual abuse, parents often focus on protecting their children from adult predators; few consider the possibility that their child might be the perpetrator. However, sexual abuse of children by children is not uncommon (although it is more accurate to say that children act inappropriately with other children). It’s an issue that is largely ignored, and parents whose children are involved often struggle to find support.
That is the case with one Midwestern mother, who requested that her name not be used to protect her family’s privacy. For the past two years, her son, 14, has been in court-ordered treatment for sexually acting out. He was moved twice for participating in inappropriate sexual behavior while in treatment. Her son has both been on the receiving and giving end of inappropriate sexual behavior with a child.
According to the nonprofit advocacy organization Darkness to Light, 1 in 10 children will be sexually abused before the age of 18, and of children who are sexually abused, 20 percent are abused before age 8. What is less well-known is that in 43 percent of assaults on children under age 6, juveniles are the offenders. Of these offenders, 14 percent are under the age of 12. These statistics refer only to incidents that included physical contact.
That doesn’t mean that all of these youngsters are pedophiles; in most cases, children and teens who perpetrate a sexual assault are not repeat offenders. Rather, the statistics highlight a gap in how we teach children about appropriate sexual behavior, and the fact that it is dealt with punitively through the courts or social services. This can lead children to be written off, often unnecessarily.
When the Midwestern mother’s son was in preschool another boy touched him inappropriately. She contacted child and family services for guidance, wanting to understand the line between curiosity and abuse. She took her son to a specialist and hoped that would be the end of it. But when her son was in first grade, she found out that he had once again been touched inappropriately. Almost more troubling, she learned that her son had initiated inappropriate sexual behavior toward another child.
The mother — who lives in a suburb of a major city — called at least 20 places looking for help before she found a program that took juvenile sex offenders.
Elizabeth Letourneau is the director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse and a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She says that we approach child sexual abuse as a criminal justice problem, waiting for harm to occur before deploying massive resources, mostly aimed at punishment.
“We really don’t put anything into prevention, and that’s really unfortunate,” Letourneau says. “We have this idea that kids will just know; surely they will know that sex with younger kids is completely, completely off limits. Kids literally don’t know this.”
When it comes to harmful or inappropriate or illegal sexual behavior with prepubescent children, the perpetrators are frequently other children under 18, and often under 15.
“It's not because these kids intend to harm children, it's not because they don't care about the well-being of children. There are literally dozens of pathways — including lack of clear guidance and information, inadequate adult supervision and impulsivity — but one of the largest really appears to be just straight up inexperience.”
She says that as parents, educators and community members, we do a good job of conveying that older kids are not to hit or punch or tease or bully younger kids. We do not do a good job of teaching them not to touch younger kids’ penises and vaginas.
“We could eliminate that learning curve by being much clearer with children,” Letourneau says. “Not only ‘Don’t do this,' but ‘Here’s why.’ ”
Shari Nacson, a social worker in Ohio who is an expert on mandated reporting, advises parents to lay the groundwork early on.
“If we have a culture that talks about consent from an early age — teaching kids that sex should be with people your own age, not people older or younger than you — then we would know we’ve covered it,” says Nacson. “Then if you see some behavior that falls outside of that you can say, ‘we talked about this before.’ ”
Nacson advises parents tell their children, “If you’re in that situation I want you to get out of it, and it’s not something I want you to do with someone else.”
If parents find out that their child is involved in inappropriate sexual behavior with another child, Nacson and Letourneau recommend being clear about why it was wrong, and laying out consequences if the child does it again.
This is where it can get tricky, because there are mandatory reporting laws in every state, and in some states that includes child-on-child sexual interaction. Parents may have trouble distinguishing between typical sexual exploration and something more troubling.
"It’s not black and white, but if it’s a 7-year-old looking at a 4-year-old’s genitals, I don’t see this as a reportable offense,” says Janet F. Rosenzweig, the executive director of the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children and author of the book “The Sexwise Parent.” “That might just be a teachable moment.”
She says that there are some clear indicators that a parent needs to seek outside assistance from a pediatrician or therapist.
“Seek professional help anytime there is a power differential between kids, anytime there is physical violence and anytime there are threats or secrecy,” Rosenzweig says. “If you see anything that reads in your gut as truly bizarre, you have to go with your gut.”
She adds that if a parent gets the sense that their child is “just not getting it,” it might be time to look for a child psychologist. Rosenzweig says parents can start by talking to someone anonymously at their child advocacy center before bringing down “the wrath of the system.”
That’s not to say that some cases don’t need to be reported. Letourneau says that there are some children who are sexually attracted to young children, though it’s rare. All the experts emphasized that they are not minimizing the seriousness of sexual abuse, but that not all kids who act out inappropriately sexually should be treated the same; there are gradations.
“Child sexual abuse is incredibly harmful,” Letourneau says. “The consequences can be lifelong. We’re very, very clear about this, but I also want to be clear that 10-year-olds are not the same as 35-year-old adults. Unfortunately when we do respond to child sexual abuse, we often respond as if a 9- or 10- or 11- or even 12-year-old was the same as an adult.”
Nacson adds that early intervention is essential.
“If you are in a confusing area — call Darkness to Light or speak to a professional. Don’t navigate it alone. If it gets swept under the rug and there are repeat offenses, it’s harder work,” Nacson says.
After learning that her then-11-year-old son had acted out with a 5-year-old acquaintance, the Midwestern mother called authorities. At that point he spent five days in juvenile detention center, sleeping next to a guard every night.
“You don’t want your child to be labeled as a sex offender,” she says, “but I never considered not reporting it.”
He was recently moved to his third facility, and she doesn’t believe he’s coming home anytime soon. She told me that if he comes out and reoffends, he’ll go to prison. She is telling her story to help break the stigma.
“People don’t get it,” she says. “People back away as if I have a contagious disease. It’s out there, people just don’t talk about it.”
If you believe a child is in immediate danger, report to authorities or child protective services. For help in determining how to respond appropriately, call the Darkness to Light Helpline at 866-367-5444.
Jaimie Seaton is a writer living in New England. Follow her on Twitter @JaimieSeaton.
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