This opinion piece was written by Victor Vieth, the senior director & founder of the Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center.
Josh Duggar’s admission to sexually abusing five children when he was a teenager has brought national attention to the issue of sexual offenses committed by juveniles. The fact that Duggar’s victims include members of his own family highlights one of the most difficult aspects of child sexual abuse.
The Duggar case is not unique. Approximately 35 percent of all cases of child sexual abuse involve a juvenile offender. Although some juvenile offenders are very young, 84 percent are adolescents or teenagers. Approximately 68 percent of these offenses occur in the home, and 25 percent of the victims are family members.
How to respond to juvenile sex offenses within the home
When a parent learns that one of their children has sexually abused a brother or sister, three steps are critical.
First, report the offenses to the authorities. Without the intervention of law enforcement, child protection and other professionals, the true facts may go undetected and both the victim and offender may go without the services they need.
Second, prioritize the needs of the victim and make sure he or she receives appropriate medical and mental health services. Although we are making great strides, many medical and mental health professionals are poorly trained to respond to cases of child sexual abuse. Accordingly, parents should proactively seek professionals skilled in providing trauma therapy and otherwise responding to the needs of an abused child.
In addition to addressing the physical and emotional needs of the victim, also consider the potential spiritual impact of the abuse. According to 34 studies involving more than 19,000 maltreated children, many abuse victims have spiritual questions about the abuse — such as God’s failure to answer a prayer to stop the maltreatment. Since spirituality is a significant coping mechanism for many victims, addressing these issues can also be critical.
If you have a local Child Advocacy Center, they can be an excellent resource in finding a qualified mental health provider.
Third, make sure the perpetrator gets quality treatment. Our knowledge in treating juveniles who commit sexual offenses is expanding rapidly, with more than 200 peer-reviewed research studies. Unfortunately, many mental health professionals are not current in the literature and continue to apply treatment models better suited for adults.
Parents should ask a prospective treatment provider whether he or she is current in the appropriate literature, attends state and national conferences to keep abreast in the field and is a member of one or more professional associations focusing on the treatment of juvenile offenders.
Consider the risk of re-offending
Since recidivism studies primarily measure whether a perpetrator gets caught again, they are an imperfect tool for determining the precise risk of re-offense. Nonetheless, there are approximately 150 studies suggesting that there is hope for juveniles who commit sexual offenses.
The recidivism rate for juvenile offenders is 7 percent to 13 percent, a rate markedly lower than it is for adult offenders. Children who receive treatment for their sexual offenses are two to three times less likely to re-offend than those who do not.
Carefully consider reunification
When abuse is in the home, one of the most difficult challenges is determining when, if ever, the offender and victim should be allowed to live in the same house.
First, the victim must be emotionally prepared for reunification and the decision for reunification must be supported by the victim and the victim’s treatment team. The victim should continue with counseling after reunification takes place.
Second, the offender must have made meaningful progress in treatment. If the offender has gained insight into his or her conduct, and a treatment team deems him or her at low risk to re-offend, allowing him to go home with a number or restrictions in place may be possible.
Third, there must be a detailed safety plan in place. Common features in safety planning include prohibiting the offender from babysitting the victim or other children, from bathing or dressing children, or sharing a room with younger children. Safety planning may also prohibit hugs, kisses with the victim, horseplay or tickling that can lead to re-offending. To be successful, a safety plan must have the support of all members of the family and each member must be willing to report any violation of the rules.
What prevention looks like
Of course, it is always best to prevent sexual offenses altogether. Teaching our children personal safety, speaking openly to our adolescents and teenagers about their sexual thoughts, and helping children cope with anxiety, sexual imageries and trauma can prevent many offenses. The Jacob Wetterling Resource Center, for example, has a number of tools parents can use in talking to their children about these issues.
We know how to prevent many sexual offenses and, when these cases cannot be prevented, we know how to respond with excellence. Whether we choose to act on this knowledge rests in the hands of every parent.