Section 2: Understanding Sexual Assault from a Victim’s Perspective
4 Hours, 40 Minutes

(25 minutes)

(5 minutes)

Use SlideUse Slide #12: Child and Adolescent Victims of Sexual Assault

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Sexual assault has been called a tragedy of youth, because the majority of victims of sexual assault are 17 years old or younger.27 Whether you supervise juvenile or adult offenders, the victims you encounter will include a significant number of children and adolescents.

In some jurisdictions, your ability to interact with these victims may be limited. Organizations such as Child Advocacy Centers may manage the interview process with child–victims to ensure their emotional safety and the integrity of the information collected. Protective parents or guardians may also limit your access to child victims in less formal ways. Whether or not you interact directly with victims who are children or adolescents, understanding their experience can still enhance your ability to supervise offenders. You may find it necessary to educate parents about the sexual abuse their children have experienced in the context of explaining an offender’s supervision conditions. Parents may need help understanding how their children will act, or what behaviors may signal renewed abuse, following a renewal of some level of contact with an offender. Or you may need to make sense of information provided by the child or parent, or observed during a routine field visit.

In this next section about child and adolescent victims, we will look specifically at:

Use SlideUse Slide #13: Child and Adolescent Victims of Sexual Assault

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We’re also going to briefly review some of the theories about how children respond to sexual assault. As with the information we covered earlier about adult victims, understanding and assimilating this information into your work with child victims will enhance your effectiveness. It may assist you in making effective use of the information you receive from family, friends, or acquaintances of the offender in the context of supervision. It can help you develop a rapport with a child victim whose input you need to inform a pre–sentence investigation or supervision/release plan. And it will enhance your ability to work more effectively with victim advocates and/or your case management team.

Before we begin, I want to point out that there is more detail on the handouts in your materials than in the slides, and we encourage you to review all of the information when you have time. A few key points to keep in mind as we discuss children as victims of sexual assault are:

Finally, perhaps the most important thing to remember in our work with child victims is, like their adult victim counterparts, they are never at fault for the abuse perpetrated against them. Children have inherently less power than adults. Regardless of the motives ascribed to children by perpetrators and others through their cognitive distortions, offenders are always responsible for the sexual assaults they perpetrate against children.

Disclosure by Children
(5 minutes)

Child victims often feel ambivalent about their perpetrator, which can lead to ambivalence about disclosing the abuse. Children most often are sexually abused by acquaintances, immediate family members, relatives, friends and/or other members of the community who are known to the child.28 In many cases, the perpetrator is someone they care about, and have trusted. Although the perpetrators have been abusive, they may also have been nurturing and responsive to the child’s needs. The child may depend upon the perpetrator for food, clothing, shelter, attention, and/or emotional support. Whatever we, as adults, think about the perpetrator, the child victim’s experience is likely to be much more complicated. We should not be surprised, then, if a child expresses his or her mixed feelings.

Like adults, children who have disclosed their abuse have made a very difficult decision to come forward. They may have encountered outcomes that were better or worse than they imagined. They may have been implicitly or explicitly threatened with negative consequences if they disclosed, or may have been told directly “not to tell.” Children and adolescents are often not as well equipped as adults to discern which of the perpetrator’s threats are credible and which of their own fears are rational.

By the time we have contact with a child victim (or with their parent or guardian) the victim has experienced at least some of the consequences of disclosure. The perpetrator has been arrested; people in the family or community are aware of what has happened and may be experiencing shock, disbelief, or anger that can be directed at the perpetrator and/or the victim. Although the victim is no longer being abused, it is likely that whatever positive role the perpetrator played in the child’s life has ended. Depending on how adults have responded to the situation, the child may be feeling better or worse than before the disclosure.

Child victims may react to these changes in their lives in a number of ways. They may claim that the disclosure was a lie, in an effort to “backpedal” and undo the changes that their disclosure may have caused. They may talk about missing the perpetrator or about their feelings of fondness or love rather than anger, hurt, outrage, or relief that the abuse has stopped. They may express anger at the adults who intervened (including you), rather than anger at the perpetrator. These reactions are normal and should be accepted as such. They are not an indication that the system has made a mistake in prosecuting the perpetrator, or that the abuse was not particularly bad or harmful.

Theories of Children's Responses to Sexual Assault
(10 minutes)

Note: Depending on the time available, and the composition of the audience, the Trainer may choose to present either or both the Accommodation Syndrome31 and the Traumagenic Dynamics Theory.32 This information will be most relevant to those supervising juveniles, and those whose caseloads include intra-familial abusers.

Use SlideUse Slide #14: Accommodation Syndrome

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The Child Abuse Accommodation Syndrome has been used effectively to explain the patterns of behavior exhibited by children who have been abused.29 This might help you gain additional insights into the patterns of abuse in which offenders engage. Some of the behaviors observed during and after child victims have been sexually abused are:

Another theoretical framework that has proven useful in understanding the effects of sexual abuse on children is the Traumagenic Dynamics Theory.30 The Traumagenic Dynamics Theory examines why a child who has been sexually abused develops certain characteristics and how those behaviors may be related to specific types of sexual abuse or negative reactions to disclosure. In this theory, four categories of trauma are presented:

Use SlideUse Slide #15: Traumagenic Dynamics Theory

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Refer to Handout Refer to Handout

Traumagenic Dynamics Theory

Note: The handout has more detail than the slides.

Note: There is a more complete explanation of the Traumagenic Dynamics Theory in an article in the Trainer’s Resources section, “The Traumatic Impact of Child Sexual Abuse: A Review and Conceptualization” by David Finkelhor, the clinician who coined the term, and Angela Browne.

Note: The handout provided lists some common problems that may be experienced by child victims of sexual abuse. It should not be necessary to go over them in detail, but merely to point out that it is useful for officers to have some familiarity with them, if only to be able to better interpret information that may emerge through contacts with other professionals, offender families, or community members who may have contact with the offender.

Problems that may be Seen in Children Who have been Sexually Abused
(5 minutes)

There are other indicators that suggest that children may exhibit physical and emotional symptoms during or after the period in which they are sexually abused. These warning signs are only indicators that sexual abuse may have occurred and should be addressed appropriately. If you find yourself in a situation where you suspect a child has been abused, a professional should be sought for appropriate assessment. The list of these behaviors is on your handout.

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