We undertake an assessment if an adult has been accused of sexual abuse, regardless of whether they have been charged, convicted or admitted the allegations.
People who sexually abuse are not from a homogeneous population. There are no set criteria to determine who poses a risk of sexual offending against tamariki and rangatahi.
How we undertake the assessment
Our assessment isn’t just focused on the alleged offender and their access to or relationship with te tamaiti or rangatahi, but includes the whole family/whānau as a unit.
There is shame and stigma attached to allegations of child sexual abuse. Therefore, we approach our assessment sensitively and use language carefully, to focus on safety.
We work with family/whānau, the alleged offender and specialists in the community to find ways to identify and stop harmful or potentially harmful behaviours from continuing. We focus our assessment on understanding the relational dynamics in the family/whānau.
Our assessment needs to consider:
- the response of the family/whānau – it is normal for them to be shocked and angry, and even disbelieve the allegations, and they may appear non-protective – however, it is important we don’t judge or label
- if there is any evidence of ‘grooming’ and its impact on everyone – the victim, parents, siblings, and any other whānau members
- how we provide support and information, and allow time to help them process the situation by focusing on the facts, including any indicators of abuse or behavioural distress
- the attitude and knowledge of everyone in the family/whānau and networks
- how the beliefs of the family/whānau relating to gender (male and female) and roles (adult and child relationships) contribute to safety or harm
- any evidence of adults engaging with tamariki and rangatahi around respectful relationships – what does respect look like in this family/whānau?
- who in the family/whānau is responsible for the day-to-day care and how supported they are
- who tamariki and rangatahi rely on when they are not feeling safe, heard or listened to
- how shame, stigma or stress is managed within the family/whānau
- how connected or isolated the family/whānau is to wider family/whānau, community, church, etc
- other types of violence, behavioural concerns or indicators that are occurring, such as financial or psychological abuse
- if we can identify a sustainable commitment within the family/whānau to keeping tamariki and rangatahi safe from any future harm and to healing, despite the abuse being denied.
Research indicates that sexual abuse can occur across generations. Use chronology and genograms with key members of the family/whānau to understand patterns of trauma or abuse impacting the whakapapa of the family/whānau over time – we need to use these tools carefully, be sensitive to the mana of the tamariki and family/whānau, and be mindful that the sexual abuse may trigger further impacts for other family/whānau members who have experienced sexual abuse themselves.
When someone has admitted, received treatment or been convicted for sexual abuse
Our assessment will explore how their treatment or safety plan is being followed and any risks are being managed. We work closely with them, their family/whānau, their treatment providers, any other professionals involved and the Probation Service.
We maintain the mana of all involved by not just focusing on the abuse but on what the person and their family/whānau or support network is doing differently to keep everyone safe from any further harm.
Our assessment needs to understand the risks and identify what safety looks like over time and to support the oranga of the family/whānau. Consider:
- whether or not they have engaged in treatment or a therapeutic response
- if they attended treatment, did they complete the recommended programme, how long ago and have ever adjusted their safety plan to reflect a change in circumstances
- if the recommendations in their safety plan have been followed
- who in their network or family/whānau knows about their history and how they are helping them to maintain safety – abuse generally happens in secrecy.
When someone has denied they have been sexually abusive
We use the Child Protection Protocol (CPP) for cases that require an investigation response, working in consultation with the police. If the CPP criteria are not met, we use the decision response tool to determine what our approach will be.
A person who has been accused does not have to admit they have been sexually abusive for us to undertake an assessment. ‘Denial’ may be a factor that we incorporate into our assessment and planning.
An assessment needs to include an understanding of grooming behaviours. The reality is that less than 10% of sexual abuse against te tamaiti or rangatahi is committed by a stranger. Therefore the likelihood is that sexual abuse occurs after a period of grooming by someone known to te tamaiti or rangatahi and their parents or caregivers.
Grooming is when someone builds a relationship, trust and emotional connection with te tamaiti or rangatahi so they can manipulate, exploit and abuse them. Someone who is sexually abusive can also groom other siblings, parents or caregivers to ensure access to te tamaiti or rangatahi.
Grooming behaviours can be methodical, subtle, gradual and escalate over time to include abuse. The grooming behaviour can be so subtle that at times, victims/survivors and even their caregivers can believe the abuse was their own fault or that they caused the abuse to happen. Potentially, we can also be groomed into not believing tamariki or rangatahi when they speak or their behaviour indicates distress, labelling them as acting out or naughty. Often, evidence of child sexual abuse is the word of te tamaiti or rangatahi against an adult.
Netsafe provides information we can use when talking with tamariki, rangatahi and family/whānau about grooming that can occur online.
Reflect on how the dynamics of sexual abuse impact not only on the family/whānau but also on our own practice response and decision-making. Test for confirmation bias through supervision or case consults. Include professionals who specialise in the sexual violence field to help evidence our assessment.
When tamariki or rangatahi disclose
Child sexual offenders often select tamariki or rangatahi who are already vulnerable and will not be believed if they speak out.
Disclosure of abuse can be a process and not a one-time event. It is not uncommon for tamariki to retract their allegation, especially when the adults around them respond in the way the abuser has said – for example, ‘I will get in trouble’, ‘you will be taken away’, ‘your mum will be mad/sad/etc’.
Research shows that almost all survivors/victims stated that they knew their offender and over 60% of tamariki and rangatahi who had experienced sexual abuse did not disclose the experience to anyone.
Tamariki or rangatahi rarely lie to get into trouble. If a tamaiti or rangatahi does not repeat their disclosure in a specialist child interview, we continue to assess by considering the indicators of abuse.
Even when we determine that the sexual abuse was unlikely, the disclosure is evidence that something is not right for te tamaiti or rangatahi. Our assessment needs to consider their age and developmental stage in relation to their sexual knowledge and behavioural distress. We focus on understanding what is happening for te tamaiti or rangatahi and consider what intervention will help them.
Our assessments need to find ways to strengthen protective relationships around tamariki and rangatahi.
Language and labelling
Our recording needs to be factual.
If someone has been accused of sexual abuse, then it is important that we are clear not to label them incorrectly. We use the person characteristic to accurately record any findings attached to individual people, and we make sure we update it.
An adult can be a child sex offender as well as a victim or survivor of sexual abuse themselves. Be mindful to name the behaviour and the impact rather than label the person.
Some people identify as a victim, while others prefer the term survivor. If both terms are applicable, for recording purposes, ‘victim’ can be used when referring to someone who has recently been affected by sexual violence, while ‘survivor’ can be used to refer to someone who has gone through the recovery process. However, the best way to be respectful is to ask for their preference.
For a person who has been convicted, record the conviction rather than refer to them as an ‘offender’.
Paedophilia is a psychiatric disorder that describes a sexual preference towards prepubescent tamariki. We only record ‘paedophilia’ if there has been an official psychiatric diagnosis as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder (DSM-5). Research shows that not all people who sexually abuse tamariki are paedophiles and not all paedophiles go on to sexually abuse tamariki. Even if family/whānau or people in the community use this language, we are careful about what we record.
We never record someone under the age of 18 as a child sexual offender, even if they have been through the youth justice system.
Intervention and treatment, and responding to adults who have sexually offended
Violation against other people or a family/whānau member is viewed as a significant breach of sacred relationships and wellbeing. Most Māori and Pacific communities will try to re-establish the disrupted relationship and restore balance. Studies have identified the importance of addressing violence holistically, rather than focusing on 1 type of violence.
Consider interventions that create behaviour changes that are integrated and holistic, combining mental and physical health, disability, violence, safety, and alcohol and drug rehabilitation.
Our responsibility is to work with family/whānau and the community and represent the voice of tamariki and rangatahi to support them to create their own enduring safety and healing from abuse.
We can only represent the voice of tamariki and rangatahi if we include them in building safety along with family/whānau members and other professionals.
Research has found that child sex offenders who have completed a treatment programme in New Zealand are less likely to be charged or reconvicted for a sexual offence than an untreated child sex offender.
The Department of Corrections provides treatment for child sex offenders at:
- Kia Marama at Rolleston Prison (Christchurch)
- Te Piriti at Auckland Prison.
There are 3 main community-based treatment providers. Intervention is tailored to meet the needs of individuals.
SAFE (Whangarei, Auckland and Hamilton)
WellStop (Wellington, Masterton, Manawatu, Whanganui, Levin, Hawke’s Bay and Gisborne)
STOP (Nelson, Christchurch, Invercargill and Dunedin)
Even if the treatment provider isn’t in your region, contact the closest provider for advice.
Child Sex Offender Register
Police and Corrections staff involved in monitoring child sex offenders have access to a Child Sex Offender Register. This is a record of all convicted and registered child sex offenders living in the community.
Police and Corrections staff have the authority to release information to an affected person (such as a parent, teacher or regular caregiver of te tamaiti or rangatahi) if they believe that the registered person poses a threat to the life, welfare or sexual safety of a specific tamaiti or rangatahi.
A person can remain on the Child Sex Offender Register for 8 to 15 years depending on the severity of the offence.
Note that reporting of sexual abuse is very low in New Zealand. It is estimated only 9% of incidents are reported to the Police and only 13% of reported incidents result in conviction and therefore registration. For this reason, we do not just rely on the register to keep our tamariki and rangatahi safe. Rather, we listen to what tamariki and rangatahi are saying and showing us through their behaviours.
Update to this guidance
This guidance has been strengthened to cover the use of chronology and genograms with key members of the family/whānau to understand patterns of trauma or abuse over time.
How we undertake the assessment