Working safely with families/whānau where children and young people are in contact with an adult who has sexually abused

Updated: 22 September 2013

What's Important To Us

On occasion you will be working with a family where there is an adult who has sexually abused either living in the home, wanting to live in the home, or having contact with children.

It is important that we engage with the child or young person, their parents and wider family/whānau to assess their needs and build safety around them. It is also important that we seek advice from, and work collaboratively with, the specialist providers who can inform and support our work with these complex family/whānau situations.

This key information provides guidance that should be applied whether the adult concerned has been convicted of sexual offences or there is a perceived risk of harm due to current or historical sexual abuse.

Where a social worker becomes aware that a child or young person is living or having unsupervised contact with a person who has been convicted of, or has admitted to, a serious offence that indicates risk to the child or young person, actions must be taken to ensure that child or young person's safety.

Children and young people in the custody of the chief executive are not to be placed in the care of adults who have convictions for serious offences unless there are exceptional circumstances.

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Assessing safety

There are a number of factors to consider when assessing the safety of a child or young person who is in contact with an adult who has sexually abused. No one factor can be considered in isolation from the others and consultation should occur with an expert treatment provider to seek guidance where appropriate. Factors to consider include:

1. Transparency

Reluctance by the sexual abuser to disclose the details of their abusing, treatment undertaken and relapse prevention plan indicates a higher risk to the child or young person and is a key consideration when assessing their care and protection needs.

The non-abusing parent, caregiver or family/whānau member cannot protect a child or young person if they are not fully aware of, or understand, what it is they are protecting the child or young person from.

2. Attitude of the adult who has sexually abused

You may find yourself working with a family/whānau where the adult who has sexually abused tells you that the abuse happened a long time ago and they pose no risk to children around them. The adult and/or the family/whānau may put pressure on you to allow them to live with or have unsupervised contact with the child or young person. In these situations gain expert advice and seek a formal and independent clinical risk assessment before any decision is made. The adult who has sexually abused can be referred to a community-based treatment provider for a risk assessment.

A risk assessment report will provide you with information about the level of risk as well as a risk management recommendation for the family/whānau which will assist you in making informed decisions about care and protection issues. One of the recommendations may be that the adult undertakes treatment.

Find out:

  • who in the network knows about their abusing? If they have not told key people around them, particularly the child or young person's parent/caregiver this is a warning of increased risk. Any attempt to minimise, downplay or withhold information is a warning of increased risk.
  • what evidence is there that they are complying with their relapse prevention plan? Don't accept what is said at face value, check with those around them.
  • their compliance with the plan by talking to key people such as the non-abusing parent, wider family/whānau, and the child or young person. If they object to you verifying what they have told you this indicates a higher risk.

3. Role and attitude of the non-abusing parent/partner

You need to assess the protectiveness of the critical people in the family/whānau system such as the non-abusing parent/caregiver, the partner of the adult who has sexually abused, grandparents and others who have a role in the child or young person's care and wellbeing. Often these people do not know about the person's abuse, are unaware of the extent and seriousness of the abuse or simply are in denial of the sexual abuse and the current risk they may pose. You may encounter a partner/parent who prioritises their relationship with the adult who has sexually abused over the safety of the child or young person.

The non-abusing parent/caregiver is critical to ensuring the ongoing safety of the child or young person. They will provide the day-to-day monitoring, are best placed to notice if the adult begins to deviate from their relapse prevention plan, and will take appropriate action to ensure the child or young person’s safety.

You will need to consider:

  • their level of knowledge of the person’s sexual abuse history and risk to the child or young person
  • their level of denial or minimisation of the risk
  • their own vulnerabilities and access to supports
  • their own history of protectiveness of the child or young person
  • their knowledge of and commitment to the adult’s relapse prevention plan
  • their willingness and ability to take action to secure the child or young person’s safety if necessary, even if this will jeopardise their relationship with the adult
  • their willingness to participate in building safety around the child or young person and their ability and willingness to maintain the safety beyond Child Youth and Family involvement.

4. Impact of sexual abuse on the family/whānau system

Because sexually abusive behaviour occurs much more often against a person who is known, rather than a stranger, it is common for the family/whānau system to be impacted on multiple fronts. For example a parent may be torn between wanting to protect their child and wanting to support their partner who has sexually abused.

As with other forms of violence there may also be a pattern of intergenerational sexual abuse within a family/whānau. Because of this, one family/whānau member's sexually abusive behaviour may trigger further impacts for another family/whānau member who has experienced sexual victimisation during a different period of their life.

Sexual abuse against a member of the wider family/whānau system may lead to rifts. Similarly harmful sexual behaviour with acquaintances, neighbours, church members, school mates etc may lead to ostracising within a community and reduction in the supports the family/whānau may, under different circumstances, have called upon. Additionally rejection is highly possible. Family/whānau members of an adult who has engaged in sexually abusive behaviour are often reluctant to approach their usual supports due to the social stigma and sense of shame.

Consider:

  • what the usual family/whānau support systems are and if these support systems are still in place given the situation
  • what additional supports may be needed
  • how the family/whānau can be assisted to re-establish the old support systems
  • how the change in support systems impacts on the child or young person’s emotional wellbeing and access to those who may have previously monitored their safety
  • how willing and able are the family/whānau to be involved in the abusing adult’s treatment and how will this impact further on the family/whānau system.

5. Wishes of the child or young person

It is essential that where children and young people are of the age and ability to express an opinion they are spoken to on their own to determine their views on having contact or living with the adult who has sexually abused. Check the child or young person's views about their own safety and the safety of their siblings.

You will need to consider:

  • a child or young person's capacity to make informed decisions about their safety can be compromised if they are being manipulated emotionally. They are less likely to be able to make an informed decision if they have close contact with the adult, are fond of them or where other family/whānau members close to them strongly support the adult who has sexually abused
  • where the child or young person is reluctant to talk openly about their feelings about the adult who has sexually abused, talking to those who know them such as school teachers who they may have spoken to in the past about their feelings
  • what supports the child or young person has that reinforces their right to express their views clearly and seek support if and when they need it.

6. Wider networks around the family/whānau

Few families/whānau operate as an isolated unit. There is likely to be a network made up of family/whānau, community, education, health and perhaps religious or social support services around the family/whānau that will be able to provide valuable information to assist you in assessing the child or young person's safety.

It is important that have discussions with:

  • the wider family/whānau
  • school/pre-school/kindergarten staff members
  • professionals who support the family/whānau
  • professionals who support the child or young person e.g. a school guidance counsellor
  • family GP and Plunket Nurse
  • family pastor or church support networks
  • any other person who knows the child or young person and their family/whānau and may be able to provide information about the family/whānau system, the child's role and value within the family/whānau, the role of the adult who has abused, and the capacity of the non-abusing parent/caregiver to provide safety for the child or young person.

7. Overlap/cross-over of abuse types

Remember that there may be an overlap of abuse types. It is critical when making decisions about safety not to be overly focused on placing the adult who has abused into a particular category or making safety decisions based on only one type of abuse. There is increasing evidence that most adult who sexually abuse do not fit into one particular category. Often their abuse can be much broader than the particular incident that bought them to the attention of Oranga Tamariki.

It should never be assumed that an adult who has perpetrated internet abuse will not or has not already sexually abused a child, or that someone who has abused a child or young person outside their family/whānau will not or has not already abused within the family/whānau.

Building safety around a child or young person

When a child or young person is living with, proposed to live with or is having contact with an adult who has sexually abused this requires some intensive and ongoing discussions about how safety for that child or young person can be assured. Discussions need to always involve key family/whānau members, wider family/whānau members, other professionals and any person who is best placed to notice and act on non-compliance by the abusing adult and signs of distress/change in the child or young person.

Involving only the adult who has sexually abused and/or one other person is not likely to provide sufficiently robust safety for the child or young person, demonstrates a lack of knowledge and acceptance of the risk and is an indicator of heightened risk to the child or young person. Read the Key information: Building safety around children and young people for more details on making this process work.

Family therapy

Involving partners and other family/whānau members in the treatment of adults who have sexually abused is critical. It assists these people with achieving their treatment goals, assures an adequate supervision of them in the family/whānau and community and assists in decreasing the risk of sexual re-offending.

For more information about assessments, referrals and family therapy contact your local community based treatment provider.