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Working safely with young people who display harmful sexual behaviour

Updated: 22 July 2013

What's Important To Us

Working with young people who are displaying harmful sexual behaviour is a complex area of our work. Providing a co-ordinated response that includes consultation with expert treatment providers and robust family/whānau and young person focused safety planning is essential.

The following key information refers to working with children and young people displaying harmful sexual behaviour from approximately the age of 11 years.

But judgement should be used when deciding if this key information is the most appropriate, or if you should refer to Working safely with families/whānau where children are displaying concerning sexual behaviour.

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The importance of terminology 

The term ‘sex offender' has a particular legal meaning and when used to refer to young people it has a potential negative labelling effect. To refer to a young person who has harmful sexual behaviour as a ‘sex offender' does not reflect the research that shows that only 2% of adolescents who complete a best-practice treatment programme in New Zealand go on to sexually abuse in the future.

The treatment sector in New Zealand widely uses the following terms:

  • harmful sexual behaviour (refers to children and young people aged over 10 years)
  • concerning sexual behaviour (refers to children aged 10 years and under).

Use your judgment when considering these terms and where a young person most appropriately fits based on their individual development, type and extent of behaviour etc.

What is harmful sexual behaviour? Specific considerations when working with young people

Adolescence is a time where young people begin to engage in sexual behaviours and it can sometimes be unclear whether this is something to be concerned about or normal sexual exploration. In the framework set out below there are three dynamics which will assist you when considering whether the young person’s sexual behaviour is harmful and/or abusive:

  1. Was there equality in the relationship? You need to consider physical difference, cognitive and emotional differences, age differences and power and authority.
  2. Was the behaviour engaged in with consent? Consider that compliance may not mean consent; consent implies full knowledge, understanding and choice. Consider any cognitive, emotional and age differences that may impact on a person's ability to give informed consent.
  3. Was force or coercion present? Consider any pressures placed on the victim that denied them choice, perceptions of power and authority in the relationship, size/age differences, whether bribery/trickery was used, were threats made of loss of friendships, were threats made or violence used and was nurturance and caring offered within an exploitive relationship (grooming).

Impact of harmful sexual behaviour on the family/whānau

Because harmful sexual behaviour, particularly by young people, occurs much more often against a person who is known to the family/whānau it is common for the family/whānau system to be impacted on multiple fronts. It is not uncommon to be required to attend to issues arising from both abuser and victim experiences.

For families/whānau it can be a balancing act between supporting their young person who has acted in a sexually harmful way towards a family/whānau member, while also supporting and protecting the family/whānau member who has been victimised.

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 time in their life. For example a young person’s harmful sexual behaviour may, beyond the expected impact, result in a strong emotional response from a parent who experienced sexual victimisation in his or her own childhood.

Sexual abuse against members of a wider family/whānau network may lead to rifts. Similarly, sexual abuse between acquaintances, neighbours, church members, school mates, etc may lead to ostracising within a community and a reduction in supports the family/whānau under normal circumstances have called upon. Social stigma and a sense of shame may also prevent family/whānau members from seeking support within their usual networks.

A sense of grief is common with parents feeling a loss of potential, loss of hope, a loss of belief in themselves as parents and a loss of known history. Equally a sense of guilt is also common - family/whānau may experience feelings of guilt because they were not able to prevent the behaviour or uncover it earlier.

Taking a stance that the young person who chose to engage in the harmful sexual behaviour is ultimately responsible for the harm done is a constructive way of approaching the situation with a family/whānau. The family/whānau can be encouraged to address any situational/contextual factors that may have contributed to the young person’s choices while still holding the young person accountable for their own behaviour.

Building safety in the family/whānau

If you believe a young person is behaving in a sexual way that is harmful to others then this needs to be recorded in their 'person characteristics’ screen on CYRAS. Once this behaviour has been identified, work with them, their family/whānau and others to build safety around the young person. Doing so is a complex area of practice and, as such, consultation with a treatment provider with expertise in the area will be important and should occur within seven days of identifying the concern.

Safety needs to be considered in a broad sense:

Physical safety of children and other vulnerable people (including the person sexually harmed by the young person)

  • Are there children or other young people in the family/whānau home? Are there children or other young people visiting the home? Is the young person likely to be in contact with children and other young people within the wider family/whānau system and community?
  • How is the physical safety of the person who has been harmed by the young person being addressed?
  • How is the young person being supported and monitored so that no further harmful behaviour occurs?

Are there any care and protection concerns for other children and young people?

If there are siblings or other children and young people in the family/whānau consider whether or not there are care and protection concerns and take appropriate action to ensure their safety.

How will the family/whānau address safety issues for other children and young people?

  • Who are the protective adults in the family/whānau?
  • What is their knowledge of the young person’s behaviour?
  • What is their ability to provide safety to other children while also supporting the young person?

Emotional safety of the person who has experienced the sexually harmful behaviour

  • Is there continued contact between the young person who engaged in the harmful sexual behaviour and the person they harmed?
  • How is this person being supported and protected from further harm?

Vulnerabilities for the young person who has displayed the harmful sexual behaviour

  • Is the young person at risk of violent reprisals as a result of his or her behaviour?
  • Have they themselves been sexually abused/victimised?
  • Do they present as vulnerable to sexual exploitation by others?
  • Do they have adequate systems in place to support them and assist them to remain safe?

Involve key family/whānau members, wider family/whānau members, other professionals, and community based treatment providers in the safety discussions. See Key information: Building safety around children and young people for further details about the steps needed to build safety.

Specific considerations when working with families/whānau where harmful sexual behviour has occurred between siblings

When a sibling behaves in a harmfully sexual manner towards another sibling it can be a challenge for parents and family/whānau to manage the family/whānau relationships and safety. They can feel torn between wanting to support the young person who has behaved in a harmful way and ensuring the physical and emotional safety and wellbeing of the sibling who has been harmed.

When working with the family/whānau consider the following:

  • Does the young person need to move out of the home to ensure safety of the sibling they have harmed?
  • What is the family/whānau's view on alternative placement? Consider all family/whānau members views including those of their siblings.
  • The wishes of the sibling who has been harmed need to be given the highest consideration but do not overload them with the responsibility to make decisions. The professionals working with the family/whānau need to be aware that the victim may feel guilty that their sibling has had to move out and/or may miss them
  • Do not make promises about timeframes for the young person to move back home. Risk and safety factors, rather than timeframes, will need to be assessed in order to guide the decision making process. Maintaining family/whānau relationships may be a realistic goal to work towards with the family/whānau, whereas reunification may not be realistic
  • How will the family/whānau manage contact and/or re-unification safely?
  • Are there other behaviours within the family/whānau that need to be addressed as part of the young person’s plan such as bullying behaviour?
  • How will the sibling who has been harmed be supported and have their physical and emotional safety needs met?
  • Continually clarify the treatment provider's position, Child Youth and Family's position and plans to move forward. Reviews are an important part of safely working with a family/whānau where sibling abuse has occurred.

Assessment and treatment programmes

There are three community based assessment/treatment providers in New Zealand who deliver services to a number of regional treatment programmes.

STOP (based in Christchurch) services the South Island.

WellSTOP (based in Wellington) services Wellington, Palmerston North, Napier, Gisborne and New Plymouth.

SAFE Network (based in Auckland) services Auckland, Hamilton and Whangarei.

Once accepted into a programme, the young person will undergo a specialist assessment which includes an assessment of risk of the young person engaging in future sexually abusive behaviour. The assessment consists of:

  • separate semi-structured interviews with the parent(s) and or caregiver and with the young person
  • psychometric tests and self-report questionnaires
  • attendance at education groups: The STOP programme in Christchurch runs a concurrent education group as part of the assessment process attended by the parent(s) and or caregiver and young person. The education group is designed to increase awareness about the problem of harmful sexual behaviour and to provide an orientation to treatment
  • a comprehensive assessment report including individual formulation and recommendations for treatment, safety, the level of supervision and placement.

Young people usually require up to 18 months in treatment following the assessment phase which may take up to 12-14 weeks.

Community-based treatment programmes provide treatment for young people who are assessed as safe to reside in the community. For example they may remain at home, reside with extended family/whānau, reside in foster care, or reside in a specialist group home. These young people will typically be attending school, a course or be employed within the community.

Treatment may include all or some of the following:

  • individual therapy
  • adolescent peer group therapy
  • family therapy
  • systems reviews
  • adventure based activities
  • special programmes for young people with intellectual/developmental disabilities.

Specialist residential provider

A twelve bed residential treatment centre, Te Poutama Arahi Rangatahi, is based in Christchurch and run by Barnardos. This centre provides treatment, residential care and education for young people who are assessed by a provider as high risk of engaging in further harmful sexual behaviour and who need a more contained level of care than can be provided in the community.

Before a referral can be made to Te Poutama the young person must first undertake an assessment with one of the providers and that assessment must include a recommendation for referral to Te Poutama. The referral will only be considered when all community based options have been explored and excluded.

Referring a young person for assessment or treatment

Referrals forms for the community treatment providers are available from the providers’ websites. When it is not clear if a referral is appropriate sector treatment providers are available for consultation with Child Youth and Family staff to help clarify if a referral is warranted.

It is important that social workers first gain consent from the young person and their family/whānau to share information with providers and then also to provide the sector programme with confirmation of this consent. For this reason rather than forwarding a referral electronically it is often more practical to print the referral, complete it, review it with the young person and their family/whānau and, once signed, post or fax the document.

When referring to a sector provider it is most helpful to be as specific as possible regarding the known sexually harmful behaviour. Often parents, teachers etc may initially choose to use euphemisms due to discomfort in discussing the sexual behaviour. Providing information such as a Police Summary of Facts and the victim evidential interview transcript are other means of providing quality information to the sector provider.

When a referral is made the provider will discuss how the assessment or treatment will be funded. Each of the sector providers have national contracts with Oranga Tamariki. However if a vacancy is not available on these contracts the social worker will need to apply to their site manager or youth justice manager for fee-for service funding.

Social work support

Treatment programmes provide social work support to assist the young person with the placement/residence, education/occupation and also their social and recreational needs. When a young person has been living in a group home or at Te Poutama Arahi Rangatahi social work support plays a crucial role in reintegration of the young person into a post-residential placement.

Child Youth and Family social workers play a key role in supporting the young person during their treatment. This may include:

  • supporting various residential and educational/occupational placement
  • writing court reports
  • arranging or reconvening a family group conference
  • accessing resources to assist with transport costs to permit the young person and their family/whānau to attend treatment
  • attending regular review meetings attended by the young person, their family/whānau and other support people to review the young person’s progress in treatment.