The conviction this week of a 19-year-old Welsh man who raped and abused the children of the family he lived with has once again raised the issue of child abuse perpetrated by young people. Matthew Crick speaks to an expert in young child abusers who explains what factors drive their behaviour.
Research has shown that child sexual abuse perpetrated by a minor is 20 times more likely to be committed by a young male than female*. Pete Thomason, an independent consultant psychotherapist, has worked with many boys and young men who have perpetrated sexual abuse and explains that recognising what motivated them to abuse is an important starting point in rehabilitating them.
“In therapy there is a reliance on the young person being able to acknowledge their own feelings and thoughts of anger and hostility toward the person they abused, and for them to understand that the sexual elements are less concerned with mutual enjoyment and satisfaction and more about invasion of another’s physical and emotional space.”
Statistics highlight that young men found guilty of sexual abuse are predominantly between the ages of 17-20* – the perpetrator in the recent Welsh case was aged 18 when the abuse took place but concerns had been raised about his behaviour as early as 14. The age of the perpetrator is an important factor when assessing the motivation behind their actions, explains Thomason.
“It is my view that very young children are acting out their own experiences of neglect and unmet need rather than setting out to abuse another person, even though the experiences of victims are probably very similar,” he says. “While it might be expected generally that young males might be interested in sex to the point of obsession, it is the aim of the abusive sexual encounter which determines whether it is exploitative. Sexual abuse by young males can often result from a need to establish a personal sense of control and/or power, or might be used to avoid experiencing negative emotions. Thus it might be viewed that sexual abuse by young males is an undesirable coping mechanism.”
Yet more statistics reinforce the problem: 42% of children treated at sexual assault centres reported their abuser as being adolescent. A figure that then evolves to an even more staggering fact that the average young sexual offender who does not receive treatment will go on to commit more than 380 sexual crimes in their lifetime*.
It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for parents to monitor their children’s actions and behaviour 24-hours a day, but if an intervention is possible, then the support of a professional is paramount to the subsequent steps of helping that particular child.
“Family work should be an integral part of all interventions with young people who engage in sexually harmful behaviour,” says Thomason. “Indeed all new families could learn valuable lessons from a course which outlines issues to do with young people and sexually harmful behaviour. In my experience, most non-abusing parents whose child has engaged in sexually harmful behaviour can easily be encouraged to engage in the therapeutic process. The subject should be covered in ante natal classes such as the ones run by the National Childbirth Trust (NCT).”
Thomason prepares risk assessment reports for the courts, social services and other agencies that illustrate the possible solutions and steps that are available, depending on each individual case. He adds: “No clear data exists on what can be considered to be completely reliable risk indicators. In light of this, the information I gather is guided by a combination of the common themes of current risk assessment frameworks: ERASOR; J-RAT; J-SOAP; and AIM.”
It would appear that the nature and scale of sexual abuse committed by young people is becoming more serious highlighting the need for increased awareness of the issue among practitioners and parents.