Child sexual abuse: key advice for social workers working in this area

Working with cases of CSA can be challenging for social workers, particularly when abuse is suspected but not ‘proven’

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Photo: Presidentk52/Fotolia
This article comprises of tips taken from a new hub on Community Care Inform Children about intrafamilial child sexual abuse (CSA). The full hub covers the factors that can make a child and family vulnerable to abuse, what practitioners can do to support children and young people with the difficult task of disclosure, and different ways of working with a child and family after abuse has been disclosed. The following is an excerpt from the introduction to the hub, written by Anna Glinski, deputy director, Knowledge and Practice Development at the Centre of expertise on child sexual abuse. Inform Children subscribers can access the full hub.
  1. Recognise the value of your role: No matter what role you currently hold as a social worker or type of service you work in, the need to identify, recognise and respond to concerns of sexual abuse is vital and can significantly improve the short- and longer-term outcomes of children who experience sexual abuse: We can make a difference.
  2. The earlier the better. Intervening as early as possible when there are concerns about sexual abuse is key. We are often taught the signs and indicators of CSA in children and young people; while these are very important, by the time we are seeing signs in the child, the abuse has already begun. If we look instead for signs and indicators of abusive behaviour and contexts where children may be more vulnerable to sexual abuse, we are more likely to prevent abuse before it happens.
  3. Sexual abuse is never the fault of the child or young person who has been abused: Children and young people often feel responsible for their own abuse, as they have been ‘groomed’ into believing this. We must ensure we portray this understanding to children and young people in our language and in the actions we take. For example, rather than asking a child ‘Why didn’t you tell anyone?’, ask instead, ‘What stopped you telling anyone?’ Or, when investigating concerns about sexual abuse, ask the alleged perpetrator to move out of the home, rather than moving the victim.
  4. It is not possible to ‘tell by looking’: Media stereotypes and personal assumptions often dominate our thinking about sexual abuse. While there are some shared characteristics of people who abuse children, there are also many differences. Men and women, boys and girls, older and younger, disabled and non-disabled, and those from any cultural, ethnic, religious or socio-economic class can behave abusively towards others.
  5. There is no typical victim of sexual abuse: While more girls are reported to experience sexual abuse, boys do also experience abuse. Abuse may be perpetrated against very young children, children from different religious, cultural and ethnic backgrounds, and those with disabilities.
  6. Take a ‘whole family approach’ when addressing CSA: If CSA happens in the family context, we need to consider prevention, protection and support for recovery in the context of the family too. Teaching children ‘protective behaviours’ should not be all we do to support a family; we also need to build the capacity of non-abusing adults to protect children and reduce risk factors for abusive behaviour.
  7. Think the unthinkable: Sexual abuse can be very difficult for us to think about – perhaps more so when children are very young or are disabled, or when abuse is perpetrated by those who should be caring for them, such as mothers and fathers. It can be a human response to shut off from difficult thoughts and emotions, so encouraging reflection in ourselves and others about ‘unbearable’ events is essential.
  8. Evidence is broader than verbal disclosure: We tend to think of disclosure as the act of a child verbally telling us what is happening for them. In fact, children are more likely to show us than tell us that something is wrong. There may be evidence in children’s actions and behaviours, and in the past or current behaviour of their family members
  9. Remember our legal threshold: The legal threshold for social work intervention is ‘the balance of probabilities’ while the criminal justice system’s threshold for conviction is ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. If the police are unable to take a case forward as they do not have the evidence for an arrest or conviction, that does not mean that we, as social workers, should end our involvement.
  10. Sexual abuse is rarely clear cut: We will often work with families where we suspect abuse but there is no clear verbal disclosure. Rather than closing cases, we need to sit with the feelings of uncertainty that this produces and make sure we do something to reduce risks and vulnerabilities, and build strengths, whether or not we can ‘prove’ it has happened.
  11. Apply knowledge to practice: While there is a lot that research doesn’t yet tell us about sexually abusive behaviour, there are some very helpful and well-established models of how abuse takes place which we can apply to our practice to make children safer.
  12. Look after yourself: The emotions aroused by working with cases of sexual abuse can be overwhelming. Using peer and supervisory support is key to keeping healthy in our work and containing the distress of those with whom we work.

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One Response to Child sexual abuse: key advice for social workers working in this area

  1. Thomas Pietrogallo December 21, 2018 at 12:49 pm #

    This field gave me gray, now white hair. For me, the uncertainties were the most difficult to deal with and even “success” came with such high cost to everyone involved. Confessions made the work brighter somehow because the costs to the children were less than when there were denials. Our team achieved more confessions than the rest of the state combined by recognizing the perpetrators positive concern for the victim and explaining to the fathers what their children would face and how what they did through openness could help their Kids and family move toward healing.