Oftentimes, when children behave in an age-inappropriate, sexually precocious manner, parents will come to suspect that the child has been sexually abused by an adult – perhaps the other parent, or a person in whose care the other parent entrusted the child. But what if all evidence points to the great possibility that the child was sexually abused by a sibling, step-sibling, or other child? What are the ramifications of that type of child victimization? How does the child welfare system respond to these sorts of issues? These issues are discussed here to provide parents with some guidance on what to expect should child-to-child sexual abuse be suspected.
When a child makes a disclosure of sexual abuse and identifies an adult perpetrator, the rules for CPS response are relatively straight-forward. The disclosure is reported to the agency, a CPS worker interviews the child, and if a disclosure is repeated, the CPS interview is to stop, the Prosecutor’s office notified, and a trained detective is to conduct an interview, usually viewable by CPS. If a disclosure is made to the detective, an arrest may be made. Whether an arrest occurs or not, CPS will initiate some form of protective action – whether via a Safety and Protection Plan to preclude the perpetrator from having access to the child (if the perpetrator is then arrested), or by way of a Court action – either initiated by the non-abusive parent or by CPS – if the perpetrator is the parent or other custodian who has a constitutional or court-sanctioned right of access to the child.
Most times, CPS will bring an action or the non-abusive parent may file in court, to restrict access to the perpetrator. If the case proceeds and ultimately, a mental health professional later opines that the child was most likely not abused by their parent, but by another child – and the victim child mis-attributed the abuse to the parent because he needed to tell but was too fearful of the actual perpetrator to identify him, a quagmire results. A common view by the accused parent is that the non-abusive parent manipulated the child into making false allegations. In fact, a common defense to sexual abuse allegations is “parental alienation”. When the child makes a disclosure inculpating an adult, but that allegation later turns out to be a mis-attribution and the real offender is a child, “parental alienation” rarely proffers a strong defense.
A similar child welfare systems response may ensue if the child victim identifies a child-perpetrator. However, various differences exist. First, just as parents have a constitutional right of access to their child, siblings have similar rights. Yet, the existence of any actual or potential harm to a child (i.e., sexual abuse) warrants superseding that right in order to protect the child. Depending on the severity of the alleged abuse, CPS workers often recommend that parents merely separate the victim and the offender, and keep a vigilant eye on each child to prevent a re-offense. Unfortunately, this solution is nearly possible to implement.
Sometimes, the response will be to require removal of the offending child from the home. This situation also is not optimal. The victim child often feels responsible for the unwanted change in family structure (not all sexual offenses are experienced as traumatic, so a child may want the sexual activity to cease, but may not want his or her abuser removed from the family). The child perpetrator does not always understand the gravamen of his conduct. Sexual acting out in children can often result from that child’s own victimization or merely age-appropriate sexual curiosity (common when a pubescent child offends against a pre-pubescent child). If the child perpetrator is removed from the family system because of conduct he did not know was abusive, the child may feel unloved and abandoned, relative to the child victim (i.e., prior misconduct by both children never resulted in removal; now his conduct that he later learns was problematic results in his eviction from the home).
In circumstances where the children remain under the same roof but are required to undergo therapy to address the abuse, discrepant views of what actually took place may heighten animosity in the home. For instance, if victim child’s therapist believes that abuse occurred, the treatment may require the victim child to confront the child perpetrator in the presence of a mental health professional. However, if the child perpetrator’s therapist believes that the event resulted from sexual abuse of the child perpetrator, that therapist may oppose a confrontation and take a protective stance for the child that focuses on his receiving treatment for his own abuse before admitting to the abuse of the child victim. In this scenario, the parents are left in the untenable position of having to decide which child will receive the recommended therapy, which inherently contradicts the recommended treatment for the other.
In cases where siblings abuse each other, CPS will typically keep a Family Services case open for a period of time. When that happens, the quality of response by the agency may dictate what, if any, adverse consequences there may be for the parents. In many instances, CPS becomes hostile to parents who do not adopt CPS’s view of what transpired and what should be done to address it. If the parents protest or take a different course of action, the agency may come to view the parents are non-supportive of the child victim. In extreme cases, this may result in court-ordered removal of the child victim from the home. Such action may serve to further demonize the child victim who reported the abuse.
If you or someone you know is dealing with the issue of a child being sexually abused by a sibling, you should consult an attorney immediately. Having an attorney available at a moment’s notice to address whether a given action taken at variance with CPS recommendations may subject the family to Court action by the agency or worse, removal of a child from the home, is the best protection a family can have against unwarranted state intrusion. Ideally, this attorney should have a background in handling child abuse and neglect issues and in working with the agency in your county.