Checking practice

Child Sexual Abuse


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Working with child sexual abuse can be challenging and complex. The emotions that this work elicits may undermine our ability to respond effectively. When children disclose, we listen to and are invited to share the burden of their pain. We may underestimate the impact of this on us personally and professionally. Regular supervision and self-care are important ways to recognise and manage our reactions and stay effective in our work. Failing to appropriately manage our reactions can lead to poor decision making or assessment of risk for the child. 

Our tendency to deny 

  • We may inoculate ourselves against our own pain by denying or minimising the child’s experience of abuse. Judith Herman, an expert in treating survivors of domestic and sexual violence and author of Trauma and Recovery, notes that perpetrators ask us to do nothing, to see, hear or speak no evil. The victim on the other hand asks us to share the burden of pain and take action, to become engaged and to remember. 
  • Herman says that as workers and bystanders we are being forced to take sides. It may be easier and less painful to do nothing, to take the side of the perpetrator. 
  • We must guard against the universal tendency to deny the presence of atrocities. As workers, we need awareness, we need to invite feedback, we need critical reflection and we need support to be effective. 

Question our beliefs 

  • We are often drawn into the conflict between the victim and the perpetrator and confronted with fundamental questions of belief and denial. 
  • You need to stay present and listen to stories of abuse. Reflect on why you believe a particular version of events. Ask yourself: Is there an alternate hypothesis? What information and people may help me explore all possibilities? 

Reflective practice 

  • Ask your supervisors and colleagues to critique your practice. 
  • Access specialist knowledge such as casework specialists. Joint review and reflection can provide a check against slipping into predictable errors. 
  • Check if you are being Family and Community Services centric about what you could do for the child. Are cases not allocated or closed because there is no disclosure and you don’t have time to build the rapport needed to get a disclosure? Consider other services that have a good relationship with the child that can work with the child and family. 
  • In situations where evidence is not available to pursue criminal action, good collaboration with the Joint Investigation Response Team (JIRT) is important. At the time of case handover discuss the prevailing child protection concerns, with JIRT, invite them to the allocation meeting and consider these cases for allocation. 

Build knowledge & confidence 

  • Refreshing skills and building confidence to deal with child sexual abuse is important. 
  • Revisit the action learning program on child sexual abuse implemented by the Child Death and Critical Reports Unit. Attend seminars and other learning events to reinvigorate skill and confidence. 

Stay child focussed 

  • Enable children to have a presence. They are the experts and know the most about their abuse, the abuse behaviours, patterns and when they are safe or at risk. 
  • Don’t view conversations with children as ‘one-off’. Try to understand their reality, their world, not just their experience of one event. 

Be alert to grooming workers 

  • Assumptions and beliefs about grooming and conditioning are often too narrow. Behaviours associated with grooming, when looked at in isolation and context, may be considered ‘normal’ – that is, the intention, direction and goal of the groomer. Be aware that you as a caseworker may be vulnerable to grooming. 
  • Grooming is a deliberate process of manipulating a person’s reality. Be aware that a perpetrator may try and confuse you. They may create or change a story so that you question your understanding of a situation and your judgement about a child or their mother’s reliability. Their intent is for you to think you may have it wrong. Take a step back, check in with colleagues about your thinking and your case hypotheses, including impressions of each carer. 

Trauma informed practice 

  • Long term impacts of trauma, conditioning and abuse mean that as workers, what we see is often a non-offending parent’s ‘survival skills’ and not their best parenting skills. Understanding intergenerational trauma is important and can help to guard against the assumptions we may make about a parent’s ‘engagement’ and ‘behaviour’. 
  • When evidence is being presented to you about the ‘unreliability of the child’, take some time and space to conceptualise this. Consider another frame of reference for viewing the child’s behaviour. Who is telling you this story? Where and when did it originate? Could these behaviours be seen as the result of something else such as trauma?? 
  • Think about how you could work with non-offending parents and carers to manage and provide support for children with problematic behaviours that may be in response to complex trauma. 

Watch a video on checking practice from the Research to Practice seminar.