How can we care for survivors of childhood sexual violence when they don’t disclose it?
Contributed by Dr. Caryn Onions, Head of Research and Development and a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist working at The Mulberry Bush, a UK-based member organisation of Family for Every Child.
At The Mulberry Bush, we work with children who are living with the effects of trauma. They come to us after being referred by another organisation such as the social and healthcare, or education services. They might be allocated a place at our residential school for traumatised children, for example, if it has been decided that other educational options are unsuitable for them.
When this happens, it is often due to a number of factors in combination. For example, they might have experienced a combination of neglect, physical abuse, substance abuse and neglect, abuse and trauma. And once they settle in, it is likely that we will start to find out more details about what has happened to them, so we can fill in some of the gaps.
In other parts of the system, it’s vital that children are able to disclose their experiences of sexual abuse. Doing so might be the only way they can access support in the first place. But at The Mulberry Bush, we don’t need children to tell us – they are already here, and we are working to help them overcome and manage their trauma by whatever means we can.
This is important to us, because sometimes children aren’t ready or capable of disclosing their experiences.
Young children who experienced sexual violence when they were still pre-verbal may not be able to put it into words, and even those who are speaking may lack the vocabulary to articulate it. Even if they can, they may lack the trust in adults to be able to do so. In the UK, the process of ‘grooming’ a child to become a victim of sexual abuse is frequently the start of a sexually violent relationship. This can involve the abuser emotionally manipulating the child and creating a real fear around telling anyone else, because of the threats made by the abuser.
Conversations about concern
Instead of focusing on getting children to tell us what happened to them, we focus on creating an atmosphere where staff are able to notice unusual behaviour and have the chance to discuss it as a team.
Some concerning behaviours could include:
- the child can make some staff feel ‘uncomfortable’
- other children might complain that he or she is ‘creepy’
- the child might repeat some of the ‘grooming’ type behaviours which are inappropriate
- they might ask an adult or child to have sex with them
- they might always want to play ‘mummies and daddies’ and make the game sexualised
- they might control everyone around them and try to get them to do things which make them uncomfortable (not necessarily sexual things but other things too)
The difficulty we face when it comes to assuming the cause of certain behaviours, is that many of these concerning behaviours are also seen in children with severe attachment difficulties, and those who have been neglected. Therefore it’s difficult to just look at behaviours per se, instead they have to be taken in context and within the relationship.
Instead, we foster an atmosphere where staff are supported to have conversations about concern as a team. This gives them an opportunity to share things that ‘might be nothing’ or their ‘gut feelings’, in a non-judgmental forum. Oftentimes this leads to other staff sharing that they have spotted the same behaviour. And, as a team, we can decide what the next steps should be in providing the right therapeutic interventions, such as the ‘staying safe’ work we outlined in another post about supporting children to understand safer sexual behaviours.
We may never fully understand what happened in a child’s past. But by focusing on what we see now, we still have the opportunity to help them build a future where they can trust adults.
This article is part of our series exploring sexual violence affecting children, which we are running as part of our United For Boys campaign. Mulberry Bush is a signatory organisation of our United For Boys Charter; in which we commit to making real change happen for children and families affected by sexual violence, with a particular focus on the under-supported and under-reported needs of boys.
Visit www.familyforeverychild.org/unitedforboys to learn more.