Our film is sadly inspired by real-life events.
We made this film because we want to help change policy, by raising the profile of the pressing issue of child-on-child abuse, and the inadequate institutional responses to this escalating problem.
One of the key challenges faced by young children who have experienced abuse is the reluctance of parents, and institutions, to accept the words of children as evidence, despite the wealth of research showing that children almost never make up stories about being sexually abused.
“We know that children do not make up stories asserting they have been sexually molested. It is not in their interests to do so. Young children do not have the sexual knowledge necessary to fabricate an allegation” (Faller, 1999).
As a result, perpetrators are repeatedly left to abuse again, and victims are often re-victimised in multiple ways for truthfully asserting they have been sexually abused, to the extent that some families have found it necessary to leave their neighbourhoods (Briggs, 2017).
Disclosure highlights the fact there is a lack of alignment between child psychologists and psychiatrists and the legal powers of state. A key issue evident in the film is that children under the age of 10 cannot be considered criminally responsible for sexual abuse acts. This has resulted in a lack of agreement and consistency across Australia about appropriate responses in cases of children under the age of 10, compounded by a lack of child abuse-related training for adults whose work involves children. Parents, schools, police and social services are left ill-equipped to make effective and necessary interventions (Briggs, 2017).
Experts like criminologist Dr Wendy O’Brien at Australia’s Deakin University, Dr Joe Tucci at the Australian Childhood Foundation and Government Advisor Dr Russell Pratt have all argued that early therapeutic intervention (for child perpetrators) is essential for preventing future abuse.
The late Emeritus Professor Freda Briggs, in her submission for the Inquiry into the harm being done to Australian children through access to pornography on the internet, recommended that:
- more must be done to limit access to pornography on the internet,
- child protection school curriculum be made compulsory in all states,
- and all human service TAFE and university graduates whose work could involve children to undergo comprehensive practical and relevant child abuse-related training
“Clearly we are paying too high a price for adults’ rights to view whatever they wish regardless of the consequences for young people and society.” (Briggs, 2017)
Some emerging themes from this research include:
- young people who sexually abuse appear to share much in common with young people who engage in non-sexual criminal behaviours (Nisbet et al., 2005);
- young people who sexually abuse do not experience higher rates of mental illness than the general population;
- poor impulse control may be a factor in some young people’s offending (especially where peers or adults are targeted); however this may simply contribute to their being discovered, rather than having any causal significance for the abusive behaviour (Epps & Fisher, 2004);
- a diagnosis such as Conduct Disorder is sometimes applied to a young person on the basis of their sexual offending (effectively ‘after the fact’), as a way of explaining the behaviour; and young people who have abused a child (especially a younger sibling) may have a relative lack of social skills leading to isolation from peers (Hatch & Northam, 2005).
Family and environmental characteristics
Family background is thought by a number of researchers to be a factor in the development of some young people’s sexually abusive behaviours. This research typically suggests that parents of sexually abusive young people experienced higher rates of abusive experiences in their own childhood, and have more difficulties with family functioning generally (Duane, Carr, Cherry, McGrath, & O’Shea, 2003).
There is a growing body of research that links witnessing family violence as a child with the development of sexually abusive behaviour in young people (Righthand & Welch, 2004), especially in the case of sibling abuse (Hatch & Northam, 2005). However the research on families of young people who sexually abuse is generally inconclusive, due to the lack of control groups for comparison as well as small sample sizes. In regard to family dynamics, Duane and Morrison stated that, “it is possible only to say that these factors may be linked to the development of sexually abusive behaviour in some young people” (2004, p. 119). Problematic family relationships do not automatically result in sexually abusive behaviours. Some young people who sexually abuse have experienced violent or troubled childhoods, however most young people who grow up with abusive family dynamics do not sexually abuse.
Generally, the research suggests that individuals who sexually abuse children are more likely to be socially isolated and have poor social skills. Those who offend against peers or adults tend to use more physical force and aggression than those who sexually abuse children (Epps & Fisher, 2004).
What about younger siblings?
Recent research suggests that sibling sexual abuse is significantly more common than sexual abuse perpetrated by a parent (Children’s Protection Society, 2003). Any younger siblings, or siblings with a developmental delay or intellectual disability, should be considered to be at risk because of their heightened vulnerability. Sibling abuse tends to be more intrusive and occurs over longer periods of time (Hatch & Northam, 2005). In such situations, the abusive young person is also readily able to ‘groom’ the victim into compliance and prevent disclosures. Reference.
Children with problem sexual behaviours typically have complex factors which are disrupting their wellbeing. Most often, specialist assistance will be needed. They are more likely than the general population to have experienced sexual abuse or significant sexualising impacts such as exposure to pornography or inappropriate adult sexual interactions. The younger the child is, the greater the likelihood that they have experienced sexual abuse. Consult with, and refer to the Problem Sexual Behaviours and Sexually Abusive Behaviour Treatment Service agencies (listed on pp.51) in your region.
Retraction of a disclosure
Secrecy, entrapment, helplessness, accommodation and the pattern of delayed, partial and unconvincing disclosure, followed by retraction of the disclosure, was described as the ‘child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome’ by Roland Summit in 1983. Even after children have disclosed it is common for them to retract their original disclosure as they can become frightened and easily overwhelmed by ‘all the fuss’ and the consequences of the disclosure on their parents and family. Many children have later reported that they ‘just wanted it to stop’ and that they could not cope with the distress and what followed. ‘Taking it back’ for some children can seem the only way they can manage.
Some children can also miss the positive aspects of the relationship with the offender. It is important not to assume that issues of abuse are “black and white” for children. For example, in some cases children may value 70% of the time that they spend with the abuser, but hate the 30% of the time that is abusive. When they disclose abuse, they lose the “70%” of positive time. Thus they may retract the disclosure to regain the positive parts of the relationship.
Some offenders do not make overt threats; however, the child can feel frightened and intimidated and therefore be less likely to disclose or to maintain their disclosure, if they have perceived the offender’s power over others, particularly if they have witnessed his violence or aggression to other members of the family or to family pets. These behaviours by adult offenders are so powerful and frightening, there is no need for words.
A common constraint that prevents children from disclosing sexual abuse is that the offender has manipulated the child into thinking that the behaviour was their fault or choice, or normal – “this is what we do” or “you played the game”, therefore the child carries the shame and feels guilty and responsible. Given most abuse of children is perpetrated by known and often trusted adults, the child is enmeshed in a complex relationship and the dynamics of that relationship are powerful determinants in restricting the child’s freedom to speak out.
Children with sexualised behaviours are more likely to come from families with stress factors such as family violence, poverty, substance abuse, mental illness or a history of abuse. Deprived environments lack important protective factors and are associated with attachment problems in children (Friedrich 2007; Pithers et al. 1998b; Staiger et al. 2005).
Stress levels in parents and ineffective parental responses can be both a contributing factor to problem sexual behaviours in the child and a result of the child’s behaviours. This is particularly the case where there has been sibling problem sexual behaviour or where a close extended family member’s child has been harmed which has resulted in conflict between the families. Parents can struggle with painful feelings of anger, fear, self-doubt, divided loyalties and shame. Where parents are acutely distressed by the child’s problem sexual behaviours and they feel that they are ineffectual or inadequate in their response, their confidence and therefore their parenting practices can be compromised. The child will sense the parents’ anxiety and this will impact and increase the child’s anxiety, which frequently increases their behavioural difficulties. Families are dynamic and interactional and most communication is non-verbal. Children will sense and be affected by the emotional climate within the family, as well as what is being said or not said.
Some family environments may foster a lack of empathy for others, for instance, where cruelty to animals is enacted ‘for fun’ or where the scape-goating of a particular child is encouraged. The child may have experienced bullying or sexual assault at school, but this may not have been understood or responded to by the parents.
Where the parents are preoccupied or overwhelmed themselves, and there is a lack of supervision and parental support for the child, the child may be more vulnerable to sex offenders. Sex offenders frequently target vulnerable parents and groom the children in order to sexually abuse them. The child often accommodates to the sexual abuse and believes that such behaviours are the norm. Hence they are more likely to re-enact these sexual behaviours with other children.
Cook, H & Jacks, T. (2015) ‘Child on child sexual offences rock schools‘, The Age, 5 July
Faller, K. C. (1999) “Is the child victim of sexual abuse telling the truth?” in Child Abuse & Neglect. Vol. 8, pp. 473 – 481
Wright, P. J. (2015) ‘A meta-analysis of pornography Consumption and Actual Acts of Sexual Aggression in General Population Studies’. Journal of Communication 66 (1)
Trounson, A. (2017) Pornography: Exhibit A: Children who have sexually abused other children have spoken about their behaviour, spotlighting the need to tackle pornography and education https://pursuit.unimelb.edu.au/articles/pornography-exhibit-a (accessed 26/04/2017)