This was one dad’s description of the system’s response after his child disclosed sibling sexual trauma. He worked in building design and construction, an industry that requires a wide variety of experts to collaborate toward a long-term goal. Their success is dependent on a project manager who can coordinate timing and decision making.
When parents (including biological parents, step-parents, foster parents or guardians) discover sibling sexual trauma in the family they are raising, they are overwhelmed by a maelstrom of conflicting emotions and fears. They are facing a family crisis that they may not have even realized was a possibility. The logistical and financial challenges of responding to the needs of all children are daunting. In the midst of this, parents are too often thrust into the role of project manager.
When sibling sexual abuse is disclosed while the children are still minors, a dizzying array of professionals become involved. These may include:
Law enforcement officers
Child welfare services
Prosecuting attorney and staff
Therapist(s) for children who were harmed
Therapist(s) for children who caused harm
Family/Child Custody Courts
Juvenile Court Judge
Juvenile Detention Staff
Each of these has their own role to play, their own expertise to offer, their own timeline and rules to follow. But rarely is any one assigned as project manager. No one is looking at the big picture, the whole family. No one is scrutinizing how a decision by one entity might affect the others and the family.
Most parents have little or no familiarity with these systems prior to their child’s disclosure. They do not know the jargon, the protocols, the job titles that they are suddenly dealing with. They don’t know what they need to know, let alone who to ask or how to advocate for their children. Yet they are forced to coordinate between systems they do not understand.
Personally, I have compared the experience of navigating the system to being dropped into the arena in The Hunger Games. I was suddenly forced to survive and defend my children in a world that was utterly unexpected, unfamiliar and disorienting. Being the parent of both survivor and offender, I was a known double agent, trusted by no one and able to trust no one. I discovered that even when asking for help or seeking information, my words could be misunderstood, or relayed till they were twisted in a high-stakes game of “telephone.” Sometimes I felt like my own worst enemy, when I tried to advocate for my kids but ended up making things worse.
The issues and decisions that parents must make range from the immediate and short-term, to decisions that will affect the long-term future of their children and their family. A few examples that are far from unusual:
Should I let police and child protection interview my children now, or get them a therapist first?
The social workers say I should remove my stepson from the home to keep his younger brother physically and emotionally safe. But he can’t live in a house with other children, and I fear that he will not be safe in the only other household available for him.
The court just ordered that I pay for my son’s residential treatment program. Don’t they realize this will leave nothing for the rest of us to live on–including the sister he violated?
They are saying the kids can’t attend the same school any more. Everyone will notice that my daughter is gone and will be asking her younger sister where she went. She feels this would be more triggering than seeing her older sister at school. Is there anything I can do?
The investigators closed the case because the child who caused the harm is too young to prosecute. But we can’t afford treatment, and the state won’t provide it unless a child is a victim of an official crime, or it’s court-ordered for the offender. How do I get both of my kids the help they need?
Sibling sexual harm is a whole-family trauma. Therapists and social workers can give crucial help and guidance–one hour at a time. The other 23 hours of the day, the other days of the week, parents are the children’s support and lifeline, caregiver and provider. Parental support is believed to be the most crucial factor in a child’s ability to heal from sexual trauma. It follows that providing support to parents will greatly increase their children’s prognoses. And it will reduce the chances of further family adversity, such as divorce, job loss, parental addiction, physical or mental illness.
Resources and staffing are chronically stretched in mental health and safeguarding settings. Any investment of time and resources to make parents more effective will reduce dependence on social services in the long run. Here are some steps for Child Advocacy Centers and other first-line responders to consider:
Provide parents up front with basic information about the processes and organizations that they will be dealing with, including information that may seem obvious to staff (for example, whether a phone number is OK to text, what is the role of a “District Attorney”)
Whenever possible, convey critical information in more than one way–verbally, in writing, in graphics or online. People learn in different ways. And in times of trauma and crisis they may have difficulty retaining the information they are given.
Suggest that parents keep a notebook, in writing or on their phone, to keep track of questions and notes from meetings and phone calls.
Sooner rather than later, help parents find their own source of mental health support.
Let parents know exactly what information you will share with whom.
Give parents direction on where to ask questions about various topics, including financial assistance. Include confidential sources of information and support such as the Stop It Now! or RAINN hotlines (US) or Stop It Now! (UK)
Consider recommending https://www.siblingsexualtrauma.com, which includes a wealth of general information on sibling sexual abuse aimed at families in need of support
Seek funding for a family advocate position who can serve in a project manager role, helping parents coordinate the multiple services and systems that their family needs, directing them to resources as needed, looking out for parents’ welfare and mental health.
If a separate family advocate is not available, look for ways for professionals to take the initiative in coordinating care between service providers, ideally assigning one to the role of family liaison and overseer.