Sibling Reunification & Safety Planning
Note: This article applies to minor children living in the same household, at least some of the time.
A basic safety plan is actually a good idea for every family. The vast majority of sibling sexual trauma happens when families are unaware. You now know you need a safety plan, which is a good thing. Even if the behavior that brought you to this website seems to fall within your children’s normal sexual development, it is wise to start now in creating communication, boundaries, and precautions to keep your children safe now and in the future. Tip Sheet: Create A Family Safety Plan | Stop It Now is a good place to start for a general preventative safety plan. If you would like more assistance, contact a Child Advocacy Center.
If your children’s sexual trauma has led to a period of separation, this might be the time you have been hoping for. You all get to be together, to live as a family again! Or it might be the time you have been dreading. How will you manage all your children’s needs as well as their interactions with each other–on top of all the usual parent responsibilities? Most parents feel some of both.
If social services and/or therapists have been involved with your family, they should be involved in the safety planning process. This can be a help or a stress or both. As a parent, you are the expert on your family’s home and routines. You are the primary person that will have to carry out this safety plan. Be persistent, assertive, and realistic when working with the professionals in planning and carrying out your safety plan.
There is no way to cover everything that you will need to keep your children safe. Here are some basics to keep in mind.
How can we live together again if I don’t yet trust the child who caused the harm before? But how do I know if I can trust them if the children haven’t been together yet?
Trusting a child or teen to recognize their triggers and control their behavior is part of a safety plan, but the safety of other children in the home should never rest primarily on this. All teens and preteens are prone to impulsive and risky behavior. It takes practice for anyone to implement skills at home that they have learned in residential or outpatient therapy. The child who crossed boundaries in the past will need support and encouragement to be successful. They need to have a way to alert others if they are having difficulty following their plan. There need to be other layers of protection so that if they move toward inappropriate behavior, something or someone is in place to stop them.
The success of any plan depends on having many layers of protection in place.
No one strategy can be trusted to work every time. There need to be strategies in place to reduce opportunities to violate the plan, in addition to strategies that help catch the first steps toward inappropriate behavior before anyone gets hurt.
Physical safety is a critical part of the plan, but only one part.
Safety planning usually starts with the logistics of physical safety: Locks and alarms on doors, bedroom and bathroom routines, keeping children in line-of-sight adult supervision. It also includes body space boundaries, such as rules around touching, playing, physical proximity.
Mental and emotional safety needs to be part of the plan.
Many if not all of your family members are dealing with emotional wounds, heightened fears, or PTSD. Your family will probably need to respect extra boundaries beyond what’s needed for physical safety, so everyone can feel safe, continue with emotional healing, and establish the trust needed to rebuild family relationships. For example, the family should set boundaries around sexual jokes and teasing or choice of media in the home.
Include digital privacy and safety plans.
This includes use of filtering, monitoring, when and where children can access which devices. It includes monitoring content coming into the home as well as what children are communicating with each other and others and their ability to use images.
Communication is key.
Everyone who lives in the household and regularly spends time in the household, including any adult ever left in charge, needs to know about the safety plan and be able to talk about it freely. Family members need to have the language and skills necessary to tell each other their needs and wants, to assert their boundaries, to express their emotions. They need to be able to respond in a way that everyone feels safe. They don’t have to be perfect but they do need to learn ways to recover when there are hurt feelings and misunderstandings.
A realistic plan doesn’t rely on family alone.
Children need to identify at least one other adult, preferably more, who they can go to if they are feeling unsafe or if they feel the plan is not working in any way. Adults also need to have support in place to be able to modify the plan, to problem-solve issues that arise, to have respite from the demands of constant supervision and vigilance.
The plan will need a way to change over time.
Every family member’s needs will change as they go through various stages of grief and healing. Children are always growing and progressing through new stages of social, relational, and sexual development. Comfort levels and plans will need to change if problems arise as well as if trust develops. Families may need ongoing support to adapt not only their plans but their communication styles.
What if I still don’t feel in my gut that our family is ready for the children to be together? What if one of the children doesn’t seem ready?
There is reason to be cautious. Be assertive and persistent if anyone is pushing your family toward reunification and you don’t feel you are all ready. Be honest, specific, and realistic about your family’s ability to follow the plan consistently. There is real risk in being overconfident of success or in following an organization’s general commitment to keeping families together without planning for long-term risks. While no child is ever 100% free of the risk of sexual abuse, plans for reunification and safety planning need to err on the side of caution and should always defer to the freely-chosen preferences of the child whose boundaries were violated in the past.
Reunification doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing.
It is usually a gradual process, starting with joint therapy, time spent together as a family outside the home, and short visits in the home. It may or may not then progress to weekend visits and the family living together long-term. Any bit of successful progress is a valuable step toward long-term family strength.
Covenant Eyes screenshot-based digital filtering, monitoring, and accountability
Sibling sexual abuse: A knowledge and practice overview P. 36-39 Determining the Level of Contact Between Siblings
Sibling sexual abuse – Safeguarding Network Ensuring Safety Following a Concern
Restoring Relationships in Sibling Sexual Abuse: A Paradigm Shift Introducing the VORS Principle (Voice, Openness, Responsibility, Safety)– Nancy Falls and Melissa Maltar
National Sexual Violence Resource Center Guide: Considering family reconnections and reunification after child sexual abuse: A road map for advocates and service providers. Tabachnick, J., & Pollard, P. (2016) Enola, PA
National Children’s Alliance: What Happens Now: Facing Sexual Behavior Problems with Your Child
Applying Situational Principles to Sexual Offenses Against Children from Situational Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse, p. 7-35, 2006, Richard Wortley and Stephen Smallbone, eds, NCF-215297, Office of Justice Programs, US Dept of Justice
Alex R. Dopp, Charles M. Borduin, Daniel B. Rothman & Elizabeth J. Letourneau (2017) Evidence-Based Treatments for Youths Who Engage in Illegal Sexual Behaviors, Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 46:5, 631-645, DOI: 10.1080/15374416.2016.1261714