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Separating Siblings

It’s common for a disclosure of sibling sexual trauma to be followed by a time when the siblings are separated. This could be by the child’s or parent’s choice, or it could be required by child welfare or law enforcement authorities. It could be a temporary separation or it could last a long time.


Parents are deeply affected by this separation, at any age. They are suddenly faced with an ongoing, inter-related series of problems to solve. When both children are minors and were living in the same home prior to disclosure, these dilemmas are extremely challenging emotionally, logistically, financially, socially, and relationally. Even when social services or courts require separation, they often offer little practical or financial help. Support from family and friends isn’t as readily accessible as it would be in the case of a sudden illness or death. Issues of maintaining the separation and deciding who to tell about the sexual trauma easily get intertwined.


There is no way to make it easy, no set of guidelines that will work for everyone. Here are some common concerns.


Why are the authorities breaking up our family?  Why is it such an immediate priority?

The mission of child welfare services is to keep a child who was harmed safe from future abuse. This is usually accomplished by requiring separation. Social services and law enforcement are also focused on gathering evidence that would be admissible in court if necessary.  They view both children as potential witnesses, and they need to keep the witnesses separate so that their potential testimony won’t be questioned as tainted. 

Some social workers may be open to using the VORS Principle (Voice, Openness, Responsibility and Safety) in guiding decision-making around safety and separation.


Why does the therapist recommend that they live separately?  

The process of therapy and healing (including forgiveness and reconciliation, if it goes that far) goes best if the child who was harmed can feel absolutely safe and let their guard down. Then they can fully face feelings such as fear and rage and process those feelings. This usually works better at a distance, when there is no chance of glimpsing the one who violated them in the past.  

Couldn’t we just keep them in different parts of the house, put a lock on the bedroom and bathroom door, and keep them supervised?  

Unfortunately, it sometimes happens that parents think they are keeping children separated and safe, but abusive behavior somehow continues anyway. That’s not a chance most professionals are willing to take.  


Also, a child who has experienced sexual trauma may need to know that the person who harmed them is far away in order to feel safe. The process of disclosure itself brings a heightened sense of fear.  The survivor may also fear retaliation after they tell their story, often with good reason.   These fears may subside, or not, as the healing process proceeds. 

This doesn't mean that children always need to be separated. Sometimes it is safe, and less disruptive, to allow both children to continue to live at home with a preventative safety plan and treatment as needed.


They are best friends!  He misses his big brother and wants to play with him.  Why do they have to stay separated even if both want to be together?  

Everyone in the family is likely to have very complex emotions, to have a lot of ambivalence. This can even be true of the child who was harmed. They often still love the sibling who harmed them, still enjoy playing together, and miss their companionship, even if they also fear them, are triggered by their face or voice or smell, or are intensely angry at them. You can listen and validate whatever feeling the child has toward their sibling in the moment. “Yes, it sure feels different without him.  How do you feel when you can’t play ball with him?”  


You can also discuss this with your child’s therapist, and encourage the therapist to discuss it with your child. If both children’s therapists feel it would be safe, physically and emotionally, for them to see each other, ask for the therapists’ help in advocating for permission for some visits.


Why doesn’t she want to see him now?  This ended decades ago and they have seen each other plenty of times since!

 A person who has carried the secret of sibling sexual trauma for years, even decades, will be unearthing a lot of feelings and memories that have been deeply buried. When they are exposed, triggers and emotions are suddenly more intense. The child who kept a secret to protect the family is finally voicing their own wants and needs, even if it means upsetting others and disrupting the family. For now the best thing to do is to support the survivor and respect the boundaries they need.


Won’t keeping them separate for so long make it harder for them to reconcile long-term?

It might.  But the time apart also might allow for healing that allows the relationship to continue into the future. There is a real risk both ways.  


My son needs my support now more than ever, but they are making him move out.  He is losing his family, his school, his friends--how is that supposed to help him heal and move forward in a healthy way?    

In general it is better for the one who caused the harm to bear the consequences of moving or changing schools, so that the sibling who was harmed isn’t in the position of feeling punished for reporting what happened. But these concerns for the sibling who caused the harm is still valid. Legal authorities may label a child who has sexually harmed another child as an “offender,” forgetting that they are also a child in need of help and support. Parents may have to persistently advocate for authorities to see the child who caused the harm as a complex person, going through their own trauma, at a critical crossroads in life. Look for allies, such as the child’s therapist or attorney, to help advocate for creative solutions that allow the family to support the child who has offended. At a minimum, it should be appropriate for communication and visits to remain open between parents and a child who is living outside the home.


If he has to move out, people will notice. My daughter isn’t ready for family and friends to know about the abuse yet.  How do I explain his absence without outing her? or She doesn’t want to see him, but she doesn’t want everyone to know what happened either. What will we tell everyone if he doesn’t show up for the family holiday celebration?  

This can be really hard. You have permission to use an alibi. You have permission to tell little, or even big, white lies.  You have permission to be silent and let others wonder. You have permission to tell people it’s none of their business.  You have permission to skip the family holiday this year. You have permission to be very vague: “He is going through a difficult time,” “She is out of town,” etc.


He can’t go into treatment until they sentence him, but I don’t know anyone he could stay with who doesn’t have children.  We can’t afford a second apartment. I don’t want him to have to be in foster care. Help!  

This is a very difficult situation for many families. Social workers should be prepared to devote time to help find a solution. The priority should be that the child who was harmed has the least disruption in their life. However, a child who has caused sexual harm also needs care and support. And they should not be sent to live in a house with other children. And the time just after disclosure is extremely traumatic for the child who acted wrongly as well. Even if a trusted friend’s or relative’s home is available, caring for a troubled child whose life is in turmoil is very challenging. The sad truth is that very often there is no good option available.


Options that families have used for separate housing for the child who caused sexual trauma include:

  • Staying with a grandparent

  • Staying with a close family friend who does not have children

  • Staying in a hotel or Airbnb with one parent, or with parents alternating between homes

  • In stepfamilies, staying with the other parent

  • Residential treatment

  • Juvenile detention

  • Foster care, either short-term or long-term

Here is one parent’s story of separating siblings after disclosure of sexual trauma, shared by Stop It Now! in this archived parent newsletter.

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