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InPsych 2013 | Vol 35

October | Issue 5

Cover feature : The sexual abuse of children

Protecting children from sexual abuse

Many questions about child sexual abuse have still not received adequate answers. Why and how does child sexual abuse occur and therefore how may it be prevented? Can children protect themselves from abuse and what should the role of the community, schools and parents be? Developed countries have sophisticated data collection systems to document what seems to be an ever-rising incidence of abuse and prevention programs have proliferated in recent decades. Yet many countries have found that reports exceed the capacity of social services to intervene with any but the most severe cases or those with the highest likelihood of repeat or ongoing abuse. Large numbers of children are abused each year both by individuals acting alone or in networks and by people who are protected by institutions.

Clearly, greater efforts towards prevention of child sexual abuse are required. A model described by Finkelhor many years ago (1984) remains useful to provide some structure for a discussion of prevention. Finkelhor’s model does not explain why abuse occurs but does offer ideas about how it occurs, suggesting that there are four conditions that must be met for abuse to occur. Each stage in the Finkelhor model offers the potential for targeted prevention interventions.

How sexual abuse occurs (Finkelhor’s four stage model)
  • A potential offender needs to have some desire to abuse a child.
  • A perpetrator must overcome internal inhibitions that block acting on the motivation to abuse.
  • External impediments to carry out acts of abuse must be overcome, i.e., typically this means that an opportunity to be alone with the child must be found.
  • Any resistance offered by the child must be overcome.

Although Finkelhor’s model identifies where a broad variety of prevention interventions could be targeted, stages 3 and 4 of the model provide the best opportunities for protecting children through school and parent-focused approaches.

School-based prevention approaches

School-based programs in particular are often targeted at stage 4, aiming to equip children with the knowledge and skills to act in ways that reduce the likelihood of abuse occurring and helping them to report abuse and to seek help if abuse occurs. School-based programs are needed because some parents lack the knowledge or skills to be able to provide the required safety messages themselves. Without education children do not understand that sexually abusive behaviour is wrong, are most likely to keep sexual misbehaviour secret, and do not know how to report sexual misbehaviour.

School-based child protection programs typically focus on helping children to:

  • Identify their ‘private parts’ i.e., parts of their bodies that, in general, should not be touched by others
  • Identify when they feel uncomfortable in situations involving touching
  • Understand and assert their rights (e.g., to reject unwanted touching, bullying and harassment)
  • Enlist adult support (i.e., to ‘tell someone you trust’ if they feel unsafe)
  • Not keep ‘bad secrets’ (i.e., to identify the difference between bad or scary secrets and other secrets, and to tell adults about bad secrets)
  • Not blame themselves for their victimisation (Briggs & Hawkins, 1997, p. 212).

Evaluation of school-based prevention programs

A collaboration lasting more than two decades has evaluated school-based prevention programs in Australia and New Zealand aimed at equipping children with greater knowledge to protect themselves against sexual abuse (e.g., Briggs & Hawkins, 1997). Not all programs have equal outcomes. Two particular models of interest are the Protective Behaviours program used in various parts of Australia (in South Australia since 1985) and the Keeping Ourselves Safe model used in New Zealand schools with the support of New Zealand Police.

When children were interviewed before the Protective Behaviours program and again one year later there was little improvement in ‘safe’ responses to interview questions. Much better results were found from the New Zealand Keeping Ourselves Safe program where, for example, three quarters of the children had learned that secrets must never be kept if they involve ‘rude’ behaviour (Briggs & Hawkins, 1994).

The Protective Behaviours program teaches that “We all have the right to feel safe all of the time” and “Nothing is so awful that we can't talk about it to someone”. A weakness of the program is that it assumes that sexual abuse will cause ‘unsafe’ feelings and does not take into account the context of child sexual abuse, which may well occur in an apparently affectionate relationship.

A meta-analysis of 16 school-based child sexual abuse prevention programs (Rispens, Aleman, & Goudena, 1997) showed that such programs are successful at teaching children sexual abuse concepts and self-protection skills. What is more difficult to know is whether sexual abuse is actually less frequent in children who have received training. Such an ‘acid test’ study would require random allocation to control and intervention groups and tracking of actual abuse on a longitudinal basis – difficult because we know very well that reported abuse is a very insensitive measure of actual abuse. Nonetheless, Gibson and Leitenberg (2000) showed that eight per cent of female undergraduates who had received a ‘good touch-bad touch’ sexual abuse prevention program in school reported having been subsequently sexually abused, whereas the rate was 14 per cent for women who had not received any school-based prevention program.

Understandings from abusers who have been abused themselves

The complex issue of why some men who were sexually abused as children grow up to become child sexual abusers themselves has some implications for child-focused prevention approaches. A study comparing men in Australian prisons for child sexual abuse with non-offenders who had been abused as children showed that a context of the sexual abuse being perceived as normal or even enjoyable was associated with later offending (Briggs & Hawkins, 1996). One implication from the study is that child protection programs that depend on children's assertiveness or their recognition of unwanted or uncomfortable touching may not be as effective in stopping abuse. Since paedophiles often use sophisticated grooming processes, this presents a particular challenge to prevention programs which rely to some extent on children distinguishing between ‘good touch’ and ‘bad touch’ and ‘good secrets’ versus ‘bad secrets’.

Parent-focused prevention approaches

Stage 3 of the Finkelhor model alludes to the secrecy required for acts of abuse to occur and it is here that parents might be encouraged to be careful in their assessment of the conditions under which it is safe to leave their child alone with an older juvenile or adult. This is a difficult area because, as Babatsikos (2010) has demonstrated, in spite of statistics showing that children are most often abused by people they know and trust, parents often still believe that strangers are the greatest threat to their children and are not ready to confront the reality of risks closer to home.

Prevention programs which target parents are needed to supplement school-based programs that leave the onus on the child to prevent and report abuse. Research on parents’ role in sexual abuse prevention is relatively rare as most prevention efforts have been inclined to focus on educating children to protect themselves through school-based programs. Recent work by Babatsikos (2011) has explored the ways in which parents manage the risk of sexual abuse. Her findings identified the need for response strategies beyond reporting to authorities (because parents were hesitant to contact authorities when incidents occurred) and the need to emphasise the subtleness of grooming behaviours to parents (because grooming is a key strategy used in sexual abuse and its subtle nature means that it may easily remain undetected). Other considerations include helping parents to initiate child abuse prevention discussions (since parents often reported a lack of confidence or skill in this area) and developing general communication skills with children.

A challenge for the prevention field is to find ways to provide parents with realistic information and to offer reasonable and sensible protection strategies without scaring them into unnecessary hypervigilance and mistrust.

Next steps

This discussion has demonstrated that the quality of the evidence for the value of child protection programs in preventing child sexual abuse is relatively poor, and that there are a number of factors which may impact on the effectiveness of programs. Tomison and Poole’s (2000) review of Australian protective behaviours programs found no RCT-level evaluative studies, and these methodological issues require attention. Given the sophistication of the grooming processes used by some child sexual abusers, the veil of secrecy and/or threats used by abusers, and children’s incomplete cognitive development, it is unreasonable to expect children to be self-sufficient with sexual abuse prevention. Broader complementary family and community prevention approaches are also needed.

Of course most fathers are protective of their children and most men are not abusers. The fact that, statistically at least, some people who should be able to be trusted may be potential abusers is difficult to contemplate. How can programs that identify fathers, step-fathers and neighbours as potential abusers be made palatable? Integrating family and community prevention programs with those offered in schools seems an important but difficult task. Such integration will have to confront the tendency towards denial which has already been identified as an important consideration in training teachers to meet their duty as mandated reporters of abuse (Hawkins & McCallum, 2001).

The current Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is just the latest reminder of the depths of the problem faced by our society. Psychologists may be able to assist in the development of prevention programs which better integrate child, family and community approaches and thus help to make prevention measures more effective.

The author can be contacted at Russell.Hawkins@jcu.edu.au


Disclaimer: Published in InPsych on October 2013. The APS aims to ensure that information published in InPsych is current and accurate at the time of publication. Changes after publication may affect the accuracy of this information. Readers are responsible for ascertaining the currency and completeness of information they rely on, which is particularly important for government initiatives, legislation or best-practice principles which are open to amendment. The information provided in InPsych does not replace obtaining appropriate professional and/or legal advice.