What are best practices for family reunification after child sexual abuse?

Thursday, September 01, 2016

by Jennifer Benner, Resource Development Specialist for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center

One in four girls and one in six boys have been sexually abused before the age of 18 (Dube et al., 2005) and over a quarter of male victims have experienced their first rape at or before age 10 (Black et al., 2011). Most of these children were sexually abused by someone they knew. For children it is estimated that 34% of rapes or sexual assaults reported to law enforcement were perpetrated by a family member, and for children under six the percentage is higher at 49% (Synder, 2000).

Children who have experienced sexual abuse may wish to be reunited with the family member who harmed them. For survivors, it is a common and conflicting experience to love the person who hurt you, longing for that relationship to exist without the abuse. Reunification after child sexual abuse is a topic that can bring up intense feelings, but the reality is that many who are convicted of a crime and sent to jail or prison do eventually return to their homes and communities. Even when the person who abused a child is held accountable for his or her crime, at some point, the community and his or her family will still need to interact with them in some way. The process of reunification includes reintegration into an offender’s community and family while maximizing safety, especially the safety of a child survivor. It is important to remember that this must be a survivor-led process, in partnership with non-offending caregivers, with the priority concern being the safety of the child. If at any point the child who was sexually abused does not wish to move forward with reunification, the process must be stopped immediately.

Reunification is both a multilayer and continual process of checking back in with the family and child who was abused and can be stopped at any time, even after it has begun. The process typically involves five steps (Tabachnick & Pollard, 2016):

  1. Treatment for Everyone: The child who was sexually abused, the person who offended, and the family.
  2. Assessment of Readiness: Professionals begin to communicate about the status of all family members and how they have progressed to ensure all presenting challenges or sources of trauma in the family system have been addressed.
  3. Clarification: Process in which the family comes together to openly discuss the abuse and the harm caused by it. The person who offended must accept full responsibility.
  4. Safety Planning: Create a comprehensive safety plan, focusing on both the strengths and the risk factors for the family. Provide boundaries to keep everyone in the family safe. (There is a great resource in NSVRC’s guide on creating a safety plan – see page 60!)
  5. Reconnection and/or Reunification: Depending on the family situation, relationships may be restored without actual reunification in the same household or they may be restored within the same household – providing that an effective safety plan is in place and the safety of the child can be ensured.

The NSVRC recently released a document entitled Considering Family Reconnection and Reunification After Child Sexual Abuse: A Road Map for Advocates and Service Providers. This guide provides advocates with information and resources on the reunification process and considerations if a family is exploring this option.

During the reunification process, advocates and other service providers should be actively involved with the child and family (check out the detailed chart of professionals on page 63 in NSVRC’s guide). Professionals should continually check in with them about how they are feeling about the process and what problems or concerns they may have. NSVRC recently released a guide that provides practical tips for working with parents of children who have been sexually abused that may be helpful. Additional resources are available online for parents with children who present with sexual behavior problems.

If at any time the child is uncomfortable or decides they need to stop the process for any reason, the process must stop. If at a later time the child would like to reconsider reunifying with the person who sexually abused them, they may discuss this option with their advocate or other service professionals who they may be working with. The process of reunification is different in every situation and is not a guaranteed process that necessarily ends with everyone living at home again. This process is largely dependent upon the family, with the focus on keeping the child safe from harm. More information is available describing best practices around general reunification or reunification of youth who have sexually offended.

For additional information and resources on this topic see:

What has your experience been with the family reconnection and reunification process? Offer your recommendations here.