Thinking of children or youth as capable of sexually abusing other children or youth can be difficult to consider and challenging to address. In addition, it’s not always easy to tell the difference between normal sexual curiosity and behaviors that are potentially abusive.
Normal Sexual Development vs. Abusive Behaviors
First, it’s important to distinguish between age-appropriate and age-inappropriate sexual behaviors. Many children engage in sexual behaviors and show sexual interests throughout their childhood years, even before they reach puberty. However, normal (or expected) sexual behaviors are usually not overtly sexual, occur between children of about the same age and size, are more exploratory and playful in nature rather than planned, do not show a preoccupation with sexual interactions, and are not hostile, aggressive, or hurtful to the child or to others.
These behaviors of childhood and adolescence are a concern when they are extensive or suggest preoccupation, or involve others in ways that are not consensual. That is, sexual behaviors in children are problematic and present a special concern when they appear as prominent features in a child’s/youth’s life, where there are larger differences in the children’s/youths’ ages and size or developmental ability, when manipulation or bribery are employed, or when sexual play or behaviors aren’t welcomed by other children/youth involved in the play. This is the point where “play” crosses the line into sexually harmful and aggressive behaviors.
Often, the types of behaviors that “cross the line” can be warning signs that a child/youth has been exposed to, or had contact with, inappropriate sexual activities or material and is reacting to the experience—particularly if the child/youth expresses or demonstrates knowledge of sexual activity that is normally beyond the understanding of someone their age. Some may have witnessed physical or sexual violence at home and are acting on what they have seen. Some may have been exposed to sexually explicit movies, video games, or other pornographic materials. In other instances, a child/youth may act on a passing impulse with no harmful intent, but still cause harm to other children/youth.
When to Report Problematic Sexual Behaviors by Children and Youth
It’s always important to seek help promptly in instances of suspected, observed, or self-disclosed problematic sexual behaviors between children/youth. In these cases, you and your staff should take the following steps:
- If there is reasonable cause to believe that a child/youth has been sexually abused, file a 51A with DCF.
- DCF will screen the 51A Report to determine if a response is warranted.
- Regardless of the outcome of the screening decision, DCF typically makes a DA referral.
- The CACs (Child Advocacy Centers) work collaboratively with the DA offices and will determine their response to these referrals; this could include therapeutic services.
Problematic sexual behavior (PSB) requires coordinated intervention and services in a number of areas. Children/youth who engage in problematic sexual behaviors with other children/youth need specialized help and support to stop the behavior, and the children/youth who are victimized by those behaviors need help to recover from the trauma. Counseling for the caregivers and the families of the children/youth is also an important component to successfully stop the behavior. Sexual contact between older youth (adolescents) who are close in age carries the additional complexity of appearing “consensual” but nonetheless needs to be addressed.
Massachusetts laws in this area can be confusing but are evolving through discussions at senior governmental levels. In most cases, the desired intervention for minors with problematic sexual behaviors is focused on treatment, rather than criminal investigation and punishment. Only the most serious cases—depending on the age of the child or adolescent who perpetrated the abuse—may result in legal consequences through the juvenile justice system.
That’s why early intervention and treatment from a multidisciplinary perspective can be a major intervention in preventing sexually abusive behavior into adulthood. Sexual activity between children/youth can be prevented in many of the same ways sexual activity between adults and children/youth is addressed. You must prevent situations where children and youth are alone and unsupervised, both onsite and offsite, and ensure that your staff and volunteers are trained in the warning signs and symptoms of sexual abuse.
As always, vigilance is key. Your staff must be even more vigilant during times when children/youth have been shown to be more vulnerable to abuse: non-structured program time, free time between activities, shower time, trips to the restroom, and changing for the pool or other sporting events. No matter where children/youth are, they must always be there with the knowledge of your staff—and always under staff supervision or observation.
Nationally, over one-third of reported cases of child sexual abuse are committed by individuals who are under the age of 18 themselves. (CTA, 106)
Intervention is prevention. Unlike adult offenders, if caught and stopped early, studies report that from 85 to 95% of offending youth never re-offend. (CTA, p108)
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