Podcast: sibling sexual abuse

Last updated: 06 Jun 2022 Topics: Podcast Type: Podcast
Overview

Providing support where there’s been harmful sexual behaviour (HSB) between siblings

Sibling sexual abuse is a type of intrafamilial abuse that often involves forms of harmful sexual behaviour (HSB).

This episode features Katy Tomkinson and Rowan Wolfe who work on our HSB service for children, young people and families. Listen to the episode for a discussion on:

  • the effects of sibling sexual abuse on children and families, including challenges faced
  • the importance of safety plans and managing risk effectively
  • the impact of family dynamics on children and how this can contribute towards the behaviour displayed
  • how you can provide whole-family support and facilitate reunification.


Listen on YouTube


About the speakers

Katy Tomkinson is a qualified social worker who has worked at the NSPCC for over five years. She has undertaken assessments of therapeutic need and provided therapeutic interventions for young people who have been sexually harmed.

Rowan Wolfe has worked at the NSPCC for fifteen and a half years as a qualified social worker. She has worked with children and young people who have displayed harmful sexual behaviour by undertaking assessments and providing therapeutic interventions.

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Related resources

> Browse our resources and research about harmful sexual behaviour

> Listen to our episode on direct work with children displaying HSB

> Play our episode on planning therapeutic sessions for children displaying HSB

Transcript

Podcast transcription

Introduction:
Welcome to the NSPCC Learning podcast, where we share learning and expertise in child protection from inside and outside of the organisation. We aim to create debate, encourage reflection and share good practice on how we can all work together to keep babies, children and young people safe.

Ali:
Hi and welcome to the latest NSPCC Learning podcast. The episode you're about to listen to was recorded in January 2022 and focuses on practice considerations when working with children and families where there's been harmful sexual behaviour (HSB) between siblings. Katy Tomkinson and Rowan Wolfe are children's service practitioners and social workers from our Stoke service centre, who work on our harmful sexual behaviour service.

In this podcast, they talk about the impact intrafamilial abuse can have on families. They talk about supporting families with patience, empathy and understanding, the importance of safety plans, the differences in harmful sexual behaviour contexts and contributing factors when family dynamics are involved, and reunification work - how families can, and do, move on in the future.

Katy and Rowan began by talking about how families are often in crisis when they first arrive for harmful sexual behaviour service sessions.

Katy:
I think when families come to work with us, where there's been harmful sexual behaviour between siblings, they really are in crisis. It is a bit like a metaphorical bomb has gone off in the family. I think parents can feel hugely conflicted. There might be some level of denial. Or they might be really rejecting of the child that might have displayed the harmful sexual behaviour. And I think it's really, really important that we approach it with supporting that family with real patience, empathy and understanding. But I think what we also know is that they're not necessarily able to manage that risk really effectively to begin with, perhaps because of the denial or the rejection - anything that's in place, which makes me think that probably having a really robust safety plan right at the beginning of the work is crucial.

Rowan:
Safety planning is really important in all cases, but particularly when sibling sexual abuse has occurred. The family dynamics can be quite different. And you often have a situation where the child who has experienced the harmful sexual behaviour is living in the home with the person who's done that behaviour to them. So to have that safety plan in place, to ensure that they feel safe, but also to manage the risks that may be presented.

Whenever you're doing a plan, it's really important that that plan is amended and reviewed as the work goes on, because there's so many new bits of information that come out in the work or changes to the family dynamic, and that needs to be reflected throughout.

But I think it's really important that you also think about the environment which has facilitated the behaviour in the first place and how you look at those specific risks and put those within the safety plan to reflect those dynamics that go on. And I think you need to think about, not only how the family functions as a whole, but looking at all the individual relationships within that. And that isn't just between the two parties where the HSB has occurred, but also it might be about how parents treat each of those children. Do they treat them differently? Do they treat them the same?

When sibling sexual abuse has occurred within a family unit, there might also be significant child protection or safeguarding issues that need to be thought about. And that needs to be reference within the plan as well, about how you manage that.

We need to think about parents' ability to protect. And when we think about the contributory factors to how the HSB had occurred in the first place, what of the family dynamics, and the parenting dynamics, are also factors in the development of that behaviour? So we need to think about, has it been a sexualised environment that the children have grown up in? Were there any warning signs? Have parents missed those warning signs? And if so, why did they miss them? Were they not available at the time? Is it because they've got their own experiences and they thought that that was normal behaviour for children? And we need to think about the background features. Is there any domestic violence? Is there conflict within the family? And one thing that I've noticed, we also have to think about potential other ways where the parents may be at risk. So when the HSB is displayed towards the parents as well, there may also be violence towards parents. And that's really difficult because it's the parent then that who's got to implement the safety plan. But they may be in a position where they're frightened of their child. Or they're in a position that their child has power of them. So how can they implement it effectively?

Katy:
At risk themselves.

Rowan:
Yeah.

Katy:
And I think also, I often hear that a safety plan in the home isn't really valid or necessary because they don't believe that the parent will be able to adhere to it. But where that's the case and where that might highlight additional safeguarding concerns, we should still set out a safety plan and some clear expectations because it does provide some real insight in the assessment around that parent's capacity to keep children safe. But then conversely, I don't know if you've seen this, but sometimes safety plans that just reflect parents who supervise, actually, that's really difficult for a parent to manage because no one can supervise all of the time.

Rowan:
It's just not practical.

Katy:
It's not practical. And that's quite parent-blaming then, isn't it? If things go wrong, the idea is that that's the parents’ fault because they weren't supervising as per the safety plan. But that safety plan is set out to fail, because people need to be able to go for a shower, people need to be able to use the loo, or go to bed and sleep at night.

Rowan:
The plan's got to be proportionate to the risk as well, hasn't it? So if we're saying that a child is so risky that they can't be left for a second, then we have to consider should they be still living in that environment together? If that's not the case, and we know that there are certain risky times like bedtime, bath times, perhaps previously they've babysat for their siblings, they may be times that the parent can manage because it's a shorter period of time. I think we talked about top tips, so you might have a situation where during the usual routines of the day, like that getting ready in the morning, going to bed at night, just make sure that the parent is always at the part of the house that the children are at. I know you've talked about baby monitors.

Katy:
Sometimes they've been used really effectively, particularly in communal areas, they've used baby monitors. We've had lots of discussions with video recording equipment. I think you need to be really careful with that, that we're not infringing on people's rights of privacy, really. If children are being recorded in their own bedroom, then I think there's a question mark about their ability to have a healthy development while effectively being filmed all the time. And I think if the risk is so great that they need to be filmed all the time, then we need to be thinking about should those siblings be living together at all? Are there other family members that might be able to support whilst the assessment and the work is going on? So I do think anything sort of monitoring/recording equipment needs to be thought about really carefully with the family, with the wider professional network. But certainly, baby monitors on the landing to hear if children are getting out of bed in the night, and things like, that can be used effectively.

Rowan:
Yeah, I think often siblings might share bedrooms as well. Situations where you've got a number of siblings and you might say, well, the person who's displayed the HSB isn't going to share a bedroom with the person who's been impacted, but you also need to think about the risks to the other siblings. So one, it might be, has there been any HSB that's occurred to other siblings but we only found out about one sibling? But also don't assume that they're okay because it hasn't happened to them. We often suggest that they shouldn't be sharing bedrooms. And that becomes really challenging for families, particularly if they're not in a position that there is no other bedrooms, or there's no space in the house to put beds. We have situations where children have had to sleep in parents' rooms, for a period of time. It doesn't have to be forever. But until we get to the point where we understand the behaviour, we've done some intervention work, we can see that children have got internal controls in place, we do need to seriously think about the safety of the children.

Katy:
We know that there are lots of crossover in sibling sexual abuse cases and other forms of harmful sexual behaviour. There's lots of similar contributing factors. But I think there are also specific factors that relate to cases of sibling sexual abuse, which I think is what you're saying really in terms of that really understanding the behaviour in order that we can manage risk effectively. Do you have any examples of where there might be differing contributing factors in sibling sexual abuse cases?

Rowan:
Yeah, I think some of these factors are similar to the wider group of young people that we see who displayed the behaviour. But the nature of living in the same home means that specific dynamics occur. So parenting is a significant factor in how they parent their children, how they treat them, how they give them different levels of responsibility. Do they put their children in positions of power over the other child? Siblings live and grow together, and therefore they just have more time available together. They spend large periods of time in the home together, or out play. So sometimes opportunities can occur through lack of supervision where parents generally are unavailable, and that might be physically and emotionally. So that the other siblings are stepping into different roles for potentially younger and more vulnerable siblings.

Katy:
Like a caring type role.

Rowan:
Yeah. They might be doing practical tasks or it might be that they become the person that the more vulnerable sibling goes to for nurture and care and support, or if they've got a problem. It may be because a parent's out working, it doesn't mean that we're suggesting that parents are neglectful. And there are occasions where they are. But it could be that, financially, they have to work long hours to be able to pay the bills. But what it does do is leave the children unsupervised for long periods of time. And with a lot of families, that would still be okay, but when you might have other factors that we'll go on to talk about, that could cause a problem.

Katy:
It sounds like often sibling abuse happens because of the duration of availability of a sibling. But then conversely, we do also see that sometimes siblings are targeted specifically. So you might have a situation in a household where children are treated differently. You might have a really favoured child and then you might have a child that is scapegoated and rejected and sometimes, thinking of examples where you've had, a mum has had several children with an abusive partner and then that partner's left and they've gone on to have children with another partner who's still in that family home, that those younger children with current partner have been more favoured. Certainly, I've seen that in my casework and there's evidence within our assessment that the harmful sexual behaviour has been specifically directed at that child because of feelings of anger, resentment, jealousy towards that child. And I think whilst we think that they may have been targeted deliberately, we need to remember that they are children first and they're seeking to have their needs met really, rather than the way an adult might target a child.

Rowan:
I think conversely, you can have a situation where the favoured child is the one that displays the behaviour because generally the parents believe them and the younger child, or the less favoured child might think “well mum and dad often believe that child anyway, so they're not going to believe me if I say something”. There's lots of different dynamics that can take place. I think we've talked a bit about if you've got a potentially an older sibling taking on more of a parental role, or being an emotional stand in for parents being less available and then the more vulnerable sibling potentially becoming depending on the sibling that displays the HSB. And that then becomes really difficult. So if you tell someone about what they're doing to you, you kind of lose your main caregiver, or somebody that meets your needs and lots of other ways. Often when there is abuse within families, regardless of whether that could be adult to child, or within sibling groups, there's also potentially a love that's there. This is somebody that they love and value, they just want the behaviour to stop. And that can leave a lot of emotional harm to deal with in understanding why someone you love, and you feel you should be able to trust and care for you is, then someone who's actually harming you. And what we have with that is families have now got to navigate all those difficult emotions in terms of how they move on for the future.

I think what we also see is families where there's a lot of chaotic environments, or conflict in the families. And that can be where there's quite harsh treatment or neglectful treatment. We often see a lot of trauma and sometimes attachment difficulties. Particularly, I think, we do see a lot of young people where there's domestic abuse, that's part of that dynamic. And children, where they're having feelings of powerlessness, and then the HSB often makes them feel that they have some power and control in their life. And I think what's difficult is they may have spent their life watching people not respecting other people's boundaries. So why would they respect other people's boundaries?

Katy:
And not seeing what healthy consent looks like.

Rowan:
Exactly. Yeah. And that might not be that they've observed something sexual, but if people treat each other poorly and someone can't say, “I don't like how you're treat me” and step away from that situation, how do they then learn that people have boundaries? Or that there's just quite chaotic or just parental disharmony, and they might act out what they've seen in terms of power dynamics or actual sexual behaviour. Or they may be seeking out comfort from each other because they're feeling sad about what's going on with the conflict in the home.

Katy:
And I can definitely think of cases that we've had where there's been an element of mutuality to the harmful sexual behaviour. So the harmful sexual behaviour is sought out between siblings because they've grown up in, sexually violent and dangerous households, and it starts off as a way to comfort one another. And often it becomes sexual, partly because they've been exposed to lots of sexual things that they shouldn't have seen really, all things being equal. So, they've had all these contributory factors, but it's not come from any place of seeking to cause harm to the other person. It's come about through having to meet their needs and then that's happened in a really maladaptive way. I think what's really difficult is that our services are typically set up to respond to children who have displayed the behaviour and then separate services to respond to children who've been impacted by that behaviour. And children don't fit into those neat boxes and categories at all. And it's important that I think our assessments are really, really robust and thinking about not just what the behaviour was, but what are the contributory factors sitting behind it? And as you said, right at the beginning, what are those key relationships that facilitated that behaviour? What's the environment that's facilitated that behaviour? So that our intervention work and our work going forward, any reunification work, and enduring relationship, work is effective but also safe.

Rowan:
And often when we have siblings, there's complex dynamics at play. Because when we're looking at behaviour that's beyond the family, we'd be thinking about what are the power differences? Its size, age, intellectual capacity. There's lots of different factors that might make somebody become more dominant. It might just be a personality thing. But what we think is, would these children normally be playing together say while they're in the same year at school, for example? But with siblings, you can have quite different age ranges or power differences. But they do play together because they're siblings and they are in the same environment. And we have times with siblings where they'll get up to mischief together and that's okay and times where they do things very separately. And the relationship can change, can’t they? So a sibling can start play fighting one minute and then suddenly they don't like it anymore.

Katy:
Yeah or it can become a real fight really quickly.

Rowan:
And I think when we've got mutuality in the behaviour in some way, there can be times where it may be both parties taking part, but at other times it really isn't. And I think this is where the assessment's key, isn't it? To really understand what the behaviour meant for each child so that we don't just go into this, I'm going to put you with the 'perpetrator' service because that's not a helpful approach. We've got to think about all the different nuances of how that interaction took place and what that meant.

Katy:
So do you think that trying to ultimately, I guess, our goal is to bring families back together so that they can live together safely and happily. That obviously takes time. Often there's a focus on that happening as soon as an assessment is done. What do you think about that?

Rowan:
Nothing's changed for me. I mean sometimes you've got a situation where parents genuinely didn't know and you can see that they're able to put the safeguards in place. But I would want to understand the dynamics of the family environment that may have been, that have impacted on why the behaviour's displayed in the first place. What we've got to think is, sibling relationships are some of the most enduring relationships that we will ever have. And often when our parents have got older and then they've gone, you might still have those relationships so they are really important. There will be some siblings that after this behaviour, they just can't go back to being siblings anymore. And they may not want to have a relationship. But for the majority, what we're wanting to see is that these are children. They've made mistakes. It doesn't mean that the behaviour was okay, but how can they now move forward as siblings and have a relationship? There might be aspects of, parents really need to acknowledge what's happened and acknowledge that they didn't protect and to think about maybe how they treat their children differently and how that played a part. And I think to look at reunification, we really have to unpick that whole family dynamic and look at how we can make positive changes.

I think if it's a younger sibling that's been harmed as well, who maybe has not had a point where they've had any sexual experiences apart from those harmful ones, they're going to go through periods of time where they go to have some sort of sexual experience, that is developmentally typical for their age group, it might be something that they're ready for, but suddenly they realise the first thing that ever happened to me. I didn't consent and that was with my sibling.

Katy:
Yeah and they're looking at it through a completely different lens, aren't they?

Rowan:
That's not necessarily going to be a year down the line, that could be 10 years from now. And that sibling relationship's going to have a little crack again because of that. So you're also talking to families about well how are you going to deal with that when it happens? We might talk to them about what they're going to say in the future to a sibling that they've displayed harmful sexual behaviour towards. So, if their sibling in the future, asks them, “Why did you do that to me?” making sure that that young person is prepared about what they may say in response to that, but in a way that helps that person with what they experienced. It's that person taking responsibility and not blaming the person as though they were part of it. It's got to be something that allows them to help to heal, but also heals that relationship and helps them be able to move forward.

Katy:
I've definitely had similar conversations with my families, particularly where you've got a much younger child that's been impacted by the behaviour, versus an older child displaying it, that almost they need to expect that as that younger child perhaps hits puberty, adolescence, that they need to be able to go back to this and have another conversation about it, understanding it at the stage of the development that they're at. So it sounds like really, we need to get to doing some work with the child that's displayed the behaviour and some support work with any child/children impacted by it, but also work with parents, before we start thinking about how do we put all that family back together? And not be led by a professional agenda or a funding agenda wherever possible.

Rowan:
And we do see that. The reality is a lot of services are underfunded. They're struggling. There's a lack of placements for foster care or residential placements. And these are drivers. We don't want them to be drivers, but they are drivers in decision making and they shouldn't be. But we do need to think, if families aren't ready, they're more likely to have a breakdown in their relationships again.

Katy:
And I think in the longer term, if we can get a family to a place of them being able to live happily and safely together, then that is much, much more cost effective. And I have definitely experienced families who have come to us, as I said at the beginning, in absolute crisis, being able to recover together as a family and go on and lead healthy, happy lives.

(Outro)

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