Advocates are called upon to serve sexual assault survivors of all ages and stages of development. This includes serving children and youth survivors. Advocates may experience some confusion about how to provide best practice advocacy to young people who have been sexually assaulted. There are widespread concerns about how to have age appropriate conversations about sexual assault, and how to include relevant advocacy activities. Furthermore, advocates are often concerned with how to address confidentiality and privacy dynamics while balancing mandated reporting obligations. Advocates who serve youth and children may also have questions about how to best support children through legal and multi-disciplinary processes.
When providing crisis intervention services to youth and children, advocates must be sure to address immediate safety concerns. Is the child safe from further victimization? Are they believed and supported by a parent or caregiver? Can additional safe, supportive people be identified? Advocacy efforts should also include ongoing validation for the myriad of emotions and sensations experienced by child and youth survivors. They may present with a variety of somatic, cognitive, psychological, and behavioral trauma responses. Thus, it is helpful for advocates to be familiar with the effects of sexual assault and trauma across the lifespan. These are just a few key safety considerations to address while providing advocacy to child and youth survivors.
Advocates providing information and resources must take into account the young person's holistic and cultural identities. This creates a foundation upon which to provide culturally relevant resources and referrals. Child and youth survivors may experience increased distress, anxiety, and distrust while navigating their community and other systems. Advocates can provide support regarding survivor's primary concerns, and accompany survivors to medical appointments and legal hearings where appropriate. Advocates should not make promises to child survivors and their caregivers, nor should they provide legal or medical advice. Rather, advocates should be aware of resources in their community, understand mandatory reporting protocol, and become familiar with legal and medical systems.
Advocacy and anti-oppression efforts must acknowledge the inherent power disparity experienced by young people. This type of power is referred to as adultism: the systemic and pervasive power of adults over children and youth. Children and youth experience this power disparity as mistreatment in many forms, simply because they are young people who enter into a world defined by adults. Advocates must be aware of their internal bias and assumptions about young people. In our advocacy with children and youth, we may think we know the best decisions for optimal outcomes. However, we must be careful to avoid dominating discussions and decision-making. Advocates must work to empower the autonomy and self-determination of children and youth. Advocates can do this through the practice of active listening, reflection, and validation. This can also include shared decision-making, and enhanced exploration around information, education, and options. Overall, advocates must be aware of the impact that their power and influence has over young survivors, and must continue to advocate from an empowerment and anti-oppression framework.
Parents and Caregivers
When a child or youth discloses sexual abuse, advocacy efforts are likely to include parents and non-offending caregivers. Children's capacity to heal from sexual abuse is heavily influenced by their primary caregiver's response. Thus, an advocate's work with a non-offending caregiver ultimately impacts the healing of the child survivor. Advocates who provide support to nonoffending caregivers can provide active listening, empathy, and information about child sexual violence, medical and legal systems, and community resources and referrals.
Parents and caregivers experience a wide range of emotional reactions and parenting concerns after they learn their child has been sexually assaulted. Emotional responses may include an increase in guilt, shame, confusion, distrust, self-blame, and anger. Nonoffending caregivers may also have questions and concerns about how to support their child's healing after an initial disclosure. They may be concerned about behavioral changes they've observed in their child, as well as how the abuse has impacted family members and household dynamics. Advocates can support nonoffending caregivers by providing validation and normalization for these feelings and observations. Advocates can work with non-offending caregivers to identify behavioral responses to sexual abuse, and increase parenting skills to handle behaviors appropriately.
It is best practice to meet with child survivors separately from parents and caregivers, and if possible, to assign different staff advocates. This practice keeps information confidential for both parties. Children also have confidentiality and privacy rights which require informed consent and specific permission for information sharing. Providing separate advocates for parents and child survivors allows space for a child to express thoughts and feelings they may not otherwise share. This is not a slight against parenting style or skills; some children simply want to spare their parent/caregiver's feelings or refrain from further causing pain to loved ones. Parents and caregivers also have an opportunity to meet with their own advocate to process thoughts and feelings, to safety plan, and to plan how to best support their child. When advocates provide support to parents and caregivers, they assist with skill and capacity-building, which in turn, strengthens support and healing for child survivors.
Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse
Survivors of child sexual abuse are likely to experience effects of the abuse over the course of their life. They may experience trauma triggers: a range of physiological responses to their past traumatic experience. Advocates should utilize a survivor-focused approach by providing active listening and active empathy when working with adult survivors of child sexual abuse. Listen for and validate current concerns and triggers. Explore with the survivor what feels safe and unsafe, and what their vision of healing looks like. Spend time building rapport, exploring what the survivor thinks and feels, and asking clarifying questions when you do not understand. Reflect back and summarize what the survivor is saying. Avoid moralizing, advising, or sensationalizing. Avoid placing value judgment on the survivor's path to healing, including their past decisions about reporting or not reporting the abuse. Be clear about your agency services and what you can and cannot provide as an advocate. These tools allow advocates to build trust with and serve survivors effectively.
In contrast to other sexual offenses, child sexual abuse laws in Washington are not focused on issues of consent or the use of force or coercion. Rather, they are structured to acknowledge the inherent power disparities that result from age differences, and from the desire to protect minors from the abuse of power. It does not matter what the child did or did not do. Thus, many of the child sexual abuse laws are based upon the age of the victim and the age difference between the perpetrator and the victim. Adults and teens can be charged with the sexual abuse of a child. The same laws apply to teenage and adult offenders, although the penalties are different.
Sexual contact by a child under the age of twelve with a younger child can only be prosecuted under very specific circumstances. When the offending child is between the ages of eight and eleven it is possible to prosecute if certain legal requirements are met, but this is rare. Children under eight years of age cannot be prosecuted regardless of the behavior.
Advocates do not need to memorize Sex Offense Definitions, though familiarization can be helpful. Focus on support and assistance for survivors and non-offending caregivers as they navigate the legal system, and do not give legal advice (i.e. "you should get a protection order", or "you need to get a parenting plan"). Connect survivors with victim advocates, prosecuting attorneys, or pro bono attorneys as complex legal questions arise. Note that the legal system will often refer to survivors as "victims". Be aware that some of the language used in the legal system may be triggering or confusing to survivors, and plan time with the survivor to check in, process, and clarify as needed.
- The National Sexual Assault Resource Center reports additional information on child sexual abuse prevalence and statistics.
- The Advocate’s Guide: Working With Parents Of Children Who Have Been Sexually Assaulted
- Parenting a Child Who Has Experienced Abuse or Neglect
- Parenting a Child Who Has Been Sexually Abused: A Guide for Foster and Adoptive Parents
- Harborview Center for Sexual Assault and Traumatic Stress
- National Child Traumatic Stress Network
- National Center for Victims of Crime ~ Youth Initiative
- Children's Advocacy Centers of Washington State a. "Children's Advocacy Centers are child-focused, child-friendly facilities where children and their families feel safe enough to get the help they need to stop abuse and begin the process of healing. Representatives from many disciplines meet to discuss and make decisions about investigation, treatment and prosecution of child abuse cases." Community Sexual Assault Programs and Children's Advocacy Centers have distinct but complementary roles in responding to disclosures of child sexual abuse and supporting children and their caregivers.
- Providing Health Care to Minors under Washington Law
- From Approach to Practice: Improving Outcomes for Children after Sexual Abuse. Online course from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center