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2000 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 5, No. 2
June 2000

Personal Responses to Working in
the Field of Child Sexual Abuse

Personal reactions to child sexual abuse are to be expected. Despite professional training and education, child sexual abuse often stirs intense emotions regarding the child, the offender, and nonoffending parent. The key is to recognize these emotional reactions and prevent them from interfering with professional judgment or role performance.

The enormity of sexual abuse often provokes two opposing responses--disbelief or belief with a strong desire for retribution (Faller, 1993). These are universal emotional reactions that may influence child welfare workers, other professionals, and lay persons because it is frequently difficult to comprehend that an adult could sexually abuse a child. According to Faller, "the rather universal tendencies to want to explain away or minimize the sexual abuse or to desire 'a pound of flesh' are also reflected in reactions specific to gender, socioeconomic and professional status, and personal experiences."

Gender and Socioeconomic Status

Regarding the impact of gender, the issue is gender identification--in other words, seeing the offender, nonoffending parent, or child victim as "like me." This may result in either greater empathy or greater rejection of the person of the same sex. While both female and male professionals have empathy for victims, they may be more sensitive when the victim is her/his gender and have stronger negative attitudes towards the offender (Faller, 1993).

Socioeconomic and professional status of the offender can also affect one's attitudes regarding middle or higher-income families versus lower-income families. If most professionals working in sexual abuse identify themselves as middle class, the potential for class bias may exist if professionals do not recognize over-identification as an issue. Professionals may also experience external pressures from advocates for the accused due to his or her role in the community. These issues and influences may make the already difficult job of working with a sexually abuse child and her family even harder (Faller, 1993).

Impact of Personal Experiences

A professional who has experienced sexual abuse in childhood should address these issues in counseling, continue to be aware of countertransference issues (emotional reactions on your part that affect your work), and be alert to your own mental health needs.

While it is neither feasible nor appropriate to exclude professionals who have history of being sexually abused from child welfare work, it is vital that they recognize the warning signs that their own victimization may be impeding their work performance. Warning signs might indicate the need for additional counseling or clinical supervision. The following are potential warning signs:

  • Feeling so overwhelmed by fear, anxiety, disgust, anger, or strong desires for retribution that it interferes with sound decision-making or appropriate intervention

  • Experiencing flashbacks or intrusive thoughts at work

  • Recalling previously repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse while working on a sexual abuse case

  • Exhibiting overly punitive responses to either the perpetrator or nonoffending parent (Faller, 1993)

Simply being a parent can also significantly affect one's reaction to sexual abuse. First, parents are more aware that many situations in which children's behavior and parenting responsibilities can present risks for sexual activity (e.g., sleeping in the same bed as parents, assisting child with bathing, toileting, and teaching about anatomical gender differences). These experiences could lead to over-identification with the offender and minimization of the alleged abuse by accepting a parent's explanation of the nature of the contact.

On the other hand, child welfare workers who are parents may experience particular horror in the face of sexual abuse because they personally understand that the perpetrator has violated not only a child, but the sanctity of the parental role.

Additionally, work with sexual abuse cases can influence a professional's own parenting style. For example, it may heighten an awareness of risk for your own child being sexually abused and thereby increase suspicion towards family members, baby-sitters, friends of the family, neighbors, childcare providers, and school personnel. Parents may also be hyper-alert to physical and behavioral indicators of sexual abuse. While concern is an appropriate and positive parental response, it is important not to jump to immediate conclusions that something terrible has happened without a considered investigation of your suspicions (Faller, 1993).

Coping with Personal Issues

"The best way to prevent personal reactions from undermining the quality of professional work is to be aware of their existence" (Faller, 1993). Dealing with personal feelings in professional practice requires an awareness of typical emotions and personal reactions, followed by self-reflection. Self-talk, in which professionals remind themselves of personal biases and reactions, is recommended as a regular activity. Ultimately, professional intervention should be guided as much as possible by practice principles, policy guidelines, and research.

"The best preventive measure and remedy for burnout is collaborative work" (Faller, 1993). Working in this field of sexual abuse is stressful for many reasons:

  1. the acts are terrible, they violate social norms, and they can have devastating effects on the victims;
  2. cases are fraught with uncertainty--it is difficult to know if abuse occurred and difficult to determine future risk of abuse;
  3. professionals might do harm while attempting to do good (retraumatization, intrusive medical exams, court testimony, and separation from family; and
  4. intervention may be unsuccessful and victims are not made safe and/or offenders may not be held accountable for their actions.

All of these negative experiences can result in rage, frustration, a sense of helplessness, and then giving up. Burnout might be avoided by collaborative efforts such as working with a partner (as police often do) or working with a team that has regular staff meetings. Sharing the burden of making difficult decisions can be helpful and, as always, consultation and supervision are key.

Professional involvement with cases of sexual abuse can also have an impact on personal sexuality. To learn more about this, consult Katharine Colburn Faller's excellent resource Child Sexual Abuse: Intervention and Treatment Issues, available on-line at <http://www.calib.com/nccanch/pubs/usermanuals/sexabuse/sexabuse.pdf.>.

Resolution by Proxy

Professionals who find themselves in conflict with one another may be reflecting the intensity of feelings and conflicts of families dealing with child sexual abuse. Families can project a range of fears onto different professionals--fear of loss, fear of suicide, and fear of abandonment can be transformed into anger and frustration with those same professionals. Different professionals on a team may identify with different family members (conflicting loyalties) and fear that a colleague may be incompetent or have the wrong idea, or wish that their particular viewpoint be accepted as the correct one. Because there is the potential for family pathology to be mirrored in the professional network, there is an increased need for open and frank discussions early on within the child welfare team where professionals feel comfortable voicing their concerns and viewpoints about a case (Bentovim, et al., 1988).

There is "the need for professionals to have adequate training and supervision in working with sexuality so that feelings aroused in themselves do not become defensively blocked and inhibit sensitive work, or become projected (negatively) onto the child or perpetrator in an overtly protective or punitive way" (Bentovim, et al., 1988).

References

Bentovim, A., Elton, A., Hidebrand, J., Tranter, M., & Vizard, E. (Eds.). (1988). Child sexual abuse within the family: Assessment and treatment. London: Butterworth & Co.

Faller, K. C. (1993). Child sexual abuse: Intervention and treatment issues. [On-line.] <www.calib.com/nccanch/pubs/usermanuals/sexabuse/sexabuse.pdf> [2000, May 2].

Farrenkopf, T. (1992). What happens to therapists who work with sex offenders? In Coleman, E., Dwyer, S. M., & Pallone, N. J. (Eds.), Sex Offender Treatment: Psychological and Medical Approaches (pp. 217-223). New York: Haworth Press.

Hetherton, J. & Beardsall, L. (1988). Decisions and attitudes concerning child sexual abuse: Does the gender of the perpetrator make a difference to child protection professionals? Child Abuse & Neglect, 22(12), 1265-1283.

2000 Jordan Institute for Families