I’ve been on the front lines for a long time, but my soul is always rocked by the desperate pleas from parents calling in seeking advice because their child has engaged in harmful sexual behavior. Behavior that has often been fueled by pornography.
Note: This is Part 2 of a series. Part 1 gives parents an overview of the process to prepare them for what's ahead when they discover their child has engaged in harmful sexual behavior.
Real life stories
I've heard from Dads like “Matt”, who told me that his 12-year-old high functioning son who is on the autism spectrum was sitting in their local juvenile detention. He had been exposed to pornography by a friend and then had touched a sibling, yet he had no official charges or court dates and they desperately wanted to get him into treatment or back home.
Or mothers like “Jane”, who related the harmful content she had just discovered on her 14-year-old daughter’s phone – porn, sexting, strangers, videos. Her daughter was talking to strangers online and appeared to be part of a local peer group that was exchanging sexual images, as well as meeting up in person for sexual activities in exchange for clothes, makeup, and money--all happening while Mom thought she was just going to hang out with friends at the mall. Jane called for treatment help, but also wanted to know who she would need to tell. How do they let authorities know that social media apps were being used to groom young women into trafficking? Would her daughter face legal charges?
Navigating a system that often fails children & families
I’ve learned through hundreds of calls that our legal system often fails children and families. I’ve listened to story upon story where parents are afraid and seeking direction; an aunt who’s own child was touched, but intensely wants her nephew to receive treatment – not incarceration; mothers reporting threats of having their parental rights stripped; possibilities of charging children with adult crimes--plans that will ultimately place their child on a sex offender registry, lead to threatened removal of children from the home, split up families, inexperienced legal counsel, and overaggressive prosecutors.
I’m writing this article to guide you quickly to the information you may need as you navigate the systems within your own State for the situation you are in.
Please know there are many individuals you will come across that honestly are trying to help. Also know there will be those who are over-worked, hardened and can be not-so-helpful.
REMEMBER: There is no one that will advocate for your child better than you.
Unfortunately, our society and systems are stuck in the adult victim/offender orientation and the children that fall into these roles are judged by adult standards and laws rather than those of impressionable, learning & growing children.
I can only add my voice of encouragement that children are not inherently bad, they can and do learn appropriate sexual health when they are able to receive specialized treatment.
Most of the youth we treat here at Star Guides Wilderness Therapy are doing lots of things right, but have stumbled hard in this one area, almost always accompanied by a significant pornography addiction. They are good kids, with good parents and families.
Buckle up …. Become informed and you’ll be better equipped to navigate the landscape for your children.
Frequently asked questions about reporting harmful sexual behavior
Am I required by law to report harmful sexual behavior?
Each state has different regulations, policies and rules for addressing and reporting harmful sexual behavior of children. Stop it Now is an easy place to check the regulations for your State.
Note: If this is a case that involves family members, it is advisable to consult with an attorney as you prepare to file a report.
Who should I report harmful sexual behavior to?
Typically child protective services (CPS) is the agency that accepts reports and considers investigating situations. Their primary objective is to make sure the child is safe in their own home (again focused on the victim, not the offending child).
Child protective services are called by different names in different states:
- Department of Family Services
- Department of Social Services
- Department of Youth and Family Services
Child sexual abuse is a crime in all 50 states. The focus of law enforcement is on the person who has offended and on any criminal proceedings that are involved.
In some cases CPS and the police will collaborate in the investigation.
Who is required to report harmful sexual behavior?
All states require certain professionals or institutions to report suspected child abuse. Some states have changed the law to require any person (regardless of their profession) to report abuse to the authorities. You can find your state’s laws here.
Is there a reporting timeline?
The timeline for reporting is vague in the statutes I’ve researched. Every state is different – be sure to research the laws in your state.
There need to be specifics in order to contact authorities.
We’ve had many cases here at Star Guides where the reporting isn’t done until after treatment has begun and more information has been provided. We are able to coordinate with parents to help position the child for the best possible outcome when reporting. It can add an additional layer of professional support for the child.
How do I file a report?
If you file a report yourself, be prepared with as much factual information as possible. Here are some tips:
- Stick to only what is factually known.
- Be sure to include any information regarding disabilities and/or limitations.
- Avoid telling the person taking the report what you think should be done or offering opinions regarding people involved in the report.
- Remain calm & professional.
What happens after a report of harmful sexual behavior is filed?
Here’s what to expect once a report has been filed:
- Reports are reviewed to determine if it will be investigated or not.
- If an investigation is required, many states require a “preliminary investigation” to be performed within 24-48 hours.
- If it is determined there is no immediate danger, CPS is allowed more time for a full investigation. I’ve seen cases where the investigations and subsequent court dates can take weeks – months – even years.
- Covid-19 has impacted many things including virtual court appearances.
- Be proactive in seeking treatment quickly for your children.
- Obtain legal counsel that has experience in defending childhood harmful sexual behavior, you don’t need to wait for an investigation outcome. It demonstrates responsible parenting and also moves you all out of limbo towards healing and resolution. Follow the instructions of your legal counsel.
- If you have been instructed to wait for the investigation determination, be vigilant with your family safety plan.
- Prepare as much as you can to surf the wave of procedures, court appearances, frustrations and emotions that will ensue.
- I also encourage parents to “get out in front” – be proactive, polite & professional in all communications, follow through on appointments and interviews. That doesn’t mean lay down and just “take it” – be thorough, ask thoughtful questions, be prepared and have a plan ready with your attorney to present to a judge if it comes to that.
- REMEMBER to take good notes – keep a notebook/journal dedicated to this process, dates, names, instructions, directives, outcomes, etc.
What can I expect during an investigation of harmful sexual behavior?
Here’s a list of people who might participate in the investigation:
- Child protective services worker
- A doctor
- A therapist
- A social worker
- Law enforcement officials
- Interviews may be held with the child, the parents, and the child suspected of the harmful sexual behavior. Please request the use of a Child Advocacy Center (see below) so that the children only have to go through this once.
- Sometimes interviews are held with the child’s siblings.
- Anyone else who may have knowledge such as neighbors, teachers, child care providers, etc.
The investigation may also include:
- An assessment of the safety and risk factors in the home.
- A physical examination. If this is required, please request that it be performed by a SANE (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner) certified medical professional. These nurses have special education and clinical training in the areas of sexual assault and it’s far less traumatic on a child if you can get this type of specialist.
Child Advocacy Centers
Some jurisdictions use Child-Advocacy Centers to conduct interviews with the children. These are child-friendly environments and have specially trained interviewers who typically work in conjunction with child protective services, law enforcement, district attorneys and multi-disciplinary teams. Here are some tips:
- Don’t be afraid to ask for the interviews to take place at a Child Advocacy Center if it’s not offered to you.
- Ask if you can watch the interview virtually. They often will not allow you to be present during the interview, but you can ask to view it virtually or view a recording.
- Consult with an attorney, if possible, prior to any interviews so that your child’s rights can be protected, especially with the child who has engaged in the harm.
How the courts handle cases of harmful sexual behavior
After finding that a child has committed a sexual offense, the legal system may respond to this case in one of the following ways:
- Postponing charging the child if the youth participates in services and then dropping charges upon completion of the program.
- Charging the child with a sexual offense, placing the child on probation and requiring service participation; or
- Charging the child with a sexual offense and placing the child in a juvenile facility.
If your child is charged with a crime, definitely acquire professional legal counsel.
I have found it helpful in several cases to come up with a plan for treatment that your attorney can present to the judge instead of waiting to see what the courts decide.
My experience has been that very few jurisdictions have resources for treatment and will incarcerate an adolescent simply because they don’t know what else to do.
You still have to follow the guidelines set up by the courts and subsequent probation, but at least you are more in control of where your child is going for treatment and can be involved in those decisions.
Waiting until the court decides and then trying to present a plan usually doesn’t work as well.
Public SEX OFFENDER REGISTRIES
Some states are now placing youth with sexual offense histories on the public sex offender registries on the internet. Educate yourself about the registry laws in your own State.
According to NCSBY, the task force committee on children with problematic sexual behaviors from ATSA reports that registering children and publicly labeling them as sex offenders for life puts the children themselves at risk of significant harm.
Simply put, children with problematic or harmful sexual behaviors are not a high-risk group, especially if provided with appropriate treatment. The full report can be found here.
The bottom line is our systems are broken. We live in a pornified society and then punish children when they mimic the very things they are being shown through pornography, media and entertainment. It’s infuriating!
When you find yourself in this situation, with the right support systems you can move from distress to a sense of hope and a better future. You are not alone. Thousands and thousands of other parents have experienced very similar emotions and reactions to yours. I have personally witnessed hundreds of youth with harmful sexual behaviors learn to respect themselves and others. They heal, restore relationships, learn healthy behaviors and live future amazing lives.
This is Part 2 of a 4-Part series. Part 1 gives parents an overview of steps to take, Part 3 covers different treatment options available for kids with harmful sexual behavior and Part 4 discusses how to find and fund that treatment.
Protect Young Mind Blog Post: Juvenile Judge Warns Parents
Child Advocacy Centers: https://www.nationalcac.org
Council of Parent Advocates and Attorneys: https://www.copaa.org/
National Center on the Sexual Behavior of Youth: http://www.ncsby.org/
Out of the Shadows, Confronting the Rise of Child-on-Child Sexual Behavior Symposium: (videos, research documents) Symposium videos, research and docs
An Empirically Based Approach for Prosecuting Juvenile Sex Crimes, by Paul Stern. Child Abuse Prosecution Project. (If you’d like a copy of this document to give to your attorney, contact Robin at firstname.lastname@example.org).
The recommended resources listed by the author have not been vetted by Protect Young Minds. If you have any questions, please contact Robin Reber, Admissions Director Star Guides; email@example.com or 435-414-5786.