The Influence of the Family Preservation Model on Child Sexual Abuse Intervention Strategies: Changes in Child Welfare Worker Tasks

Article excerpt

Traditional child sexual abuse assessment and intervention methods can be problematic, especially in instances of intrafamilial offenses. This article discusses those problems, the benefits of alternative strategies in use today, and the adaptations that child welfare workers, social workers, and other professionals have made to enhance intervention effectiveness. Changes have occurred in the way child sexual abuse professionals assess cases, provide services, and interact with one another.

Traditional prosecutions of child sexual abuse offenders are problematic for many reasons, most notably because convictions are difficult to obtain [Eatman & Bulkley 1986; Harshbarger et al. 1986]; sentences are short [MacFarlane & Bulkley 1982; the University of Wisconsin Law School 1986]; and offender treatment is unlikely [Eatman & Bulkley 1986; the University of Wisconsin Law School 1986]. Felony prosecutions focus on convicting the offender rather than on solving the problems of dysfunctional families. In response, many communities have developed legal/treatment alternatives to felony prosecutions. The most significant innovation of these programs is that the whole family, including the offender, receives treatment at some stage of the legal proceedings [see Bulkley 1981; Mac Murray 1991; Whitcomb 1991; Young 1988]. These programs are often designed with first-time, intrafamilial child sexual abuse offenders in mind. They are especially noteworthy in that they are highly consistent with the family preservation philosophy that has emerged in relation to abuse and neglect situations when removal of the child is imminent.

The changes in intervention strategies are designed to preserve families in the short and long term. These new strategies affect the roles child sexual abuse intervention professionals play in the intervention process. This article discusses (1) the failure of the traditional intervention system; (2) the benefits of the innovative intervention programs and how those strategies further the family preservation philosophy; and (3) how child welfare workers and other professionals have adapted to those strategies.

Failure of the Prosecutorial and Penal Systems

Traditional criminal intervention programs are more retributive than are the innovative programs. Incapacitation is the main strategy employed to control offenders and protect victims and society. Prosecutors hope to incarcerate or at least restrain the alleged offender by arrest or imprisonment. But child sexual assault, in contrast to rape and other sex crimes, is more likely to be an assault of psychological coercion rather than physical violence, especially if the victim knows the offender [Arthur 1986; Faller 1990]. Further, due to the progressive nature of child sexual assaults, fondling and other less invasive contacts are more common than orifice penetration. For example, White et al. [1983] found that less than 15% of molested girls had overt genital trauma or a sexually transmitted disease. Consequently, medical examinations following abuse reports are not likely to be performed or yield compelling evidence [Skibinski 1990]. Prosecutors have little basis except the child's testimony on which to try the case, making conviction (which necessitates proof beyond a reasonable doubt) difficult.

The traditional criminal prosecution system has two other problems: (1) prison terms are short [MacFarlane & Bulkley 1982; University of Wisconsin Law School 1986] and (2) treatment in prison is unlikely [Eatman & Bulkley 1986; University of Wisconsin Law School 1986]. Although physical separation by imprisonment will temporarily stop the offender from abusing the child, there is no assurance that once released, the offender will not abuse again, especially if no treatment was received in prison.

If outcomes of abuse rates and the children's well-being would be at least as good as with traditional intervention approaches, then diverting the offender into an innovative program with a family treatment component becomes a compelling alternative. …