Young Offender Sexual Abuse Cases under Protection Investigation: Are Sibling Cases Any Different?

By Collin-Vézina, Delphine; Fast, Elizabeth et al. | Child Welfare, July 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Young Offender Sexual Abuse Cases under Protection Investigation: Are Sibling Cases Any Different?


Collin-Vézina, Delphine, Fast, Elizabeth, Hélie, Sonia, Cyr, Mireille, Pelletier, Stéphanie, Fallon, Barbara, Child Welfare


The investigation of sexual abuse cases by child protection (CP) workers is a complex process that significantly impacts the present and future lives of victims and alleged perpetrators, as well as their families and communities. It involves collecting sensitive information over a short period of time, corroborating and contrasting conflicting evidence, making decisions on the veracity of the accounts, establishing safety plans for the victims, presenting cases in child protection and criminal courts, and recommending measures to re-establish the well-being of children who are victims of confirmed abuse. The challenges associated with these professional activities are compounded in cases of sibling sexual abuse, where CP workers must deal with multifaceted situations that involve an alleged victim and an alleged young perpetrator that share a family or step-family relationship and, consequently, with parents and caregivers that must deal with the disturbing experience of having their daughters or sons investigated for sexual abuse incidents that may have been perpetrated by another one of their children or step-children. Given the complexity of these cases that involve serious child protection concerns, well-organized, multidimensional and systemic assessments must be undertaken in order to guide courses of actions and treatment plans (Vizard, 2013).

To shed light on CP investigations that involve allegations of sibling abuse and to guide CP decision-making processes, the current research was undertaken to answer two main questions using a representative administrative dataset of investigated CP cases: (1) What are the characteristics of the suspected incidents of abuse, alleged victims, alleged perpetrators and the families in sibling sexual abuse cases under CP investigation?; and (2) How do suspected sibling sexual abuse cases investigated by CP workers compare with suspected cases involving non-sibling young offenders?

Literature Review

Despite early studies on sibling sexual abuse that raised serious concerns about the prevalence and the impact of this form of violence (e.g. Finkelhor, 1980; Smith & Israel, 1987), sibling abuse remained undocumented until recently and was noted as "lagging behind other child abuse concerns and issues" (Caffaro & Conn-Caffaro, 2005, p. 604). This can be explained, at least in part, by the fact that childto-child sexual activity has not always been construed as sexual abuse in our societies (Vizard, 2013), and even less so when sexual behaviors involved siblings. These experiences were assumed to be consensual, normative sex play and exploration activities (Alpert, 1997; Caffaro & ConnCaffaro, 2005), or were considered a benign form of abuse (Ballantine, 2012). As a consequence, there was a great discrepancy in definitions, noted in early sibling sexual abuse research (Krienert & Walsh, 2011), which limited our understanding of and intervention in this social issue. In order to address these misconceptions, the National Task Force on Juvenile Sexual Offending filled an important gap by proposing the following definition of sibling sexual abuse: sexual acts initiated by one sibling toward another without the other's consent, by use of force or coercion, or where there is a power differential between the siblings (Shaw, Lewis, Loeb, Rosado, & Rodriguez, 2000). Although a two-to-five-year age difference between siblings was initially suggested as necessary to consider sexual behaviors between siblings to be incest (Gilbert, 1992)- presumably because power asymmetry was assumed with greater age difference-it is now well accepted that age difference is not a good indicator of sibling sexual abuse (McVey, 2003) and thatage difference is much lower in many substantiated cases of sibling abuse (see Carlson, Maciol, & Schneider, 2006, for a review).

Characteristics of Sibling and Non-Sibling Young Sex Offenders and of Their Offenses

Adolescent sibling and non-sibling young sex offenders account for a significant number of child abuse perpetrators, and the offenses they commit are far from trivial (see Lowenstein, 2006, for a review). …

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