11.10 Considerations of Sexual Abuse in Kinship Placements

11.10 Considerations of Sexual Abuse in Kinship Placements


  1. Introduction
  2. A Conceptual Model
  3. Naming the Risk Factors
  4. Some Assessment Areas
  5. Outcome Measurement and Prognosis References


  1. Introduction

It is appropriate for staff to consider that the best place for most children, most of the time, is within their birth family. There are however circumstances which make this dangerous. Sexual abuse is one such circumstance, especially where inter-generational sexual abuse is confirmed or suspected.

Despite the many advantages of kinship care, it does not come with a risk-free guarantee. As such, kinship care must sometimes be viewed with caution   and detailed examination undertaken in relation to the inherent risks posed by close family members and friends.   Such placements are most likely to be made by practitioners unwittingly, where substantial and specific risk assessment have not been undertaken thoroughly executed in a hasty, routine manner, based on the assumption that children will inevitably benefit from the proximity of family links.

Some families and communities perpetuate a context where connected core families may operate, often with impunity to abuse multiple numbers of children over the long term. Although these families are often recognised by child protection agencies as chaotic or dysfunctional, and where long-term niggling child protection concerns may have surfaced in ‘a career of suspicion ‘, the true extent of their inability to protect children and actively abuse, can be overlooked

  1. A Conceptual Model

Freeman and Ingham (2006) developed a useful model for considering such circumstances derived from research that has examined the nature, the characteristics and modus operandi of intergenerational abuse family networks. This model describes the nature of reinforcement of an informal normative family culture through practices of secrecy and intimidation of children, with the extensive geographic spread of abusive family networks based on consanguinity and kinship ties.  Such a family culture appears to emanate from a normative, endemic social context of multiple forms of child abuse and neglect. It is transmitted through social learning processes across generations, based initially on incestuous core family memberships. These link together, with a common interest of enmeshing children across communities in a network formation (or discreet cell like structures) with the purpose of abusing children, physically and specifically sexually

The above descriptive model has major implications for children being removed or returned from care to such family networks because research evidence suggests that few children will escape this family culture of multiple child abuse or neglect. This can be despite a rigorous surveillance by the statutory agencies.  It also has implications for disclosing child victims removed to care or within the court forum, who need to be well protected from any contact with family members who will intimidate the children.  This may risk the retraction of disclosures. The abusing adult may apply for contact or Resident orders, increasingly used in kinship arrangements.

  1. Naming the Risk Factors

Children living within kinship placements, or being assessed for potential placements, may face a range of individual or multiple risks from their family and community. These are identified below:

The Grandparents

Many grandparents may, by virtue of age, appear to be benign, posing little threat to grandchildren, even though in the past, they may have been perceived as dysfunctional in parenting their own children. However, research evidence indicates that often these are the active ‘Old Guard’ of powerful abuse networks that recruit and prostitute grandchildren to the younger males and friends. ‘Old habits seem to die-hard.’ They are no respecters of sexual boundaries, resulting in confused biological boundaries that add to the complexity of abuse patterns. For example, it is not uncommon to find that  a  female ‘grandchild’ is actually a daughter of a ‘grandfather and thus considered ‘fair game’ These matriarchal sets of women, in particular, have  admitted to  intense cruelty  and highly active in intent in assisting  the grooming and multiple sexual abuse incidents.

The Mothers.

Mothers are non- protecting in the respect that they have also been victims, drawn into, and socialised within abuse circles. The myth should be dispelled, however, that they are passive recipients of the abuse that is conducted in these environments. There is evidence to suggest the active involvement in the abuse of their own children. It is difficult to ascertain whether there is any unease about the abuse. There is limited evidence emerging from historical disclosures within adult therapy which indicates damage and trauma but also a reported sense that this abuse was their ‘lot’ in life. However, it is apparent that mothers are prepared to sacrifice their children in favour of their adult male partners.

The Siblings.

Sibling perpetration is also a further risk to be taken into account, once again crossing gender boundaries. Whilst caution is urged in reaching conclusions about direct causal relationships, evidence has indicated that there are few, if any, exceptions, to moving along the continuum of abuse (victim) to abusing (perpetrator).  The normative intergenerational impact of victimisation, its intensity and long-lasting nature seems to perpetuate into the next generation of abusers. In addition, children are frequently likely to be victims of uncles, aunts, cousins, stepparents and other permeations of kinship relationships.

Infiltrating Adult Male Friends

The infiltrating male family friends, who circle and link the family clusters together in a culture that is extensive and active. Undoubtedly the children are sexually exploited for favours or money and potentially also the making of pornography (videos etc). Children have been taken by car to a distant locality much of which involves considerable numbers of children of varying gender and disability. It can only be conjectured that access to these numbers of children depletes (as a result, for example, through removal into care, or there is a seeping of information through disclosure), the males move off to target another cluster of fertile females and offspring. Thus, once again, the network is extended to incorporate the ‘new guard’.

  1. Some Assessment Areas

It is important to consider what information elicited from the perpetrator and their partner provides some indication about the wider family circumstances and risk factors. Areas of relevance to consider include:

Composition of the family in which each partner grew up and their sibling position and contact now

  • Are your parents still alive?
  • Where do they live? Do you see them much?
  • What have your parents done education/training and work-wise?
  • Are there any similarities in this between them, and you and your partner?
  • (If relevant) when did they die and what of?
  • (Explore feelings around loss of parents)
  • Do have brothers and sisters?
  • How old are they?
  • So that makes you (position) in the family. How was that for you?
  • What do they do education, training or work-wise?
  • Is that the same or different from you or your partner?
  • Where have you lived at the different stages of your life?
  • Did you grow up in the same kind of cultural context and neighbourhood as your siblings, and as your partner?
  • What are the similarities and differences – in the past and now?

Developmental background of parents

  • What kind of family do you come from? What words would you use to describe them?
  • What was it like for you as a child in your family?
  • What kind of child were you?
  • How did you get on with your father/mother/brothers and sisters?
  • What words would you use to describe your relationship with them?
  • Who were you closest to in your family?
  • Was there anyone who was really special for you inside or outside the family?
  • How were they special for you?
  • Was there anything particularly difficult for you about your family? For example, was anyone ill, physically or mentally?
  • How did that affect you, do you think?
  • Are there any particular events you especially remember from your childhood?
  • If so, what were they? What happened?
  • (Check out separations, deaths, experience of sexual or physical abuse, violence between parents, periods in care)

Take up any significant event and ask:

  • So, what effect did that have on you as a person?
  • What did it make you think? About your family/yourself?
  • (To the other partner)
  • Did you know about this? So is it a surprise for you?

Significant events, experiences and relationships in recent past

All families experience major life events, many people find they strengthen the family – bring them together, others that they only seem to create splits and tensions

How many of the following sorts of events have you experiences in your family (or with past partners) – severe physical illness, severe accidents, fires, robbery, mugging, separations, breakdown (psychological), periods in hospital, sudden moves of house (or country), serious money or work worries, close friends or relatives dying? Which have you found has had the most effect?

We find these experiences can bring out unusual reactions even after the crisis is over, depending on the age of the children and the stage of your family – anxiety, fear, irritability, tensions, poor sleep, a change in your ideas about protectiveness. What effects did the events we have been talking about have on you?

Have they had any permanent effect – changed some aspect of the way your care for the children or other was you organise the family or ways you are with each other? (or if with another partner, did it affect your relationship, contribute to breakdown?)

Asking about traumatic experiences

  • People often tell us these days about experiences which perhaps were not talked about so easily in the past – for instance was there any violence between your folks or did you have any unwanted experiences of a sexual nature?
  • (To the partner)
  • If something had happened, do you think it is the sort of thing (partner) would find it easy to talk about?
  • (If it is proving difficult for someone to talk)
  • I just wondered from your distress when we were talking just now whether something like that did ever happen to you?
  • Is this something you would like to talk about now?
  • (If not) Shall we fix up another time to talk a bit more about it?
  • (If person would like to talk) Is it alright talking with both of us here or would you like to talk to just one of us? Who would best for you just now?
  • Would it be easier to tell us about if it was someone inside the family or someone outside?
  • I do get the sense it was someone nearer/outside rather than not. Is that right?
  • Would you be able to tell us about it?
  • What did he/she do?
  • We do not need to go into details just now if you don’t want to – you say just as much or as little as you wish.
  • Would you like to go on talking about it?
  • (If so) Would you like to say how old you were when it started?
  • And how old when it finished?
  • (If someone is very distressed, check what comfort they would like)
  • e.g. I can see this is distressing. What would be helpful for you right now? Would you like (partner) to comfort you? What would you like him/her to do?
  • (To partner)  Did you know about this?
  • So this is a surprise to you/for you?
  • (Back to other partner)
  • Were you able to tell anybody?
  • Have you ever been able to tell anybody?
  • What stopped you being able to tell?
  • What did he/she do which prevented you from telling?
  • This all is a lot for a child to deal with – I wonder how do you think it affected you as a person? Is this something you would like to talk a bit about now?

Links with current family

And I’d like to ask how (any significant events/relationships) might affect you in the family now? For instance, do you think it’s affected how you are with (names of partner and children)?

So for you perhaps it has been especially hard with (name child) because of what’s happened to you?

(To other partner) Like for you it’s been very important… (remind them of the links they made concerning their birth family)?

Impact on partner

I wonder how it is for you hearing about things in (partner’s) childhood?

Do you think it is something you will be able to talk about together if you want to? Is there anything that would help with that?

  1. Outcome Measurement and Prognosis

Workers do need to guard against balancing the risk issues identified in a case, and Pitcher (2001) identified a useful structure for balancing the risks and benefits for a child of a grandparent placement

Potential benefits Issues for assessment Potential risks
1. Family is likely to see the child as less problematic than would a non-relative carer Child’s need for care 1. There may be concerns about age, health, housing etc
2. A less drastic change for the child, especially if there is already a strong bond Child’s need for stability and continuity 2. It cannot be assumed that the child knows, or likes the relative
3. It is usually what the child wants Child’s need for identity 3. Other values may be more important. Best interests…?
4. Greater likelihood of lifelong contact with all family members 4. The child may remain in a dysfunctional family system
5. Child can see that some members of their family have succeeded Family’s relationship towards birth parent 5. The carer may be very negative toward the birth parent, or conversely be collusive
6. If a parent feels less threatened good quality contact is more likely 6. the family is less likely to receive money, training and ongoing professional support
7. The child is less likely to worry about their parent 7. Social Services’ involvement or control may seem intrusive or unnatural
8. Placement less likely to break down, or need professional support Family’s need for professional support


Pitcher D (2001) Assessing grandparent carers: A framework. In Broad B (Ed.) Kinship care: the placement choice for children and young people. Lyme Regis: Russell House Publishing, 105-114.

Freeman P and Ingham J (2006) Multiple Child Abuse that Involves Wider Kin and Family friends within Intergenerational Networks: A Theoretical Model. In Talbot C and Cald

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