A family-centered option for dealing with intra-family sexual abuse

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Reprinted in full with permission.

By John Ulrich . . . Kristen Burgess took a courageous step forward (Record-Eagle, Jan. 5) to shed light on the community’s response to intrafamilial sexual abuse.

When I started my career in 1987, there were “family-centered” programs for parents who decided not to divorce after intrafamilial child sexual abuse. Families were ordered into long-term programs supervised by the Family Courts. Offenders served time in jail and were slowly reintegrated into the family if agreed upon by all involved. As research demonstrated the impact of child sexual abuse on victims in adulthood, the state prohibited funding these programs.

Policymakers also believed that people who commit sexual offenses will inevitably re-offend. Therefore, any of the children wanting a relationship with an offending parent needed protection through parental incarceration. Long prison sentences for abusing parents, insistence on divorce or removal of children, counseling for the children, and barring parents who committed the abuse from the home became the new “victim-centered” model. There is no apparent risk of harm to children in this model.

There are three problems: (1) The assumption of high sexual re-offense rates is inaccurate and makes this model extremely expensive with little added public safety and directs funds away from other child-wellbeing programs. (2) The long-term incarceration of a parent is known to harm children. (3) A one-size-fits-all and we-know-best model deprives victims and families of self-determination causing further victimization.

Beginning in 1999, research found that 85-95 percent of men convicted of sexual offenses do not commit new detected offenses.

There is now a five-level classification to predict risk for re-offense.

After five years in prison, Mr. Burgess will turn 60. He will be in the lowest-risk classification, where the predicted recidivism rate is two percent. In other words, 98 out 100 men in this category will not be charged or convicted of a new sexual offense. The cost of housing him after 60 until his earliest release date costs $250,000 — $1 million if incarcerated all 30 years.

While data is sparse regarding which model is better for children long-term, data from the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study demonstrates that, as the number of adverse experiences accumulate, so does adult onset of chronic disease, depression, suicide, being a victim of violent crime and being violent.

A score of four or more is extremely dangerous. Childhood sexual abuse is one point. Divorce is one. Incarceration of a parent is one. Long incarcerations increase the risk of maternal depression, emotional neglect, and poverty since an incarcerated parent cannot pay child support. Potentially three more points. These are invisible risks to children in the victim-centered model with long parental incarcerations.

Counties’ responses to victims of intrafamilial sexual abuse vary considerably.

The public must hear from families like the Burgess’ to decide if their county’s practices are informed by the science behind risk prediction, the hidden long-term costs to children, the wise management of tax dollars, and the importance of giving families’ agency. Only then will we truly be able to provide them the help they need.

John Ulrich is a licensed psychologist in Traverse City, MI. A portion of his 33-year practice has always included adults and adolescents who have engaged in problematic or illegal sexual behavior.

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