A social worker’s role in child sexual abuse cases

When we talk about child sexual abuse in the United States, the focus is too often exclusively on laws and punishments, as opposed to social work and healing. To this point, our article on the Invest in Child Safety Act introduced to Congress this past May included the concern that said Act could direct the bulk of its funding toward law enforcement. Though the Act is welcome in some respects, an undue focus on law enforcement risks preventing officials from treating child sexual abuse as a preventable public health problem.

To be clear, there’s certainly nothing wrong with approaching child sexual abuse as a crime, and treating offenders accordingly. However, this needs to be merely part of the process, with another part focusing more on social work and family health. Given this, we specifically want to focus on the role social workers can and should play in cases of suspected child sexual abuse.

To begin with, one reason the Invest In Child Safety Act’s funding priorities may be particularly problematic is that we could already use more incentives for social workers in this space, rather than only for law enforcement. Per a Maryville University overview for people pursuing an online bachelors in social work, there is a shortage of qualified workers in this field. At the same time, the write-up notes that demand in the field is expected to grow in the coming years — meaning, essentially, that we have a growing need for social workers, and fewer qualified individuals to meet that need. Ideally, our proposed amendments to the the Invest In Child Safety Act would seek to address this discrepancy so that first and foremost, communities could have the social workers and other preventation interventions they need to handle these difficult cases.

As for how those social workers can help, it is undoubtedly a delicate process. Child sexual abuse cases involve mental and physical health, family and developmental dynamics, criminal activity, and future planning. No one person or authority can effectively handle such a case. But social workers, when available, can play a vital role in these cases by performing a few key functions. these include, but are not limited to the following.

Understanding the signs

One of the most unfortunate (if understandable) facts about victims of abuse is that they often won’t acknowledge or admit to what’s happened to them. This is not a mere tendency, but rather a psychological phenomenon sometimes described as “dissociation.” The BBC cited a clinical psychologist from Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute Sexual Assault Research Initiative, who explained the phenomenon quite simply. As she put it, people who cannot physically escape a traumatic experience tend to do so psychologically instead. For this reason, social workers dealing with cases of this nature need to be prepared to recognize signs of abuse on their own — because victims may not be forthcoming about their experiences.

Assessing without assumption

Despite the point above, it’s also important for social workers to be able to assess cases without making assumptions. You can’t always tell right away when an accusation is justified, or when behavior or conditions indicate that there has been abuse. Victims vary in their reactions and behavior, and each case is unique. Social workers need to utilize their training to assess each case independently, and analyze what they encounter without making assumptions or being influenced by preconceived notions. While it is of course important to identify cases of abuse quickly and effectively, it’s also important to all involved to get it right.

Knowing the law

We’ve discussed social work in this context as being separate from the law enforcement side of sexual abuse cases. And in many ways it’s important that the two sides operate independently. However, it’s still important for social workers to be aware of laws regarding the handling of these cases, including mandatory reporting obligations. Different states may have different requirements when it comes to how the cases are to be handled, and social workers will be most effective if they can seamlessly adhere to legal guidelines.

Assessing the total situation

A social worker’s role when a case like this comes up is also to assess the entirety of the situation. That means examining the impact on the family as well. Naturally, in cases in which one or both parents are responsible for the abuse, this concept takes on a new meaning. In any case though, a child needs to be assessed as part of a family. This means handling the case in way that includes consideration of how family or closest connections might play a role in long-term recovery.

These points may not cover the entirety of what a skilled social worker has to offer in a case of child sexual abuse, but they speak to what’s involved in the role. And unfortunately, workers who are able to perform these roles may only be more needed moving forward. According to a Washington Post report on cases of abuse being brought to ERs, the current year has brought about a spike in cases. With more children stuck at home, and more parents and caregivers feeling the stress of financial insecurity, there are indications that relationships are strained and abuse is on the rise. These reports don’t concern sexual abuse specifically, but it stands to reason that such cases would rise at least marginally under the broader umbrella of physical abuse.

This is all the more reason for people to explore social work, and for social workers to be aware of how they can help in these awful cases.

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