Is it ever safe to reunite children with the parents who sexually abused them? I decided to do some research. Here’s what I’ve found.
Pedophiles and Sexual Offenders are Not the Same
Weirdly enough, being a pedophile does not mean you sexually abuse children, according to Harvard Health Publications. Pedophilia means that you are sexually attracted to children age 11 and under. You could be attracted to children and never abuse them (think of how you have been attracted to your cute co-worker but you never acted on it). The reverse is true, too. You could sexually abuse children and not be sexually attracted to them. Think of the influence of drugs, mental illness, sadism, etc. that may lead you to inflict harm without feeling sexually attracted to the victim. Harvard says researchers cannot agree what percent of child molesters are pedophiles.
Pedophilia is Not Curable
Just like you can’t “cure” someone who is heterosexual or someone who is homosexual, you cannot cure someone who is sexually attracted to children. Treatment for pedophiles consists of keeping them away from kids and sometimes giving them medication to lower their sex drive, that same Harvard report says.
MAYBE a Child Molester Can be Rehabilitated
Sexual attraction can’t be cured, but can the child molesting behavior be cured? The jury is out. The Prevention of Childhood Sexual Abuse by David Finkelhor systematically looks at a variety of ways to treat perpetrators. Mental health services, particularly cognitive behavioral therapy, may help reduce a child molester’s likelihood of committing another sexual offense. Some meta-studies say a child molester may be one third less likely to sexually abuse a child again. But no experimental studies have been conducted to prove this, mainly because psychologists are reluctant to set up an experiment where only some sex offenders receive treatment while others serve as the control group and don’t receive treatment.
So What is the Risk of a Child Molester Abusing a Kid Again? 7%-50%
(Figuring out How Likely a Child Molester is to Abuse Again is Complicated)
So, let’s say that cognitive behavioral therapy reduces a person’s likelihood of sexually abusing a child again by one third. What is the risk now?
First, let’s look at the risk of a child molester re-offending overall. Recently, The Atlantic wrote that all child molesters have a 10-15% chance of committing another sexual offense against a child. But that figure may be TOO LOW.
When someone commits another sexual offense, that’s called recidivism. A study on how recidivism is calculated reveals that the 10-15% figure grossly underestimates how likely a child molester is to hurt a child again. Most studies only follow child molesters for 2-5 years after they have been released from jail. A study that only follows the child molesters for 3 years misses 75% of the sexual offenses the child molesters commit. But if you look at a study of 25 years, there is a greater than 50% chance that the child molester will commit another sex crime.
Studies on recidivism further underestimate sexual re-offending depending on they whether they count “re-offending” as when the child molester is charged with another sex crime, is arrested, convicted or sentenced. An easy way to understand this is a person may be caught committing a sexual offense, but plead down to a different charge. Furthermore, child molesters commit multiple sexual offenses before being caught. So I am not entirely clear if any statistics can be relied upon, because if a person was able to molest a child without detection for a period of time prior to be arrested, what’s to say they aren’t molesting again without anyone knowing?
Ok. Back to our question. If a parent molests their child, goes through therapy and is reunited with their child, how likely are they to sexually abuse again? If we believe the general rate for child molesters committing abuse again is 10-15% and we choose to believe the non-empirical data on the effectiveness of therapy, that abusive parent has a 7-10% chance of sexually assaulting their child again. However, if we believe the general rate is 50% and believe in the effectiveness of treatment, that parent’s likelihood of molesting again is 35%. If we don’t believe in the effectiveness of treatment, then there’s a 10-50% chance of that parent abusing again.
Educating Children About Sexual Abuse Helps
In foster care, the sexually abusive parent wouldn’t be the only one receiving therapy. Kids would be educated that adults should not be molesting them. There is no conclusive data that teaching kids about good touch and bad touch will PREVENT child sexual abuse. Maybe education does prevent child sexual abuse, but no one is studying this topic. However, there is evidence that children are learning the concepts of refusing to cooperate with a molester, seeking help, and telling a trusted adult if abuse does occur. And there is evidence that educated children who are victimized will feel that it is not their fault. So, maybe the education will help kids protect themselves. Sadly, though, once a child has been sexually abused, they are 6.9 times more likely to be sexually abused in the future.
Sigh. Sending a foster child back to a parent who was sexually abusive will be absolutely gut wrenching. For me, a reasonable assumption of risk of re-abusing seems to be about 20% or a 1 in 5 chance. And that sucks.
I was super hoping that my research would reveal something that would make me feel better about reuniting families in a situation like this. And a 20% risk is a lot lower probability than I originally thought (I was thinking that the odds were more like 100%). But I am not feeling better.