The scandal surrounding the Duggar family, famous for their reality TV series “19 Kids and Counting,” and who confirmed this week that one of their sons inappropriately touched girls, at least two of them his sisters, when he was a teenager, raises a difficult question: What should parents do if one of their children is inappropriately touching a young sibling?
Dr. Karen Kay Imagawa, director of the Audrey Hepburn CARES Center at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, which offers services for suspected victims of child abuse and their families, offered some insights to the Los Angeles Times. Her advice and explanations are not specific to the Duggar case.
What are the first steps?
Upon learning of inappropriate touching, parents should do three things immediately: Believe the child who says such touching occurred, protect the victim, and get help from a trained professional, Imagawa said.
Protecting the victim includes making sure the child accused of inappropriate touching has no access to the child who was touched, and it includes informing local child protective services and law enforcement officials, she said.
When choosing a professional counselor, parents should seek one who has training and credentials dealing specifically with sexual assault, Imagawa said. The parents can ask friends for perspective or turn to a faith-based intervention program if they wish, but they would still need a counselor with specialized training — there is no substitute for that, she said.
Depending on the description of the incident, parents should also consider a medical exam for their child.
How can parents tell if the touching was inappropriate?
The professional counselor can help determine this, Imagawa said, adding that it depends on multiple factors, including whether the touching was motivated by simple curiosity or sexual gratification.
Parents should not try to interview their own children about what happened, she cautioned. “Oftentimes children will feel that they’re being forced to say things” or may not be ready to talk about it yet, she said, and asking them the same question on multiple occasions can be counterproductive.
“Particularly with younger children … they start to feel, ‘You didn’t like the answer the last time, so I’ll change it,’” Imagawa said.
However, she said, if a child brings up the topic, “absolutely be open to listen.”
Does protecting one child mean hurting the other?
Having to protect one child from another may make parents feel they are helping one at the other’s expense, “but that really isn’t the case,” Imagawa said.
The child who did the inappropriate touching needs help as well, she said. That child might have learned the behavior by being on the receiving end of abuse, she said, adding that the child may also need help dealing with guilt and learning how to stop inappropriately touching others.
Ultimately, the situation “impacts and involves the entire family,” Imagawa said. Addressing it properly helps everyone.
If children don’t understand the abuse, can it still emotionally harm them?
Yes. Even very young children are able to understand that something doesn’t feel right, although they might not be able to put those feelings into words, Imagawa said.
Not all young victims of inappropriate touching end up experiencing negative consequences — some legitimately forget the experience, she said. However, she said, in some of those children, such memories can resurface years later and cause trauma.
Jim Bob Duggar said his son confessed to touching his sisters while they were sleeping. Imagawa says that it's not right to assume that being asleep protects a child who is being touched inappropriately. “If they’re not totally asleep, they may remember,” she said. “It may not be that vivid of a memory as if you were awake … but it can be very disturbing.”
Where can parents turn for help?
If they feel comfortable asking their children’s pediatrician for a referral to an appropriate counselor, that’s a good starting point, Imagawa said.
The National Child Abuse Hotline, reachable at (800) 422-4453, and the local child services department are also good resources, she said. The Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services’ website is http://dcfs.co.la.ca.us/. The Audrey Hepburn CARES Center at Children's Hospital Los Angeles is also a good resource. They can reached at (323) 361.4977 or www.CHLA.org/CARESCENTER.
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