When people think of child sexual abuse or sexual misconduct against children, they often do not think of inappropriate behavior between children. But the reality is that often, minors are both perpetrators and victims, whether small children are acting inappropriately with each other, an older child or teen is exploiting younger children, or older children are engaging in misconduct that may or may not be consensual. Ministries have to deal with this reality. For example, a church may have to respond to an allegation that an older boy inappropriately touched a small girl, or a mission may need to deal with incest between children in a missionary family.
Child-on-child abuse and child-perpetrated violence have reached troubling proportions, with potential causes including prior abuse from adults or other children, exposure to pornography, and other forms of brokenness in homes and culture. This article provides recommendations for responses (primarily from ministries) that will bring healing rather than make matters worse.
I. Why is the Ministry Involved, Anyway?
Whether the misconduct happened in the home or at a church or other ministry, some argue that misconduct that involves minors should just be handled by the parents. This approach suggests that only parents of the children involved in the situation should be informed, and they should take it from there. But there are flaws in this approach which could place both children, parents, and organizations at increased risk and under greater scrutiny.
Under the laws of a particular state, information about sexual abuse between minors may still trigger child abuse reporting laws. This may well depend on the severity of the alleged misconduct, any age disparity between the children, and other factors. For example, two four-year-olds engaged in inappropriate undressing and touching is not the equivalent of a 15-year-old sexually touching a nine-year-old. In some cases, failure to report could be actionable, and the behavior of the child may be a juvenile offense. This could be true whether the behavior is alleged to have happened between children at church, or whether it takes place within the family.
Because of the complexities related to child-on-child behavior, the ministry may want to consult with legal counsel. A useful approach is for the ministry (or its legal counsel) to call in anonymously and ask a “hypothetical” about the situation, and ask whether Child Protective Services (CPS) considers that a mandatory report, or a report that it would even receive.
Next, many parents are not equipped to deal well with such a situation without outside help. A common response is that they will “talk” to the offending child and “explain” that the behavior is bad, and that will “solve the problem.” What often happens in that case is the abuse may stop temporarily, may go underground, or may also surface in a much more serious or addictive form some time later.
The ministry may need to take steps to make sure the situation is addressed. This is particularly true if the children involved are in an isolated setting, such as the mission field, where the mission has more responsibility for their well-being.
II. But What About the Parents and Their Rights?
A huge concern in the child-on-child context is whether the parents of the children in question will be in trouble with CPS if a report is made. In the worst-case scenario, the children could be removed from the parents and taken out of the home.
Part of the analysis here will be whether the children are, in fact, in danger in the home. If a small child was touched inappropriately at church by another small child, and parents took action to safeguard the child, there is little danger of action against the parents (and this may not even be the kind of report CPS would want). But if there is an incest situation where an older sibling has repeatedly abused a younger one, that could change. In any grave situation, the parents would be wise to have a safety plan in place before CPS is called in. After all, it is CPS’s primary job to make sure children are kept safe. If there is an adequate, professionally-supported safety plan in place, and it is obvious that parents take the situation seriously and are proactive in ensuring the safe of their children, CPS is much less likely to act drastically.
Assuming that a report should be made, it can be very helpful for the ministry and the parents to make the report together. If parents take the posture of being proactively involved in seeking help, CPS’s response is usually more measured.
But what if the parents are highly emotional about the idea of reporting, are denying any issues, and are not likely to be cooperative? The ministry may still have to report. And the ministry will have to decide whether to tell the parents it is reporting. The law provides that abuse reporters are anonymous, specifically to protect people reporting abuse. Here, the ministry will need to balance truthfulness and discretion, and determine the best approach. This is a pastoral and moral decision, rather than a legal one, though it could have legal implications.
III. How Do We Keep Children Safe?
Part of the crisis response when there has been an allegation is planning how to keep the children involved safe—as well as all other children. For example, if a small child has been acting inappropriately with other small children, a reasonable safety plan would be for that child not to be allowed to continue with the program until after it has been determined whether the behavior is abusive, whether it is imitated from experiences, and whether he or she has had treatment. If an older child is accused of sexual abuse, he or she may need to be suspended from attending the ministry until there has been investigation or evaluation.
When the sexual abuse has happened in the home, the best approach is often to separate the children from each other. Either the parents can temporarily move apart, each with one or more of the children, or there may be a relative (preferably one that does not have children in the home) who can help out. If the alleged perpetrator has already been separated from the alleged victim, this may reassure CPS and prevent drastic action. This separation may need to last for months, until adequate treatment has been completed.
IV. How Do We Treat or Evaluate Children?
One of the most important reasons for responding actively to child-on-child abuse is to prevent lifelong trauma. When young children are harmed by sexual abuse, trauma symptoms may not immediately appear and there is a risk of delayed suggestibility. Trauma may not kick in until years later, when the child is older and has more understanding. When that child receives appropriate therapy promptly at the time of the incident and resolves the issues, the prognosis is excellent that the child will avoid long-term debilitating symptoms. This is true whether the perpetrator is an adult or a child. The child who has been harmed likely needs a thorough evaluation as a victim, and also therapy. Treatment should be addressed in the evaluation with a treatment plan tailored to that specific child and the specific situation.
When the perpetrator is a child, therapy is very effective for this child as well. This child likely needs a juvenile sex offender evaluation addressing risks of recidivsm and counseling. Some excellent programs exist (and sometimes CPS can be helpful in providing this care). While it is true that pedophiles date their misconduct back to their early teens, it is also true that many teens who offend will not offend as adults with appropriate intervention. There is significant overlap for victimization and perpetration, particularly with boys. Any evaluation should also address evidence-based interventions specific to the child being evaluated. With young offenders, the ministry and parents should have the perspective that this is an important problem that can be solved with a positive outcome. It should not be denied, but it also should not permanently define a child or young person.
All around, getting children properly evaluated and into therapy is critical. And the family may need assistance from the ministry in locating adequate care. Adequate care should include providers with specialization and advanced training in child development, victimization or perpetration, as well as any other areas appropriate to the case-specific situation.
Evaluations can also be helpful in the context of a child safety plan. Sometimes the ministry honestly does not know if the behavior happened. Perhaps the older child denies it. Perhaps CPS drops the case as unfounded. Often, the agencies involved will not give the ministry any information. Perhaps the child reporting the incident is not reliable.
The ministry is then in a position of needing to keep children safe without knowing what did happen. Here, evaluations can also be helpful. Does the alleged victim appear to have suffered trauma—and was it this trauma or some other trauma? Does the alleged perpetrator have the characteristics of a juvenile sex offender? This can all be helpful information when people have to live together without adequate answers.
To ensure that the elements discussed are addressed in the evaluation, consider having the referring agency (typically the ministry or its law firm) provide referral questions to the evaluator.
V. What Notifications Can We or Should We Make?
It may be that alleged abuse happened in a context where other children were not at risk. But it may be that it happened in a ministry context where other children may have been harmed. What sort of discussion about the situation is appropriate?
First, the ministry should remember that minors are involved. It is not appropriate to publicly share names or identifying information about minors, and there may be laws against it, depending on the location and exactly what is said about the minor. If others in the ministry (such as angry parents of a child who may have been harmed) persist in talking about a minor, the ministry may need to take disciplinary action.
Instead, it may be appropriate to provide more general information. If something occurred in a nursery room, parents whose children attended can be notified that there was a concern about inappropriate touching between one child and others. If a teen is alleged to have acted inappropriately, the ministry may be able to have a meeting with possible stakeholders (such as parents in the church) and let them know that there has been an allegation about a teen boy and a young girl. In both cases, parents can be given some information about how to ask their children questions in a general and non-leading way, and how to report if anything comes up in the conversation. Typically, safety measures can be taken without over-sharing details.
Any time there are announcements in a ministry about abuse, it is also wise to have some kind of pastoral or counseling care available for people. Statistically, there will be people in the ministry who have been abused. The situation may retrigger those memories and cause an emotional crisis.
VI. What Common Mistakes Are Made?
One common mistake is for parents to interview their own children in detail about what may have happened.Even if the parent is trained (as a lawyer, psychologist, social worker), one cannot objectively interview one’s own child as one would experience confirmation bias. The only people who should interview a child about abuse are people trained as child forensic interviewers or child therapists, as there are specific protocols that should be used to decrease the risk of memory contamination. This goes for ministry personnel as well. One possible bad outcome of mis-interviewing a child is that the information becomes so contaminated that it will never be possible to determine what really happened. A truly terrible outcome of mis-interviewing a child (especially if done repeatedly) is that the child may be implanted with memories of abuse. Now a child who was not abused has to live with the memory of abuse, which feels just as real even though it did not happen.
Another common mistake is to make assumptions without understanding the details. For instance, if it is assumed that two 15-year-olds engage in consensual sexual misconduct, that creates a whole set of problems. If the full story is brushed aside or not understood, the ministry may overlook that it was actually an act of rape or criminal sexual assault.
Another common mistake is to misidentify or minimize behavior. Yes, it is common for small children to be interested in different body parts, hence the famous “playing doctor” game, and some curiosity is normal and harmless. Certain types of inappropriate touching, however, are not normal or harmless. The ministry may need help from a qualified professional in determining how to evaluate this behavior.
While dealing with child-on-child abuse is not easy for family or ministries, handling the situation with truth, compassion, and adequate expertise will not only make the ministry a safer place, but help children deal with serious problems before their lives are wrecked. Ministries and families may need expert psychological and legal assistance to navigate these situations, but the effort is worth it for the children.
See Theresa Sidebotham’s helpful book, Handling Allegations in a Ministry for more information.
Once the ministry is aware of child-on-child abuse, consider the following questions and call the ministry’s lawyer.
How should the ministry be involved?
- Is the ministry a mandatory reporter based on the details of the case?
- Are any individuals involved mandatory reporters?
- Is the ministry able help the parents of the alleged victim or alleged perpetrator? If so, what is the timing on providing assistance?
- What can the ministry do to make sure the situation is addressed?
What about the parents?
- Are there any children in danger in the home, or are parents providing for the child’s safety?
- Does this trigger a need for additional mandatory reporting?
- Should the ministry and the parents report to CPS together?
- Are the parents resistant to reporting? Are their concerns valid? Should their concerns be addressed before or after mandatory reporting?
Are children safe?
- Should the alleged perpetrator be barred from program participation (and for what time)?
- Should the alleged perpetrator be separated from other children, especially the alleged victim?
- Is the alleged victim in a safe environment?
Can we mitigate the effects of trauma?
- Has the alleged victim been evaluated for trauma? Will they receive therapy/counseling? What is the timing for intervention?
- Has the alleged perpetrator been evaluated for trauma? Will they receive therapy/counseling? What is the timing for intervention?
- Does the ministry have a child safety plan going forward, even if the results of the investigation are not disclosed? Is there a need for a child safety plan based on the incident?
How and who should we notify?
- Is the ministry doing its due diligence in protecting the names of the minors involved?
- Is the ministry providing general information to inform involved parents and provide for child safety? Should general information be provided?
- Is the ministry making pastoral care or counseling available for any affected by the allegation?
Avoiding Common Mistakes
- Are we ensuring that parents and others are not contaminating the memories of those involved?
- Are we doing our best to not make assumptions about the allegations?
- Are we doing our best to not misidentify or minimize behavior?
A.R. Ascano is the founder of Intermodal Interventions. She has worked extensively with children who have suffered harm both as a Guardian ad Litem and as a therapist.
Theresa L. Sidebotham is the founder of Telios Law and co-founder of Telios Teaches. Telios Law focuses on advising ministries, including prevention and responses in child safeguarding matters. Telios Teaches provides training to ministries, including around child protection.
 For our purposes in this article, minors and children are equivalent terms. A minor is anyone under the age of 18.
 See Wandera, S. O., Clarke, K., Knight, L., Allen, E., Walakira, E., Namy, S., . . . & Devries, K. (2017). Violence against children perpetrated by peers: A cross-sectional school-based survey in Uganda. Child Abuse & Neglect, 68, 65-73; Nowakowski-Sims, E. (2019). An exploratory study of childhood adversity and delinquency among youth in the context of child-to-parent and sibling-to-sibling violence. Journal of Family Social Work, 22(2), 126-145; Ramaiya, A., Choiriyyah, I., Heise, L., Pulerwitz, J., Blum, R. W., Levtov, R., . . . & Moreau, C. (2021). Understanding the relationship between adverse childhood experiences, Peer-Violence Perpetration, and gender norms among very young adolescents in Indonesia: a cross-sectional study. Journal of Adolescent Health, 69(1), S56-S63.
 See Cantwell, H. B. (1988). Child sexual abuse: Very young perpetrators. Child abuse & neglect, 12(4), 579-582.
 American Academy of Pediatrics. (2014). Adverse childhood experiences and the lifelong consequences of trauma. See Ramaiya, A., Choiriyyah, I., Heise, L., Pulerwitz, J., Blum, R. W., Levtov, R., . . . & Moreau, C. (2021). Understanding the relationship between adverse childhood experiences, Peer-Violence Perpetration, and gender norms among very young adolescents in Indonesia: a cross-sectional study. Journal of Adolescent Health, 69(1), S56-S63.
 Gudjonsson, G., Vagni, M., Maiorano, T., & Pajardi, D. (2020). The relationship between trauma symptoms and immediate and delayed suggestibility in children who have been sexually abused. Journal of investigative psychology and offender profiling, 17(3), 250-263.
 See McTavish, J. R., Sverdlichenko, I., MacMillan, H. L., & Wekerle, C. (2019). Child sexual abuse, disclosure and PTSD: A systematic and critical review. Child abuse & neglect, 92, 196-208.
 Corboz, J., Hemat, O., Siddiq, W., & Jewkes, R. (2018). Children’s peer violence perpetration and victimization: Prevalence and associated factors among school children in Afghanistan. PloS one, 13(2), e0192768. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0192768
 See Howe, M. L. (2022). Forensic consequences of creating and shaping children’s memories.
 O’Donohue, W., & Cirlugea, O. (2021). Controlling for Confirmation Bias in Child Sexual Abuse Interviews. The journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 49(3), 371-380.
 See Ahern, E. C., Hershkowitz, I., Lamb, M. E., Blasbalg, U., & Karni-Visel, Y. (2019). Examining reluctance and emotional support in forensic interviews with child victims of substantiated physical abuse. Applied Developmental Science, 23(3), 227-238.
 See Howe, M. L. (2022). Forensic consequences of creating and shaping children’s memories.
 See Brainerd, C. J., & Reyna, V. F. (2019). Fuzzy-trace theory, false memory, and the law. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 6(1), 79-86.
 See Hamby, A., Ecker, U., & Brinberg, D. (2020). How stories in memory perpetuate the continued influence of false information. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 30(2), 240-259.
 Mesman, G. R., Harper, S. L., Edge, N. A., Brandt, T. W., & Pemberton, J. L. (2019). Problematic sexual behavior in children. Journal of Pediatric Health Care, 33(3), 323-331.