Children's Voice May/June 2008

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Clearing a Path to Higher Ed for Dependent Youth

For a child who has been sexually abused, one Maryland child welfare agency is paying close attention to the role of the non-offending parent in the healing and reunification process.

Since 2005, Montgomery County Child Welfare Services has employed a sexual abuse treatment team, comprised of four master's degree-level social workers, specially trained to work exclusively with child sexual abuse victims and their families. The social workers--who are assigned no more than 12 cases at one time--interpret behavior to parents and encourage techniques for managing negative behaviors. The team also provides one-on-one support to foster families to minimize the number of placement disruptions due to behavior problems.

"As a result of these efforts, families are moving from denial and resistance to acceptance and healing, which facilitates permanency planning and placement stability," explains Maureen Kennedy, supervisor of the sexual abuse treatment unit. "Children are reunified with their families when the non-offending parent is able to make the changes necessary to safely look after the child's interests."

After the children and their families are referred for continuing protective services, the sexual abuse treatment team directs the child victims, non-offending parents, and foster parents to specialized mental health services within the community and closely monitors their progress. State flexible funds pay for the specialized mental health treatment when it is not covered by medical assistance.

Treatment involves individual therapy for the child and the non-offending parent, followed by family therapy. The social workers also offer and facilitate a 12-week psycho-educational support group, arranged by age, for the child victims in the fall and again in the spring. Working within a group helps take away the child's sense of isolation and self-blame, and boosts their self-esteem. It also teaches coping strategies for processing traumatic experiences individually.

Meanwhile, parents are encouraged to participate in structured, multiple-week non-offending parent groups through Montgomery County's Child Advocacy Center and partnering private community vendors, which have been "very effective in lowering parental resistance and getting parents to be more supportive of the victim," Kennedy says. "The biggest accomplishment of this work is the movement beyond denial that these parents undergo."

Kennedy explains that the non-offending parents learn, among other things, that their feelings are normal--they are not alone in their feelings of shame, anger, and conflict about protecting the victim and the perpetrator. They are able to admit they have positive and negative feelings for the perpetrator, which frees them up to be more supportive of the victim. The parents also learn to identify their child's behaviors, including the child's acting out or history of silence in relation to the child having been sexually abused.

"Our experience bears out the research that implies that the single most curative factor for the victims of child sexual abuse is the support of the non-offending parent," Kennedy says. "Providing specialized services to this population has made these outcomes possible."

For more information about Montgomery County's work, contact Maureen Kennedy at 240/777-4418, or Louise Klein at 240/777-1124.

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