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The Accommodation of Child Sexual Abuse

June 14th, 2021

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Since 2003, Rapha International has been combating the abuse and sexual exploitation of children around the globe. Sexual exploitation and human trafficking affect every child differently. In addition to the initial trauma they experience, child victims of sexual abuse face additional truama in the crisis of discovery. Tragically, as children attempt to understand their experiences, they are sometimes met with disbelief, blame and rejection from adults. As children process their trauma, they may experience any (or all) of the reactions listed below, which together are described as “Accommodation.” 

Out of these five behaviors, two define basic childhood vulnerability and three are related specifically to sexual abuse. Accomodation is proposed as a simple and logical model to improve understanding of the child’s position in the complex dynamics of sexual victimization. 

• Secrecy: Children may not tell about abuse because they are convinced by their abuser that it must be kept secret. An abuser uses manipulation and threats, such as “If you tell, I will hurt you”, or “if you tell, I will go to jail”, or even “If you love me, you won’t tell”. Children are often forced to believe that keeping this secret of abuse is necessary for safety and survival.

• Helplessness: Children are taught to obey adults. When children are abused by an adult that they love and trust, they do not feel free to fight back, make a scene, or tell another adult. Children do not feel that they have any power over adults. This helplessness often leads to guilt and shame when children feel that they have allowed the abuse to happen.

• Entrapment/Accommodation: If children do not tell right away, they feel that there is no choice but to keep the secret. The secret builds over time, and children are more afraid to tell the secret as time goes on. Children know that the secret would upset family members and other adults, and fear that they will be in trouble. Children learn to live with the abuse and hope to keep it to themselves. 

• Delayed/Conflicted Disclosure: It is very common for children to wait months or even years to tell about abuse. Many adults are surprised that abuse could be kept secret for so long, and this may cause them to doubt the child’s story. By the time a child decides to tell, trauma may have caused behavior problems. If a child has trouble with substance abuse, lying, running away, or other behaviors, adults may doubt that the child is telling the truth. In addition, sometimes children tell a small part of the story to test the waters or explore what may happen if the secret is revealed. To protect themselves from the full weight of disclosure, they may tell about a small part of the abuse or say it happened to a friend.

• Retraction/Recantation: After a child tells about the abuse, their family goes through a lot of stress. The adults in the child’s life will be very upset and might be angry. The family may be separated and the abuser may be sent away or put in jail. Sometimes, the family loses their house or income. When these things happen, sometimes children stop the chaos by saying that the abuse did not happen, or recanting. By saying that they made up the story about abuse, children feel that they can take control of their lives and keep their families together. The adults involved may not want to believe that sexual abuse has happened, and may quickly accept that the child lied. 

Sexual exploitation and human trafficking are life-changing events. Every child may accommodate their abuse differently. The more we know about it, the more trauma-informed our responses to children will be. 

Note: This blog is based on the 1983 work of Roland Summit, “The sexual abuse accommodation syndrome” in the journal Child Abuse and Neglect. The work is considered a seminal piece in the study of child maltreatment. Summit did later clarify that accommodation is not actually a syndrome- that is, it cannot be used to identify or diagnose child abuse- but it continues to be used a model for understanding the behavior and experience of many children who experience sexual abuse.