Working with Young People Who Have Been Sexually Abused in Childhood : a Case Study

By Lorea Boneke

Date Posted: Friday, 25 May 2007

Lorea Boneke has degrees in European languages as well as accountancy and finance but she did not take up accounting as a long term career because child poverty was always a big concern on her personal agenda. She decided she wanted to be more directly involved with vulnerable children and so she worked as a volunteer, teaching, counselling and mentoring vulnerable children and young people  in  England, Scotland and internationally. Later she became a senior residential child care worker in a children’s home where she completed a graduate diploma in child  development and the care of children and young people. Lorea is currently engaged upon a Master of Social Work course.
In this personal and sensitive article Lorea Boneke conveys the unresolved pain experienced by a young adult who was sexually abused as a child. She lays out a tableau of the behavioural symptoms which are associated with sexual abuse and from this explains why it is important for those who are supporting young people who have been sexually abused not to interpret these behaviours at a superficial level.



Working with young people who have been sexually abused in childhood : a case study.


Blessing on thee, little man,
Barefoot boy, with cheek of tan!
With thy turned-up pantaloons,
And thy merry whistled tunes;
With thy red lip, redder still,
Kissed by strawberries on the hill!!!

John Greenleaf Whittier


In ancient times, using children as sex objects was not only accepted but often encouraged by adults. Apparently, participating in sexual activities with children was not seen as wrong or harmful but as appropriate and even healthy for children.  Not so long ago in our own European society parents would say to their own thirteen and fourteen year old daughters, “The sooner you get married the better. Mr Smith is a really wealthy gentlemen, he will take care of you….” and usually he did. He was 20 years older than her and had the money to do so. Yet now to me writing in the 21st century this smacks of slavery.

Though sexual abuse of children has been documented in other guises throughout history, what has varied considerably has been society’s willingness to recognize it as a problem. This is not so powerfully the case now but child sexual abuse still remains vastly under-reported.

When accusations of sexual abuse are made there is a tendency to disbelieve children. This is a big concern for those, like my colleagues and I working with and supporting children who are in some way associated with the care system. It is also a concern for those who recruit staff to work with children. Most dramatically this was seen in 1986 in a BBC television programme which was promoting the launch of Childline – the telephone service available to children who are too frightened to divulge their experiences of abuse openly for fear of recrimination – when the story of ‘Amanda’ showed that even when a child makes explicit reference to sexual assault she is likely to be disbelieved. Amanda’s class at school was asked by a teacher to write a story about an unusual lodger. Amanda wrote about her family’s real life lodger, her mother’s boyfriend, who had begun abusing Amanda.
Returning the essay days later, Amanda’s teacher commented “That’s disgusting. I don’t want you ever to write anything like that again”.
I believe that adults resist acknowledging certain human behaviours and we are so shocked by revelations of childhood sexual abuse that we invent complex excuses to defend ourselves against the reality of what we have discovered. Freud said that buried into every woman’s unconscious was the fantasy of having sexual relations with her father. Unfortunately in modifying some of his early theories about the frequency of sexual abuse, he gave scientific credibility to the myths that children and female adults alike ‘make up’ stories of sexual abuse.  Although Freud was speaking in the context of a male dominated culture, his original notion that there is an erotic dimension to the relationship between children and their parents has a significant degree of acceptance. I would add here that in most families these feelings are kept within healthy boundaries.

In my work I support children and young people who have suffered because these healthy boundaries have broken down and research suggests that children do not tell lies when they are brave enough to say that they have been sexually abused.  We need to ask ourselves when a child comes to us with a story of sexual abuse, Why would this young person lie to me about this? We need to acknowledge the cry for help first rather than express doubt.


James : a case study

James’ father died when he was three years old. His mother became dependent on drugs after the loss of James’ father.  When James was 8 years old he was sexually abused by his mothers’ new partner. He did not say anything about this then but he began behaving badly at school and at home. At the age of 10 he was admitted into care and his ‘care career’ was a series of breakdowns of foster family placements. Eventually at the age of 17, he was placed at the project where I worked. It was a semi-independent living project for vulnerable young people preparing to live on their own in the community and it was while he was with this project that he first felt able to trust an adult sufficiently to begin to talk about his feelings concerning the sexual abuse he had suffered. By this time James himself was already a father of a one year old daughter.
When I looked at this brief life history, so many different questions came to my mind with regard to James. What happened to this young man’s childhood? Why did it take him so long to trust somebody? Did he really have a childhood? How did this experience influence his personality? How has the experience influenced his relationships with other people? How will his experience impact his interaction with his own child?

The fact that his mother was a drugs user made James a really vulnerable child and likely to suffer harm. Unfortunately, when James came into care, serious harm was already done.  Once abuse has occurred it is not just the harm caused that is of great concern, but also the possibility of future risk. This is why James was removed from his mother’s care. She was socially and emotionally dysfunctional due to her drug addiction and she could not protect James from further sexual abuse.
Why is seduction and sexual assault in childhood so destructive to normal development? It is quite clear that to be raped by a stranger is quick and brutal. To be raped by a stranger brings about feelings of hate, anger, fear and mistrust. However, even if the atrocity of the event can never be understood by the victim in such a case, at least the extreme feelings they have engendered can be made sense of by the victim. But the seduction or intimidation of a child by a parenting figure, can only serve to make the child’s thoughts and feelings a labyrinth of confusion for which no sense can be found.  So often it is the child who feels guilt in these circumstances.
Firstly, when James came into the semi–independent project he was a quiet young man unable to share his life experiences with anyone. He had a history of rejecting any kind of counselling support coming from specialised agencies or foster parents. This was a clear sign that James did not trust adults. It was as if he was ashamed of what had happened to him, and that any further telling of his experiences could bring about any number of unknown reactions that for James’ could have been unbearable. Of course in another sense he may not have trusted adults because they were potential abusers.
Secondly, during his placement in the project, James would display behaviour of having been abused in the past. For several years in his life James believed that he was ‘mentally handicapped’. He made comments of how stupid he was and he would insist to himself that he had learning disabilities. This was not true but was a belief created by James that showed us that as a consequence of his abuse throughout his childhood his self-esteem had been really low

It has been generally observed that young people who have been sexually abused and who have very few feelings of self-worth tend to display destructive tendencies and engage in self-destructive behaviour such as self-mutilation, drug and alcohol abuse. When James found his feelings about his past experiences unbearable he would put himself into very high risk situations. As an asthmatic person, he would go to places where he found it difficult to breathe. Our interpretation of this was that this new very real, very tangible pain was a way of blocking out his emotional pain. It was a pain that he could actually make sense of.

James also displayed  behaviours where he would come across as dominant, controlling and powerful as if trying to take on the role of an over controlling  adult. The fact that James had not had a consistent male adult role model seemed to make him struggle with finding his adult male identity. His notion of a family and the male adult’s role in it became confused. So much so that he was at times confused about his own family and whoever was his current foster family. On one occasion he said to his foster mother, “You know I could take Dad’s place.  You don’t need to marry any more. You are much better alone. I will take care of you and my sisters.”
His experience of his mother having different partners and his experience of being placed with different foster families clearly created confusion in his mind. Freud would no doubt say that James was struggling with oedipal matters, in an unconscious struggle with the father figure for the love of the mother figure.  In his foster family placements he always seemed to think his rival for the foster mother’s love was the foster father. Certainly James was sure that his last fostering mother would get married to another person, and suggested that he would be her ideal partner. This may have been why James would display sexualised behaviour towards female staff members in the project.

Another explanation as to why victims of child sexual abuse display sexualised behaviour to those close to them is that the boundaries between sex and love have been merged and confused. The perpetrator of the abuse would often say, “I am doing this because I love you” or “Do this to show that you love me’. Therefore the young person who throughout the childhood years has been the victim of this kind of seduction may come to feel that in order to receive love or give love in other relationships that it is necessary to behave in a highly sexualised way towards others. This can make a young person very vulnerable to being a victim of further abuse or indeed to becoming a perpetrator.

Often the first thoughts of a foster parent or carer are that they are unable to deal with this extreme sexualised behaviour and it can make them feel as if they want to give up helping the young person. There will always be a dilemma in establishing normal physical contact with the abused child. The child may misinterpret any form of physical contact. So, the carer must have the skills to draw clear boundaries, in order to help the child discover what is appropriate and what is not. This is a difficult assignment since the child may not understand what is right and what is wrong. Also it is an approach which, if it is too harshly adopted will deprive the child of the healthy intimacy he or she needs. Every child needs love and affection. Sometimes abused children miss out on so much physical attention.  Too often the carer feels, wrongly in my view, that in the interests of the child’s sensitivities avoiding touch and physical affection will be best for the child. Sometimes too, carers may defend themselves against the possibility of accusations being made of inappropriate touching. In our work with James once we had earned his trust and he felt assured that we were not going to reject him, we were able to work directly and cognitively in helping him gain a sense of what he and others could experience as acceptable physical affection and attention.

James, with his experience of abuse, his lack of a significant attachment to a parenting figure in his life, and his going through the instabilities of failing placements with different families, now found himself having a family of his own. James dearly hoped that his new family would bring him peace and stability but inevitably it brought him more problems because he struggled to deal with the care of his own daughter. After the break up of each of his family placements James suffered a deep-rooted depression which he increasingly dealt with by consuming alcohol to excess. His depressed feelings peaked when soon after the birth of his daughter at the age of 17, just before he was placed with us, James who was living on his own in a hostel, embarked on a drinking bout following which he made a serious suicide attempt. It was as a consequence of this that he was placed with us.

James’ problems with alcohol could be linked to his depressive periods following each rejection from a family. He would persuade himself that his life could only get worse. At the age of 12 it appeared that James’ way of distracting himself from a rejection and the anguish that went with it was to involve himself in street vandalism. By the age of 13 he was blocking out the pain of rejection, the feelings of lack of worth and of failure by consuming alcohol to excess. On reflection we thought that James’ suicide attempt may have been a final cry of despair, but we also thought that he may have been trying to make a call for help, not just for him, but also for the wellbeing of his daughter. We decided that once we had gained his trust we would focus on the latter possibility. I have implied that victims of sexual abuse may become abusers of their own children, but in James’ case his positive response to the help my colleagues and I provided, gave us hope that this would not happen. James became able to acknowledge and recognise for what it was, the harm which had been done to him even if it remained painful to him.  I was certain by the end of James’ placement with us that he would not wish to harm his daughter.
I should note hear the extraordinary way in which James came to accept our help. After the failed suicide attempt, James seemed to understand fully that he had a responsibility for his daughter and that she might not flourish without his care.


When James left us his future remained uncertain but we were optimistic for James. He was showing responsible concern and care towards his daughter and he was engaged with a number of community resources which offered him support. Those who have been sexually abused in childhood can often find their fragile new found emotional and social adjustment tested by events which others would negotiate easily. James may well need therapeutic help during his adulthood if he is to exorcise his psychological ghosts. Such intervention may need to focus both on the current presenting problem and on the past memories of the sexual abuse if James is to make sense of what has happened in his childhood. Then he may finally move on and put it behind him.


Concluding observations

My aim has been to stress the importance of both understanding and being sympathetic to the child and the adult who has suffered abuse at some time in their lives. If we know that people who have been abused have confused feelings which can also overwhelm them and their professional carers, then we are informed of how important it is to stay with them rather than retreat in the face of their confusion which is often expressed in behaviour which places them at risk.
In my view society should accept that most child sex abuse is perpetrated by someone who is close to the child; someone who the child trusts and loves. There is a need for us all to acknowledge the feelings of humiliation, anger, guilt, self-hatred and the inner turmoil that these engender in the child who has been sexually abused.  In my work it is all too easy to begin to think of child sexual abuse as part of the currency of our every day experience and to begin to become anaesthetised to how horrific it is for the child.
Most of all there as part of our education as we grow up we should be encouraged and taught by our parents, by our teachers and by each other to value the beauty and innocence of childhood. Whittier’s verse, quoted above, encapsulates this yet at the same times conveys how vulnerable innocence and beauty are.



Bass, E., Thornton, L., Brister, J., Hammond G., & Lamb. V. (1983) I never told anyone: Writings by Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse  New York:    Harper, Colophon Books
Freud, S. (1905) On Sexuality    London:  Penguin Freud Library Vol. 7 (1977)
Greenleaf Whittier, J. (1855) ‘The Barefoot Boy’ in The Poetry of John Greenleaf Whittier    ed.  Jolliff, W.   Richmond (Indiana, USA):     Friends United Press (2000)
MacCaskill, C. (1991) Fostering or Adopting a Sexually Abused Child      London:  Batsford
Miller, A. (1985) Thou Shalt Not Be Aware: :Society’s Betrayal of the Child.   London:    Pluto
Milner, J., & Blyth, E.  (1989) Coping with Child Sexual Abuse: A Guide for Teachers.     London:   Longman
Romans, S., Martin, J., Anderson, J., Herbison, P., and Mullen, E.(1995) ‘Sexual abuse in childhood and deliberate self-harm’ in  The American Journal of Psychiatry ,  vol. 52.
Roth, T. (1999)   War Zone   Film United Kingdom
Rush, F. (1980) The Best Kept Secret: Sexual Abuse of Children     New York : McGraw-Hill

Vizard, E. (1987) ‘Interviewing Young, Sexually Abused Children – Assessment Techniques’ in Family Law , vol. 17



29 Jun 2007,    Laurie Devlin writes
Do you think it is ever possible for someone like James to get over what has happened to him ?
15 Jun 2007,    Patson Musumali writes
This affecting article reminds me that our work as carers is to tend to a child’s emotional ills, but we leave these problems unattended and blame the child. I wish so-called ‘stakeholders’ would acknowledge this while thy cry, ‘Every Child Matters’ yet deal only in budgets, bureaucracy and political rhetoric.