'Better Together’: a grounded theory study of social worker decision making in cases involving sexual behaviour between siblings
Yates, Peter Michael
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Between 1/5 and 1/3 of all cases of sexual abuse in the UK involve children or young people as perpetrators (Hackett, 2004). Siblings may account for somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 of the victims of these children (Hackett et al., 1998; Shaw et al., 2000; Beckett, 2006; Allardyce and Yates, 2009; Ryan, 2010a). There is increasing evidence that sibling sexual abuse may have very damaging consequences for victims, at least as damaging as sexual abuse by a parent (Rudd and Herzberger, 1999; Cyr et al., 2002), yet there is ongoing debate over how to differentiate harmless sex play from harmful sibling sexual abuse (Caffaro, 2014). How social workers make sense of sibling sexual behaviour is of interest in light of their role in making decisions regarding the intervention of the State in private and family life. However, research on how social workers make decisions has so far been limited to situations concerning abuse by a parent, with almost no attention having been paid to situations where a child in the family is the source of risk. This grounded theory study analyses the retrospective accounts of decisions made with respect to separation, contact, and reunification by 21 social workers in Scotland regarding 21 families in which sibling sexual behaviour has taken place. The study finds that social workers make these decisions intuitively and in relationship with children and families, influenced by a cognitive orientation, a practice mindset: ‘siblings as better together’. This mindset comprises three underlying perspectives: children as vulnerable and intending no sexual harm to others; sibling relationships as non-abusive and of intrinsic value; and parents as well-intentioned protective. These perspectives encourage a focus on immediate safety rather than emotional harm, and could be said to extend Dingwall et al.’s (1983) ‘rule of optimism’ in these cases where a child is the source of abuse within the family. In keeping with the findings of serious case reviews concerning abuse by a parent (e.g. Sinclair and Bullock, 2002; Brandon et al., 2012), there is a danger of the victim child becoming lost.