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Are Victims Of Sexual Abuse More Likely To Become Perpetrators Of Abuse?

In 2001, an eight-year-old girl was found "tortured and starving" in her family's home in Texas. Lauren Kavanaugh's story made national headlines and she became known as "The Girl in the Closet."

According to authorities, Kavanaugh's mother and stepfather isolated her in a closet in their trailer that measured approximately four-by-eight feet, from the time she was two-years-old until police found her when she was eight. Kavanaugh weighed 25 pounds when police found her.

Kavanaugh, who is 25 years old now, was arrested by police in December 2018. Authorities received a tip from a 14-year-old girl that she had been sexually assaulted by Kavanaugh.

According to the police, Kavanaugh has a Facebook account called "The Lauren Kavanaugh Story," where she reached out to other abuse victims "to offer friendships and support." The 14-year-old met Kavanaugh through the Facebook page. The page has been taken down.

When detectives interviewed Kavanaugh, she admitted having a "sexual relationship" with the 14-year-old. Police think there are other alleged victims and have been asking for the public's help in finding them. Kaley Johnson "'Girl in the Closet' arrested in sexual assault of a 14-year-old girl, police say" www.star-telegram.com (Dec. 20, 2018).

Commentary and Checklist

Was Kavanaugh destined to become an abuser? The short answer is “no”, but she had a heightened risk of becoming an offender according to statistical research.

Some studies show that adult survivors of child sexual abuse are more likely to become involved in crime, both as a perpetrator and as a victim, but this does not necessarily mean a victim of sexual abuse will become a sex offender.

A longitudinal study conducted by researchers at John Jay College of Criminal Justice followed abused children until they were in their late 40s, and also interviewed the children of the abused children, who were around 22 years old at the time.

The study found that 21.4 percent of the adult victims of child abuse had been reported to Child Protective Services (CPS) for child maltreatment, twice the number of the control group of parents. In particular, the rates of reported sexual abuse and neglect were significantly higher, while the rates of physical abuse were similar between the childhood abuse victims and the control group.

As this study shows, experiencing abuse and neglect as a child may increase the odds of a victim to perpetrate abuse, especially sexual abuse. However, there is no evidence that being a victim of sexual abuse means a victim will become an offender.

Studies have found that some factors that may increase the likelihood that an abused or neglected child will go on to commit sexual abuse as an adult include: abuse that started early in life; abuse that lasted for a long time; abuse that was particularly harmful; circumstances in which the perpetrator had a close relationship to the victim; and abuse that occurred in a family that was emotionally cold.

What can be done to help prevent child abuse survivors from becoming sex offenders when they become adults?

  • Therapy: The victims of child abuse and neglect will almost always benefit from seeing a mental health professional. Consult a licensed therapist who can teach the abuse survivor specific steps on what to do and how to cope on a daily basis.
  • Emotional support: Having friends or family members whom the child can turn to for support and to talk with about the abuse or neglect can help the child heal.
  • Being cared about: Abused children need to learn that adults are not all uncaring. Showing interest in, and kindness toward, an abused child (without engaging in any inappropriate activities that could constitute grooming) teaches the child that he or she can trust adults to care.
  • Learning they are not to blame: Children need to know that abuse and neglect are never acceptable, no matter what they did that led to the "punishment." Children must understand that they were not "bad kids," but in fact it was the perpetrators who were wrong to treat them that way.
  • Building confidence: Helping abused children find a hobby or develop a skill that gives them greater confidence can help them overcome a childhood of being told that they are worthless.
  • Being understood: If someone other than a child's parents perpetrated the abuse, it is important that the child's parents react with understanding and support when they learn of the abuse.
  • Other sources of help: Seek help for the abused child from the many organizations that help child abuse survivors on their road to recovery.
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