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Attributions made by professionals in child sexual abuse

Attributions made by professionals in child sexual abuse The first area that is consideredis how professionals attribute blame and responsibility in incidents of child sexual abuse. Judgments that professionals make about who is to blame for the abuse are important to consider because they establish a framework within which to understand decisions about interventions made by these professionals. Studies assessing attribution of responsibility typically provide respondents with vignettes that vary on key characteristics (such as the age of the victim), from which they allocate responsibility for the abuse. “Theories of Child Sexual Abuse,” professionals assign the most responsibility to offenders and the least responsibility to victims (Johnson, Owens, Dewey, & Eisenberg, 1990; Kelley, 1990; Reidy & Hochstadt, 1993). This has been a recent change, however, as studies from the 1980s found that a significant portion of the responsibility for the abuse was also assigned to victims and nonoffending mothers. For example, Saunders (1988) found that mean scores for attribution of responsibility to victims and offenders made by professionals differed by only half a point. Similarly, Dietz and Craft (1980) also found that child protective services workers believed that the nonoffending mother was as responsible for the abuse as the father in father-daughter incest. Although attribution of responsibility apportioned to victims decreased substantially in the 1990% attribution of responsibility for nonoffending mothers remained somewhat higher not only for intrafamilial abuse (Johnson et al., 1990; Reidy & Hochstadt, 1993), but also for extrafamilial abuse (Kelley, 1990). Further, many professionals continue to hold negative perceptions of nonoffending mothers. For example, a recent study found that 81% of mental health practitioners agreed with statements that mothers in families in which father-daughter incest occurred were emotionally immature, and 83% agreed that these mothers had feelings of worthlessness as a woman (Freet, Scalise, & Ginter, 1996). When these same questions were asked about other types of abuse, the percentages fell to 59% and 60%, respectively. Some studies have also considered factors that predict levels of attribution. Three factors predict the perception of victim responsibility as assigned by professionals. First, professionals attribute more responsibility for the abuse to older children and adolescents than younger children (Johnson et al., 1990). Second, male professionals rate victims as having more responsibility for the abuse than do female professionals (Jackson & Sandberg, 1985; Reidy & Hochstadt, 1993). Third, victims described as encouraging (versus passive or resistant) during the abuse are attributed more responsibility (Johnson et al., 1990; Wagner, Aucoin, & Johnson, 1993). Therefore, while victim blame is low, it does remain. That attribution of responsibility increases for older children and for children described as encouraging also suggests that some professionals continue to endorse myths about victims. Factors predicting professional attribution of responsibility to nonoffending mothers and offenders have not been scrutinized as closely. The only known factor related to attribution of responsibility for nonoffending mothers is gender of the professional, with male professionals attributing less responsibility to nonoffending mothers than female professionals (Reidy & Hochstadt, 1993). Hanson and Slater (1993) also found that attributions of offender culpability varied by the offenders’ motivations for the abuse. In vignettes, offenders who stated that they were closer to their daughter than to their wife or who said that they had been sexually abused as a child were attributed the least responsibility of all abuse situations by professionals. In a related study, Kelley (1990) found that professionals were more tolerant of, and recommended less severe sentences for, an offender who was described as a prominent attorney versus an unemployed alcoholic. Professionals also differentially believe hypothetical accounts of abuse. Jackson and Nutall (1993) found that female professionals were more likely than male professionals to believe a sexual abuse vignette and that clinical social workers were more likely than pediatricians, psychiatrists, and psychologists to believe that an incident was abuse. Other factors related to greater belief were the race of the perpetrator (with accounts of Caucasian offenders considered more believable than accounts of African American or Latino offenders) and race of the victim (with accounts involving noncaucasian children considered more believable). When the child was younger or presented with negative affect or behavioral changes, or when the perpetrator had a history of substance abuse, the account of abuse was also more likely to be believed. Zellman (1992) found that cases were more likely to be considered abuse when the offender was a carpenter instead of a prominent attorney, the offender was a babysitter instead of an estranged father, the victim did not recant, and the child was young. Given that race, socioeconomic status, and presenting with negative affect are unrelated to abuse disclosure or even abuse prevalence, these findings are of concern. It is of further concern that older children and adolescents are considered less credible than younger children. Other studies report beliefs of professionals that also warrant some concern. Hartman, Karlson, and Hibbard (1994) found that a fourth to a third of defense attorneys believed that digital or penile penetration of a 15- or 16-year-old by an adult was not sexual abuse, even if it had occurred multiple times. Another study found that abuse by female offenders was considered less serious than abuse by male offenders and that fewer recommendations for imprisonment were made (Hetherton & Beardsall, 1988). Still another study found that more than half of physicians surveyed believed that most allegations made during divorce proceedings were false (Marshall & Locke, 1997). 2 Given that false allegations filed maliciously are rare in divorce or custody disputes (Faller, 1991 a; Jones & McGraw, 1987), this is a finding of great concern. Finally, one study found that female professionals said that they would be more likely to separate from the alleged perpetrator (their partner) if abuse were disclosed (Deblinger, Lippmann, Stauffer, & Finkel, 1994). When asked about what their clients (nonoffending mothers) should do, however, most believed that the nonoffending mother should utilize family counseling to maintain family unity. That female professionals believe that what is in their best interest is different than what is in their client’s best interest is an issue for further consideration. In sum, these studies highlight some areas for concern. First, the consistency of a victim-blame factor, even though minimal, suggests that some professionals still hold the victim partially responsible. That blame or belief varies based upon the age of the child—even when penetration occurs—also suggests that professionals do not yet fully agree upon the definition of an abuse event. It is of further concern that the type of behavior the child displays (i.e,, whether the child is considered encouraging, passive, or resisting during the abuse) is related to attribution of responsibility. The continued existence of a stronger mother-blame factor and the finding that culpability varies based upon the offender’s rationalization for the abuse also suggests that professionals do not as yet always place the blame fully on the offender. The differences of opinions between male and female professionals on basic issues of culpability and prosecution are also worrisome. Other issues are of even more concern—such as why socioeconomic status and race of the victim and perpetrator affect the way professionals assess abuse situations. Overall, this variability is probably a reflection of the continued newness of the knowledge base surrounding child sexual abuse. While professionals working directly and closely with cases of child sexual abuse would be expected to stay abreast of the developing knowledge base, professionals more removed from it (such as pediatricians and mental health workers without a specific child sexual abuse practice) probably cannot do so. That some professionals would espouse outdated beliefs is thus somewhat understandable. These findings suggest that continued basic education of all professionals needs to remain a priority.

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