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The disclosure of children who exhibit problematic sexual behaviors

Published onOct 21, 2022
The disclosure of children who exhibit problematic sexual behaviors
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Abstract

Background: Practitioners mandated to protect child development are sometimes dealing with children’s inappropriate sexual behaviors. This set of behaviors presents a potential hindering impact on the child’s development and important consequences for all children involved. Denial during the questioning of the child complicates the investigation of these cases.

Objective: The objective of this study was to explore and to identify the different contexts of questioning in which children disclose or deny having committed a sexual behavior that appears to be problematic for his/her development as well as identifying the individual and contextual variables that influence the outcome of the questioning.

Participants and Setting: The sample comprised of 120 instances of inappropriate sexual behavior exhibited by 85 children aged between 5 and 17 years old and reported to the Youth Protection Department at the Integrated Health and Social Services University Network in the province of Quebec, Canada.

Methods: Bivariate statistical analyses were performed to investigate the association between the outcome of disclosure or non-disclosure, and contextual factors (questioning person’s role, parents’ reaction to the child’s behavior, the child’s expression of remorse, presence of a witness, use of coercion during the sexual behavior). Logistical regression (GLMM) was then used to determine the strength of the association between the covariates and the outcome of the questioning.

Results: Results show that disclosure appears to be influenced by a combination of contextual variables, namely the role/status of the person questioning the child, expression of remorse reported by the child, and the presence of a witness to the behavior/s.

Conclusions: Our findings point to the importance of developing more comprehensive and specialized knowledge about the questioning context that favors the disclosure of children who are thought to have exhibited inappropriate sexual behaviors.

Keywords: disclosure, inappropriate sexual behavior, sexual behavior problem, children

Introduction

While most children go through the various stages of psychosexual development without significant issues, researchers have identified sexual behaviors that deviate from the usual trajectory of child development and are therefore considered inappropriate and problematic (Allen, 2017; Elkovitch et al., 2009). Psychosexual development refers to the understanding of the sexual behaviors in the context of human development (see Elkovitch et al., 2009; Rutter, 1971). In other words, sexual behaviors include complex behaviors that are impacted by a person’s development in many areas including cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and social functioning (e.g., Chouinard et al., 2021). That development is pivotal for a young person learning to regulate their behavior according to age-graded norms and expectations. While there is a relative consensus that sexual behaviors develop along a series of developmental stages or milestones (e.g., DeLamater & Friedrich, 2002; Wuertele & Kenny, 2011), the specific pathways and trajectories characterizing that development remains unclear (e.g., Lussier et al., 2018). As a result, the psychosexual development of children with a normative and non-normative path with respect to sexual behavior problems remains unclear therefore raising questions about welfare workers’ investigation of these issues and the ability to developmentally contextualize certain behaviors.

There is no consensus as to what constitutes sexual behavior problems (SBP) and the definitions tend to vary across studies (e.g., Lussier et al., 2018). The definition proposed by the working group of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers (ATSA) integrates the following elements: SBP refers to “children aged 12 and younger who initiate behaviors involving sexual body parts (i.e., genitals, anus, buttocks, or breasts) that are developmentally inappropriate or potentially harmful to themselves or others” (Chaffin et al., 2006; 3). This definition captures the criteria that are important in determining if a sexual behavior is age-inappropriate, such as the fact that the behavior must be initiated by the child, must be potentially harmful to the child or others - either physically or developmentally -, and can be self-directed or can involve another person. Certain specific sexual behaviors, such as attempted sexual intercourse, oral-genital contact, and behaviors involving penetration are generally considered problematic if committed by children aged 12 and under (Friedrich, et al., 1998; Friedrich, et al., 1991; Heiman, et al., 1998). Sexual behaviors more frequently observed in children (such as touching their genitals, showing their private parts, or looking at private part of others) can also be problematic if the child is focused on them to such a level that they interfere with development or persist despite adult intervention (Johnson, 2000). Researchers also agree that a child’s use of force, coercion, or bullying, the presence of physical injuries, and indications of emotional distress may indicate the presence of a problematic sexuality (Chaffin et al., 2006).

Among the cases reported to the police, 21% of those presumed to have committed a sexual offense in the United States in 2014 were 17 and under (United States Department of Justice, 2014). In Canada, a child under age 12 cannot be considered criminally responsible for exhibiting sexually problematic behaviors toward other children (Government of Canada, 2014) and developmentally appropriate intervention in such situations is mandated. The theoretical and conceptual models elaborated to understand the development of SBP (e.g., Friedrich, 2007), as well as research assessing factors related to its presence (e.g., Boisvert et al., 2016) suggest complex interactions between multiple factors. For example, Lussier and his colleagues (2018) report distinct profiles for children who exhibit SBP and note that interventions that focus only on the child's behavior or the challenges it poses for parents could be ineffective in dealing with the problem, regardless of its influence (on family/social environment). In effect, not all children with SBP come to the attention of Youth Protection Services (YPS) because of their behavior: they also tend to come to the attention of the YPS as a result of being reported for some form of abuse or of being exposed to adverse childhood experiences (ACE) (Chouinard Thivierge et al., 2021; Lussier et al., 2019). The fact that SBP can have rippling effects, particularly on the child victim, underlines the importance of early assessment and intervention.

Children with SBP: Intervention and interviewing

Children exhibit a variety of behavior patterns and have different life histories. This reality makes it difficult to come up with one set of guidelines to help each of them to develop to reach their full potential (Pithers et al., 1998). In addition, sexual behaviors remain a taboo topic that causes discomfort and embarrassment among many practitioners, especially when it comes to SBP (Hackett, et al., ​​2013; Sciaraffa & Randolph, 2011). The first step in any intervention with children who may be displaying sexual behavior is to understand the context in which these behaviors took place and attempt to determine if they are indeed problematic (e.g., coercive, harmful). Questioning both witnesses and the child who is suspected of wrongdoing – that is, behavior that can be hurtful to him/herself or others – is an important part of this process. Looking at the research on child interviewing can be helpful in enabling practitioners to improve the quality of their interviews with children and the accuracy of their reports.

Interview practices with children have been documented largely in cases where an offense against a child is suspected (e.g., Noeker, & Franke, 2018; Sumampouw, et al., 2019) or where a child may have witnessed an offense (e.g., Johnson et al., 2016; Lytle, Dickinson, & Poole, 2019). For instance, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) proposed a structured interview protocol to train interviewers in questioning children that are victim of abuse. The use of this protocol has been to be efficient in obtaining more details, notably by asking questions that are oepen-ended, developmentally appropriate and not suggestive. Yet, not much research has been focused on interviewing practices in instances where children may have behaved inappropriately toward others. The few studies that investigated the questioning of inappropriate behavior among children usually focused on efficient and adequate interview techniques (e.g., Krebs, 2017; Lyon, 2017), suggesting that interactions based on active listening, developing the child’s trust, and avoiding confrontation are more effective to obtain accurate reports of the events (Krebs, 2017; Lytle, Dickinson & Poole, 2019). For example, Wright and Powell (2007) asked 23 police officers which variables they thought were most likely to influence the disclosure in interviews with children who had been victims of sexual abuse. Their study highlighted that the way the interviewer presented him/herself (e.g., being empathic, warm, and relaxed) was believed to have a greater influence on the disclosure process than the interviewer’s skills and knowledge. Adapting the language to the developmental level of the child as well as avoiding suggestive questioning (e.g., “your friend touched your breast, right?”) have also been recommended (Cyr, 2022). While these interviewing techniques were studied in cases where children were victims or witnesses, similar observations have been made about interviewing techniques with adults as to the importance of rapport building and respectful treatment (Deslauriers-Varin, Bennell & Bergeron, 2018; Holmberg et Christianson, 2002; Kebbell, et al., 2010; Wachi et al., 2014), suggesting they would also be best practices in interviews with young subjects. However, several elements beside the interviewing techniques used may influence the course of an interview.

Context of disclosure

Studies on interviews with children who are thought to have committed a reprehensive behavior usually focus on a comparison of the child’s disclosure versus denial. For example, Talwar and Lee (2008) asked 150 children aged between 3 and 8 years old not to touch a toy while the experimenter was absent. More than 80% of the sample touched the toy: 64% lied about having done so while 36% confessed. Warneken and Orlins (2015) investigated why children tend to lie about minor wrongdoings and found that children aged 7 years and older were more likely to lie than tell the truth when the aim of the lie was to make the other person feel better. Children of all ages were even more likely to lie when such behavior had been modelled by an adult. Their results show that children are relatively aware of another person's affective state when choosing whether to disclose the truth or to lie. Children have also been found to lie to avoid responsibility for transgressions, to falsely accuse siblings, or to get someone to do what they want (Wilson, Smith, & Ross, 2003).

There are several indications in the literature among adult offenders that the disclosure process is greatly influenced by contextual elements in place during the interview (see, for example, Deslauriers-Varin, Lussier & St-Yves, 2011a; Leo, 1996; Moston, Stephenson & Williamson, 1992). Researchers have also put forth the suspect’s change of decision (toward a confession or even toward a denial) that can happen during police interview with adult suspects (Deslauriers-Varin, Beauregard & Wong, 2011b; Sigurdsson & Gudjonsson, 1994; Walsh & Bull, 2012). The influence of contextual variable on children disclosure is an essential knowledge to help practitioners to adjust their intervention in cases of inappropriate behavior.

Elements impacting the likelihood of disclosure of wrongdoing

Person in authority. It is important to consider how contextual and situational factors influence the disclosure process. For example, interrogations with adult suspects are carried out by a police officer while a child under investigation by the YPS may be interviewed by a YPS employee, a parent, a police officer, or another external authority figure (e.g., school guidance counsellor). Once an adult is made aware of the situation, that person can choose to call YPS or to intervene immediately with the child. Prior studies have looked at how children react to different types person in position of authority (e.g., parent, teacher, police officer) and suggest that children's moral judgment is somewhat independent of what they are told by that particular person (Stavans, 2016; Zhao & Kushnir, 2018). For example, Alexander and Putnam (2020) found that children 4 to 5 years old accept the legitimacy of parental guidance regarding typical demands, such as cleaning their room, but less so when it refers to atypical directives such as to steal or to cause harm. Children also apparently consider not only the content of the directive but its source (i.e., the authority figure). For example, children do not consider all adults to be legitimate authorities but tend to rely primarily on teachers and parents, at least until adolescence (Darling, Cumsille, & Martínez, 2008). Findings also suggest that the person to whom a child discloses is an important contextual element of the disclosure event. In their study based on a sample of children who had been victims and disclosed this freely (without being asked), Malloy, Brubacher, and Lamb’s (2013) found that children from 5 to 9 years of age were more likely to disclose to their mother, while children between 10 and 13 were more likely than younger children to disclose to their peers and to their teacher. In their study, London and her colleagues (2005) show that when a child who has been abused is questioned in a formal setting, as would be the case in an encounter with a YPS practitioner, they are more prone to disclose sensitive information like an abuse. These results suggest that the figure of authority in presence with or questioning the child may influence the likelihood of disclosure of reprehensive behavior.

Parental role and capacities. Parenting capability – the ability to provide optimal care – plays an important role in child development (Boisvert et al., 2016; Chaffin et al., 2006) and parental response to SBP may influence the attitude and perception that a child has about his/her behaviors. Wilson, Smith, and Ross (2003) investigated the influence of parents’ reaction about their child’s behaviors about lying. In a study based on 40 Canadians families, they observed that most parents did not directly address the act of lying and instead challenged the veracity of their child’s false statement. This way of dealing with lies may influence future behavior since the authors found that children whose parents did not intervene following a lie at Time 1 were more likely to lie at Time 2. A study by Smith and Rizzo (2017) provides further evidence that parental reaction is an important element of disclosure: in a study of 48 children, they found that disclosure of wrongdoing was more frequent among children who expected their parents to react positively to the disclosure.

Beside parental reaction, age and maltreatment may also affect the likelihood of disclosure among children. Williams, McWilliams, and Lyon (2020) presented 752 children aged between 4 and 9 years-old with a scenario in which the child appeared to have broken a toy while playing with a stranger. Children who were younger and who had been maltreated by a caretaker were more likely to spontaneously disclose the wrongdoing. Lavoie and Talwar (2020) pointed out that in a group aged between 4 and 11, younger children seem to be more likely to spontaneously disclose information even if they had been encouraged to keep it secret.

Seriousness of the wrongdoing. Research on adults has suggested that the seriousness of wrongdoing might influence disclosure and it could have implication for the current study. For example, confession is less likely to occur when the crime is more serious (e.g., Moston, Stephenson & Williamson, 1992; Phillips & Brown, 1998) and an individual who has committed a serious act will often try to avoid the consequences of their acts by denying the charges (Gudjonsson, 2003; St-Yves, 2004). Lippert, Cross, Jones, and Walsh (2010) analyzed 282 child abuse files and found that a larger proportion of suspects confessed to crimes when the abuse was more frequent and repetitive compared to cases where the abuse was less frequent. In addition to the seriousness of the act, the perception of the evidence against the suspect might influence a disclosure. Several researchers have associated the decision to disclose with a good quality of evidence that the police have against the suspect (e.g., Deslauriers-Varin, Beauregard, Wong, 2011b; Deslauriers-Varin et al., 2011a; Frantzen, 2010; Lippert et al., 2010). It is unclear how those findings about adult suspects translate to children who may have perpetrated sexually problematic behaviors, as children may evaluate the seriousness of such behavior differently from adults.

Expression of remorse. Internal pressures, such as guilt and remorse, have also been identified as a determinant variable in the disclosure process of adult suspects (e.g., Deslauriers-Varin et al., 2011a; Sigurdsson & Gudjonsson, 1994; St-Yves, 2002): those who feel guilty and remorseful are more likely to confess and to fully disclose their crimes. Children may start to develop complex emotions – such as feeling guilty – as early as 2 years of age (Barrett, 1998; Bybee, 1998; Cole, Barret & Zahn-Waxler, 1992; Stipek, Gralinski, & Kopp, 1990). However, the influence of guilt on disclosure may be more complex for children and their understanding of what constitutes good and bad behavior may be less developed, even in the case of sexual behaviors, despite the fact that it is generally recognized as taboo behaviors.

Different factors have been found to be statistically associated with feelings of guilt in children. Kochanska et al. (2003) found that children whose mothers used more power‐assertive discipline displayed less guilt, while children who indicated more guilty feelings were less likely to violate rules of conduct at 56 months of age. According to Williams and her colleagues (2020), younger children, when being questioned, tended to place more importance on the negative effects of disclosure, such as punishment, whereas older children were more likely to feel guilt, suggesting that they were more aware of the negative effects of dissimulation and falsification of truthful elements.

To date, no research has been conducted specifically on contextual variables that may be influencing the likelihood of disclosure for children confronted about past wrongdoings. Intervention in cases of SPB poses particular problems for practitioners and understanding the context in which the event took place is of importance in order to deepen the knowledge of this context and possibly developing tools to intervene. In addition, creating a context in which children feel that their best option is to be honest by disclosing what happened and to describe their behavior is of crucial importance for their social and emotional development in order to develop prosocial behaviors (Engarhos et al., 2020; Talwar et al., 2017). Increasing our knowledge of the factors that may encourage or prevent a favorable context will help developing intervention procedures aiming at improving the quality of interviews conducted with children and the accuracy of subsequent reports.

Aim of the study

Children with SBP are vulnerable children, some with complex trauma (Lussier et al., 2019). Those vulnerabilities are added to the fact that they are children and questioning practices with vulnerable children pose a tremendous challenge to professionals. The job of these professionals is further complicated by the fact that not only these children may be suspected of SBP (worthy of investigation for intervention), but also, may be victims or witness of abuse. Being most of the time intertwined, practitioners cannot dissociate the questioning of an inappropriate behavior and the questioning of a potential victim.

To date, no research has been conducted specifically on contextual variables that may be influencing the likelihood of disclosure for children confronted about past wrongdoings. Understanding the context in which SBP take place is of importance for practitioners in order to deepen the knowledge of this context and possibly developing tools to intervene. In addition, creating a context in which children feel that their best option is to be honest by disclosing what happened and to describe their behavior is of crucial importance for their social and emotional development and in order to develop prosocial personalities (Engarhos et al., 2020; Talwar et al., 2017). Increasing our knowledge of the variables that may encourage or prevent a favorable context will help in developing intervention procedures aiming at improving the quality of interviews conducted with children and the accuracy of subsequent reports.

The scientific literature shows that the disclosure process in greatly influenced by contextual elements in place during the interview (see, for example, Deslauriers-Varin, Lussier & St-Yves, 2011a; Leo, 1996; Moston, Stephenson & Williamson, 1992). Researchers have also put forth the suspect’s change of decision (toward a disclosure or even toward a denial) that can happen during police interrogations of adult suspects (Deslauriers-Varin et al., 2011b; Sigurdsson & Gudjonsson, 1994; Walsh & Bull, 2012). This study aimed to identify the different elements that influence the course and outcome of an interview with a child who has displayed SBP in a context of an assessment designed to identify need for intervention. The contributing role of contextual variables on child’s disclosure is investigated in this study by examining feelings regarding the behavior (i.e., expression of guilt), the perceived severity of the behavior (i.e., presence of coercion during the behavior), the presence of a witness to the behavior, the role of the person (authority figure) who confronted the child (e.g., parents or practitioners) and the parental reaction toward the child in relation to the event (e.g., adequate parental skills). To study the possible effect of those contextual variables on the disclosure of children, the decision to disclose will be observed under two circumstances: the initial reaction of the child when confronted (i.e., disclosure or non-disclosure) and the final outcome after being confronted (i.e., disclosure or non-disclosure).

Methodology

Sample and procedures

In Quebec, Canada, the Department of Youth Protection (DYP) investigates reports concerning both severe behavior problems and violence exposure. In most cases, children with SBP are reported for behavior problems. They are being questioned and assessed to respond to their needs, and to provide the most appropriate protection measures for the other children involved, who are potential victims of sexual abuse. It is not a legal process involving police. Referrals made to the YPS are analyzed by authorized professionals; if they decide that the development or security of the child or adolescent is being compromised based on regulations laid out in section 38 of the Quebec Youth Protection Act, YPS provide services in order to end the situation that endangers their development or security, and to prevent its recurrence. Among potential options, children and their family may be referred for therapy, depending on their needs. Practitioners working for the DYP do not receive a specific and standardized formation to question children. They either studied in psychoeducation, criminology, psychology, or social work. SBP, which includes inappropriate sexual behaviors and sexual violence (Lussier et al., 2019), are considered to be a behavioral problem that can compromise a child’s development.

Data used in this study were retrieved from the files of children and adolescents whose YPS files indicated at least one occurrence of SBP before the age of 181. The SBP could have been the motive that led welfare workers to investigate. But our past research has shown that in some instances, inappropriate sexual behaviors/sexual violence were discovered during welfare workers’ investigation (e.g., parental neglect, sexual abuse, problem behavior of the child) which led to the investigation of their entire files and not just the motive of the initial referral that led to an investigation by YPS. The report might have been made by a parent, an anonymous source, an external authority (e.g., schoolteacher), or a YPS employee.

The complete file as well as information on the services offered by CPS (e.g., referral, investigation, and intervention) were considered. Each file contains hundreds of documents, and everything must be read to find the information about the interview process. A total of 1933 cases were identified for the period between 2002 and 20162. Given that resources were insufficient to permit detailed examination of all 1933 cases, a randomized stratified sampling3 approach was used to select 150 files.

Information about the interview process and the way in which the child was questioned about the SBP are not part of the systematically collected information. Therefore, the 150 files were examined to verify the presence of this information. After review, 120 files were found to contain information on the child’s disclosure and the context and events surrounding this disclosure. All files have been analyzed by the same coder4. The final sample is therefore composed of 120 instances of SBP exhibited by 85 children aged between 5 and 17 years old (mean = 11 y.o.; SD = 2.8) and reported to the Youth Protection Department at the Integrated Health and Social Services University Network in the province of Quebec. Each child in the sample had exhibited between one and six different SBP at different times (for an average of 1.4 SBP).

Since those dealing with SBP, including YPS practitioners, intervene with children as well as teens, all reports, including those from children aged between 12 and 17 years old, were also considered. The children in the sample were 84% male and 78% Caucasian5. In 7.5% of cases, the reported behaviors were classified as non-intrusive and victimless (e.g., excessive masturbation causing injury). In 8% of the cases, the behaviors were considered no-contact/intrusive (e.g., showing private parts), while 67% of the cases involved behaviors classified as contact/intrusive (e.g., touching the victims’ genitals). Finally, in 17.5% of cases, the sexual behaviors were intrusive and included vaginal or anal penetration of the victim. In 59% of the sample, the parents were considered to have problematic or inadequate parenting skills (e.g., the practitioner noted the presence of deviant or marginal parental attitudes or child neglect). For example, 16% of the children in the sample have been exposed to sexual behaviors by their parents and 18% of the sample had been previously sexually abused (not necessarily by a parent) as documented in previous YPS reports. Finally, 71.7% of the sample were living with their parents when the SBP were reported to YPS, while 24.2% of them were living in a DYP placement setting (family-type or intermediate, community group home, residential rehabilitation unit). Most of parents in the sample (77.5%) were separated while 11.7% were still together.

Measure

Origin of the report. The SBP had to be reported to an adult in order for YPS to become involved. Three types of reports were found: (1) the child him/herself discloses the behaviors, most of the time candidly; (2) the victim reports the act to an adult who then calls the YPS; (3) a witness, that is not a victim and usually an adult, reports the case directly to the YPS. The report variable was coded as follows: 0 = self-disclosure (n = 38; 31.6%), 1 = victim report (n = 61; 50.8%), and 2 = witness report (n = 18; 15%). There are 3 cases in which the information was missing (2.5%).

The perception of evidence. The perception of the strength of the evidence has been found to be an important variable in disclosure among adult offenders. Given this, witness reports of inappropriate behaviors were considered to provide stronger evidence as the witness is a third party who can testify that the behavior was committed and also act as an advocate for the victim. The origin of the report variable was therefore dichotomized for the logistic regression as (0) behavior was not reported by a witness (n = 99; 82.5%) and (1) behavior was reported by a witness (n=18; 15%).

First person to question the child. By the time an offense against a child is reported to the YPS, the child may have already been questioned by someone, whether a parent or a witness. Therefore, three dichotomous variables were created to identify the first person to question the child: (1) biological parent/s (n= 20) (0= No, 80%; 1= Yes, 17%); (2) YPS practitioner (n = 73) (0= No, 36%; 1= Yes, 61%), and; (3) Other (n=23) (0= No, 77%; 1= Yes, 19%). This former category includes individuals who are not a biological parent or a practitioner like a police officer, a teacher, a school counselor, etc. There are 4 cases in which the information was not available (3%).

Sexual coercion. The literature on SBP defines sexual coercion as pressuring or forcing someone into sexual acts such as touching, masturbation, or oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse (e.g., Kjellgren et al., 2009; Seto et al., 2010). In the present study, coercion was coded as present if a behavior had clearly been undertaken against the will of the victim (e.g., the victim’s hands were tied or there was evidence of use of violence and threat). The variable was coded as: 0 = absence of coercion (n= 71; 59%) and 1 = presence of coercion (n=48; 40%). This indicator represents the seriousness of the behavior exhibited by the child and how it might have impacted its disclosure. There is 1 case in which the information was not available (0.8%).

Expression of remorse. Practitioners often seek out information pertaining to the child’s emotional reaction when questioned about their inappropriate behavior such as feelings of guilt and remorse. The question about guilt or remorse was often, although not systematically, asked directly. Based on the information provided in the files, the presence of guilt was coded as 0 = absence of guilty feelings (n=98; 85%); 1 = presence of guilty feelings (n=17; 15%). There are 5 cases in which the information was not available (4%).

Parents’ reaction to the event. Parents’ reactions to discovering that an act indicative of SBP had occurred are diverse6. Some parents did not seem to care about the situation and showed no reaction. Some denied that their child would have committed such an act or expressed excessive anger toward the child. Others encouraged the inappropriate behavior by laughing, minimizing or even congratulating the child. Finally, some parents demonstrated help-seeking reaction by showing concern about the act and interest in the practitioner’s advice (e.g., accepting treatment for their child). Parental reaction was coded as: (0) no reaction (n=11; 15%); (1) denial (n=22; 29%); (2) anger against the child (n=5; 6%); (3) encouraging the inappropriate behavior (n=6; 8%), and; (4) help-seeking reaction (n=32; 42%). There are 44 cases in which the information was not available (36.6%). This variable wasn’t included in the multivariate logistic regression model because of the relatively high proportion of missing values in spite of its relevance for the study.

Disclosure. Disclosure refers to the child’s acknowledgement of his/her SBP. Only the files including this information was analyzed in this study. To best represent the dynamic aspect of disclosure, we looked at (a) the child’s first reaction, at the beginning of the interview, as to disclose or not and (b) the child’s decision to disclose after the discussion, at the end of the interview. The files document whether the child disclose or not at the beginning of the interview, coded as 0 = non-disclosure (n=72; 60%) or 1= disclosure/ acknowledgment (n=48; 40%). In most cases there was further discussion with the child about elements such as whether there was a witness, the gravity of the behavior, etc. By the end of the interview, the child might have changed his/her mind about whether or not to accept responsibility for the act. This was coded as (final outcome): 0 = the child denied having committed the behavior (n=54; 45%) or 1 = the child disclosed details about the behavior and accepted responsibility (n=66; 55%). While children’s first reaction when questioned was often to deny responsibility, the rate of disclosure increased by the end of the interview, with 17% of children who had initially denied later agreeing that they had committed the act.

Analytical Strategy

For the purpose of this study, a series of logistic regression analyses were conducted. Logistic regression is designed to estimate the probabilities of a binary event occurring based on a series of covariates. The estimated probabilities are statistically adjusted based on the covariates included in the regression model. For the current study, the covariates were included into the regression model. More precisely, generalized linear mixed-effects model7 (GLMM) were used. To address the research question that aims to compare the influence of the contextual variables on child disclosure, two regression models were tested. In both models, the context-related variables (i.e., witness report, interviewer’s skill or authority position, presence or not of coercion, presence or not of expression of remorse8) are examined to identify the significant covariates of the probabilities of a child’s decision to disclose. The first model represents the covariates when the child is first questioned by an authority-figure and is considered in this study as being the first reaction. The second model represents the covariate at the end of the same questioning and is considered as the final outcome. This comparison allows to study the child’s attitude toward his/her behavior and whether he/she actually took responsibility for their behavior at the end of the questioning. Nonparametric tests (e.g., Kruskal-Wallis) were also carried out on the sample to determine the effect of age and gender on expressing remorse, seriousness of behavior, the nature of the behavior, and external versus biological parental authority. As no trend was observed in relation to those variables, the results are not included in this article.

Note that variation in sample size across regression models can be explained by the presence of missing data. A listwise approach9 was pursued so that only the cases with complete information were considered in the models. Therefore, the cases in which there are missing data on certain variables are not considered in the model. Controlling variables have been added to the model to ensure validity and reliability: 1) The gender of the child as well as 2) his/her living situation (with parent(s) or under a DYP placement setting). Age is also part of the model.

Results

Factors associated with disclosure or non-disclosure

A series of non-parametric statistical analyses (Table 1) were conducted (Chi-square statistics) allowing the comparison of children who disclosed and those who did not disclose. The children who disclosed their behavior when interviewed about it were more likely to do so when a witness had reported the wrongdoing (21.5%) compared to those who did not disclose (7.7%). Those who disclosed were also more likely to express remorse (23% vs 5.6%). Those who did not disclose their wrongdoing were more likely to have a parent that reacted negatively by denying that there was a problem (47.1% vs 14.3%). Inversely, a parent that would react by congratulating the child on the wrongful behavior was a reaction associated with the children who disclosed (11.9% vs 2.9%). Coercion and the relationship with the first person to confront the child were not found to be statistically associated with disclosure or non-disclosure.

---Insert Table 1 about here---

Original vs final outcome

Next, a series of logistic regressions were conducted to examine the covariates of the child’s disclosure of inappropriate sexual behaviors. Two GLMM were conducted with the contextual variables10: 1) variables associated with disclosure at the beginning of the interview dealing with the inappropriate behavior and 2) variables associated with the final outcome of the interview. The two models and the odds ratio11 (OR) for all the variables included in the models are presented in Table 212.

The first model investigates the role of contextual variables on the child’s reaction at the beginning of the interview. Two of the four contextual variables included – expressing remorse and presence of a witness report in the file – were significant covariates of disclosure. Expressing remorse increased the probability of disclosure (p < 0.01). The fact that a witness reported the behaviors was also associated with disclosure although marginally (p < .10). The use of coercion during the event and the first person to confront the child were not found to be significantly associated with the first reaction/decision of the child to disclose or not the behaviors.

The second model looked at the role of contextual variables on the decision to disclose at the end of the interview. Three out of the four contextual variables included were significant predictors of disclosure: expression of remorse, the presence of a witness report in the file, and interview being conducted by a YPS practitioner. Similar to the first model, the first two variables were significant predictors of disclosure. Expression of remorse increased the probability of disclosure (p < 0.01), while the presence of a witness increased it (p < 0.05). The fact that the interview was first conducted by a YPS practitioner, instead of by a parent for example, was significantly associated with disclosure (p < 0.10) in the second model. The presence of coercion and being confronted by someone other than a YPS practitioner were not significantly associated with disclosure.

--- Insert Table 2 about here ---

Discussion

The study aimed at identifying the different elements that influence the course and outcome of an interview with a child who has exhibited behaviors indicative of SBP. The interview is designed to identify need for intervention and is not a judicial procedure that could imply a trial or a police intervention. Data stemming from this study comes from frontline workers, mostly welfare workers, whose role is to assess children’s development, including the child’s problematic behaviors, and to determine whether their development is compromised. If children’s development is considered compromised, frontline workers have to refer children and their family to the most appropriate resources for additional assessment and intervention. Because of the relative absence of research on this topic, it is unclear how frontline workers establish, interpret, and use children’s disclosure or lack thereof in their assessment and recommendations. The relative absence of clear instructions and guidelines or any instrument for that matter, add pressure on frontline workers’ professional judgment establishing children’s situation to take informed decisions.

Results show that disclosure appears to be influenced by a combination of contextual variables, namely the role of the person questioning the child, expression of remorse by the child, and the presence of a witness to the behavior. The results provide some empirical evidence that can lead to a better understanding of children’s disclosure process in the context of being questioned about such behavior. There is a significant amount of literature on disclosure among adults, but little has been done to study this process in children. Understanding the disclosure context is important in determining the most effective context to encourage children to accept responsibility for their behavior and get the help and support they need. A developmentally sensitive approach is particularly important in this context since, although the behaviors displayed are sexual, the situation of children and adolescents is vastly different from that of adults and adapted questioning methods are necessary (Chaffin et al., 2006). Understanding the different aspects of the disclosure process can help practitioners develop their intervention skills and their relationship with the young person.

Changing attitudes toward disclosure

In 17% of cases, the child changed his/her mind and accepted responsibility for the behavior after previously denying it. One of the objectives in undertaking logistic regressions for the two models was to determine if contextual variables had a different effect on the first reaction of the child as compared to the final outcome. When all variables are considered, the role of the person who questions the child is not significantly associated with disclosure at the beginning of the interview. However, with regard to the outcome, being interviewed by a YPS practitioner was significantly associated with disclosure. YPS practitioners may be better positioned to consider other factors facilitating or associated with disclosure, such as coercion, remorse, and the presence of a witness, leading to a more effective interview. During the interview, the child may come to accept the interviewer’s authority based on social-organizational position and recognition of delegated authority (e.g., that the person had been hired for or chosen to do the job) and therefore be more willing to follow their encouragement to accept responsibility (Laupa & Turiel, 1986). From a different perspective, it is also possible that YPS practitioners encourage children and adolescents to disclose in order to get help. Proposed help or support may well respond to a need for those who experience remorse regarding their wrongdoing (or significant psychological distress) as a result of the behavior and of other aspects of their home environment.

Unlike what is suggested by studies on police interrogation and adult suspects, the presence of coercion was not a significant predictor of disclosure with children. This result conflicts with the literature, in which one of the top three predictors of denial among adults is the severity of the crime committed (Moston, Stephenson, & Williamson, 1992). The majority of empirical studies analyzing police interrogation of adults indicate that the seriousness of the crime is inversely associated with the probability of a confession (Neubauer, 1974; Moston et al., 1992; Phillips & Brown, 1998; St-Yves, 2002) – the more severe the crime, the less likely the suspect is to disclose and accept his/her responsibility. In the current study, the presence of coercion was considered to be a more severe act. Our results show that children are not more likely to acknowledge when there was no coercion associated with inappropriate behaviors. This observation may also be the result of the taboo around sexuality, especially at that age. Children may feel guilty just because their behavior involves sexuality. As with the concept of evidence, children unlike adults, may not understand the seriousness of such coercive behaviors. Perhaps the seriousness of such acts was discussed during the interview and had an effect on the change in stance, for example, by provoking feelings of guilt and remorse.

Expressing remorse and disclosure

Studies have shown that children begin to develop complex emotions such as guilt as early as 2 years of age (Barrett, 1998; Bybee, 1998a; Cole et al., 1992; Stipek, Gralinski, & Kopp, 1990). Such internal pressures are associated with higher rates of confession among adult offenders (Deslauriers-Varin et al. 2011a; Sigurdsson & Gudjonsson, 1994; St-Yves, 2002) and it has been hypothesized that such feelings create psychological pressures that lead to disclosure (Gudjonsson & Petursson, 1991). In line with these studies, our results show that children who admitted wrongdoing were also expressing remorse more often than those who refused to disclose their behavior. In both models, expressing remorse was strongly associated with disclosure: the child was more likely to disclose and acknowledge responsibility for the reported SBP if there were feelings of guilt about the behaviors. It could also suggest that interviewers were able to create an empathic and understanding context and to present all the facts in such a way that it allowed the child to demonstrate and express those feelings. As our sample included those aged from 5 to 17 years, we tested to see if this result varied according to age, but no differences were observed. However, the sample was largely composed of children around 11 years old and therefore the views of children at this stage of development may have influenced the results. Also, the information about children sense of guilt could have had an impact on the interpretation of results. The files only captured if the interviewer sensed guilt of the child from what he/she expresses. However, there is a difference between remorse and guilt (feeling bad about the wrongdoing) and shame (believing they are bad because of a wrongdoing), and this difference might impact the implication for disclosure.

Presence of a witness

Another parallel between the disclosure process for children and adults is related to the strength of evidence. Several researchers have found that the decision to disclose is associated with the quality of evidence the police have against the suspect (e.g., Deslauriers-Varin et al., 2011b; Frantzen, 2010; Lippert et al., 2010; Moston et al., 1992; Sigurdsson & Gudjonsson, 1994). In police settings, several elements can be relied on to determine the strength of the evidence in hand, such as DNA, CCTV footages and the presence of a witness. When it comes to sexual behaviors committed by children on another child, these elements are somewhat limited and reports of SBP by a witness could then be considered to be particularly strong evidence about the child’s behaviors. Moston & his colleagues (1992) observed that younger suspects (17 years of age and under), when confronted with strong evidence against them, were more likely to deny their wrongdoing than older suspects. This result suggests that younger children may be less able to evaluate the strength of the proof presented. However, the results of the present study are not in line with the findings by Moston and his colleagues (1992), agreeing instead with results for adult trends in disclosure (e.g., Deslauriers-Varin, Beauregard, Wong, 2011b; Deslauriers-Varin et al., 2011a; Frantzen, 2010; Lippert et al., 2010): children seem more likely to disclosure their behavior when the strength of the evidence against them is higher. In both models, the presence of a witness was significantly associated with initial disclosure rather than disclosure as a final outcome. While the reason why our results differ from those found by Moston and his colleagues (1992) is unclear, it is, however, possible to put forth that the children in Moston and his colleagues’ sample were interviewed by police officers while the majority of those in our sample were interviewed by YPS practitioners. It is possible to think that YPS practitioners, because of the nature of their profession and training are more accustomed to questioning children in a non-confrontational style.

The role of parents in the disclosure process

Results suggest that parents have a role to play in their children’s decision to disclose or not. When parents react negatively, showing that they are angry with the child or denying that the situation exists, the child is more likely to deny his/her responsibility. There are two opposition situations in which a child is more likely to disclose. If the parents encourage the inappropriate behavior by congratulating the child, he/she is more likely to acknowledge responsibility since there is no apparent punishment from the parent in charge. Children are also most likely to collaborate and disclose their behavior when their parents have a more help-seeking reaction and indicate their willingness to collaborate with the YPS. It is not the case if the parent denies that their child might be implicated in the wrongful event as this reaction is associated with non-disclosure. Parental attitudes toward their child’s behaviors have a significant influence on their child’s subsequent behavior and development (Boisvert, et al., 2016; Chaffin et al., 2006). Case workers are well aware that connection and effective intervention with a child is more difficult when parents are not cooperative and have cited inability to motivate parental involvement and change as their greatest problem (Forrester, Westlake, & Glynn, 2012; Pecora, 1989). Parents who react with anger and denial to being told about a child’s SBP may influence the child’s reaction and attitude toward such behavior, perhaps reinforcing distorted thinking and ideas about coercion and sexuality and limiting the child’s ability to understand why his/her behavior is inappropriate, reckless and/or harmful. Lying and refusing to collaborate with authority is often associated with antisocial behavior. The literature on interviews with adult suspects suggests that development of a positive relationship between the investigator and the suspect, which may involve empathy and the use of attentive listening techniques, is significantly associated with greater collaboration by suspects. This kind of relationship may act to mitigate the effect of other variables, such as parental reaction. However, it is worthy to note that parents first reaction to the wrongdoing of their child does not necessarily fully reflect their parental capacity to be protective and responsive to their children's needs. Caregivers who learn that their child has a SBP can cause a range of feelings and thoughts (see Yoder & Brown 2015) that could influence their reaction. This reaction is not contingent on the fact that caregiver engagement in the intervention process is critical to the adequate development of the child (Shields et al., 2020; St.Amand et al., 2008; Yoder & Ruch, 2015).

In the context of this study, the questioning of children in relation to SBP has been discussed in situations where, in most cases (except for youths that are 13 years and older), there are no legal implications to their SBP. So that the questioning aims to assess the need for referral or intervention. However, there are other circumstances (in other communities or contexts) under which the investigation of SBP, particularly with teens, can lead to court involvement (family and juvenile court), in addition to referral or intervention.  That shift in context can influence the disclosure process and underlines that it may be important to examine children and caregivers’ understanding of the legal implications of those behaviors. Further, under those circumstances where disclosure can be used against them in the court of law, in may be recommended to question youth using a standardized investigating protocol, such as the ones used for victims, like the NICHD protocol. This sort of protocol can provide a legal structure to the interview, encourages the use of developmentally appropriate and non-suggestive questions (Cyr & Lamb, 2009; Cyr, 2022).

Limitations

It is important to note that even if YPS practitioners believe the allegations of SBP are correct, there is always the possibility of a false positive – the child may not disclose the behavior because he/she has not committed it. Conversely, children, like adults, may confess to something they did not do. While suspicion of false allegations or false admissions was not present in any of the files included in the current study, the literature shows that vulnerable adults (e.g., with disabilities) are particularly at risk for false confessions (Pearse et al., 1998) and children are vulnerable per se.

The results are based on information documented by the practitioners in the files. Only the files containing information related to the interview process and disclosure of the child were considered for the analysis. However, some practitioners might write a lot of information in their report and might have different practices than those who do not, including their intervention practices with the child and their family. The files analyzed might therefore be biased based on practitioners’ practices. Transcripts of interviews would have provided greater details and would have given the ability to examine the nuances of the interview's impact on the behavior of the child but were unfortunately not available. Also, the study did not include nor consider frontline worker’s background (e.g., education), training, experience, and skills. While the study was not about how to elicit specific information about harmful sexual behaviors, it is reasonable to think that such factors do play a significant role in the disclosure of such information by young persons.

There are several contextual variables that were not considered in this study and may still have played an important role in the disclosure process. First, a variety of additional factors that could usually be relied on to indicate strength of evidence in police settings could not be included nor used in the current study. The influence of the strength of evidence on SBP disclosure was therefore limited to the presence of a witness. Second, researchers have often emphasized that interviewing strategies have an important effect on the disclosure process. For example, it is generally agreed that the development of an empathetic, honest, and respectful relationship between the police officer and the suspect is more likely to result in collaboration, while denigrating and confrontational techniques are less likely to lead to collaboration and the gathering of valid and incriminating information (Leahy-Harland & Bull, 2017; Snook, Brooks & Bull, 2015; Wachi et al., 2014). Children with SBP are vulnerable children, some with complex trauma (Lussier et al., 2019). By definition, complex trauma involves issues of trust (Cook et al., 2005). It may thus influence how one perceives authority figures and one’s affective state. It may also influence how one senses guilt and the seriousness of other wrongdoing, as well as their own. Thus, children suspected of SBP who have experienced complex trauma may have a different perspective on weighing the pros and cons of lying versus disclosing. Also, the data in this study do not allow to measure the impact of children's history with DYP. For example, frequent contact with DYP practitioners for maltreatment reports as well as the fear or knowledge that a child might be removed from his/her family because of maltreatment might impact the disclosure process of the child. Future research should look at this aspect and observe its influence on the disclosure outcome.

Finally, another limitation is the cross-sectional study design and the retrospective nature of the information collected, described, and analyzed and the study findings should be interpreted accordingly. For example, the correlational nature of the data analyses conducted preclude any firm conclusion about causality. This limitation, however, should be tempered with the fact that the study objectives did not include a predictive component.

Conclusion

Early intervention with children who exhibit SBP is essential to ensure a positive development. Children need to discuss their problems and disclose their wrongdoing if intervention and help are to be effective. To achieve this, it is important to understand how collaboration is established and the variables that influence the disclosure process among children.

Our results suggest that YPS professionals might be the interviewers of choice in these cases since they seem able to establish a higher level of collaboration in their interventions than parents or other external authorities (e.g., teacher). Our findings also suggest that children are more likely to disclose when they express remorse about their behaviors and when the evidence against them is stronger. This finding might have to do with the context of the interview, the nature of the behavior manifested, and the approach taken by the interviewer. Finally, the results suggest that parents have an influence on their child’s decision to disclose or not. When parents react negatively, that is, by expressing anger against the child for his/her wrongdoing or denying that the alleged SBP/situation is true, children are more likely to deny than disclose.

The present exploratory study helps better understand the range of factors possibly influencing a child’s disclosure of a behavior judged inappropriate. Very few studies have been conducted to understand the context-related variables influencing child disclosure. Such understanding is necessary if counsellors are to intervene more effectively to provide help and assistance. Our results tend to align with those in the empirical literature on adult offender confession. Namely, the following elements are associated with disclosure of SBP: the fact that a YPS practitioner questions the child (rather than a parent or a teacher), the expression of remorse reported by the child, and the presence of a witness. The results also highlight the importance of further exploring the disclosure and decision-making processes of children having shown inappropriate sexual behaviors.

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Tables

Table 1. Bivariate analyses for the final outcome of the interview

Variables

Disclosure

% (n)

Non-Disclosure

% (n)

Group comparisons

Parents’ reaction to the event (n= 76)

Χ2=13.170***; Cramer’s V = 0.416

No reaction

21.4 (9)

5.9 (2)

Denial

14.3 (6)

47.1 (16)

Anger against the child

4.8 (2)

8.8 (3)

Encouraging the inappropriate behavior

11.9 (5)

2.9 (1)

Help-seeking reaction

47.6 (20)

35.3 (12)

Origin of the report (n=117)

Χ2 = 6.283**; Cramer’s V = 0.232

Self-disclosure

35.4 (23)

28.8 (15)

Victim report

43.1 (28)

63.5 (33)

Witness report

21.5 (14)

7.7 (4)

Presence of coercion (n= 119)

Χ2 = 0.055

Yes

39.4 (26)

41.5 (22)

No

60.6 (40)

58.5 (31)

Feelings of guilt (n=115)

Χ2 = 6.880***; Cramer’s V = 0.245

Yes

23.0 (14)

5.6 (3)

No

77.0 (47)

94.4 (51)

First person to confront the child (n= 116)

Χ2 = 0.25

Biological parent

17.5 (11)

17.0 (9)

YPS practitioner

61.9 (39)

64.2 (34)

Other

20.6 (13)

18.9 (10)

Mean age of the child at time of event (SD)

11.09 (2.454)

10.85 (3.098)

T(dl) = -0.472* (118)

*p < .10. **p < .05. ***p < .01.

Table 2. Influence of contextual variables on disclosure during the interview

Model I: First reaction

Model II: Final outcome

Context-related variables

Expression of remorse (Yes)

2.074***

2.008***

Coercion (Yes)

-0.595

0.078

Witness (Yes)

1.343*

1.381**

Person who confronts the child

Biological parent (Yes)

0.551

0.685

YPS practitioner (Yes)

0.571

1.390*

Other (Yes)

-1.184

0.937

Age of the child

0.331

1.018

−2 log likelihood

-57.0

-66.1

Conditional R2

0.369

0.209

Note: N = 108. The model is controlled for gender and placement situation of the child.

*p < .10. ** p < .05. ***p < .01

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