Guest essay by Christine Gervais - Collateral Consequences to Relatives of Youth who Sexually Offend

Every month, the Blog of the Department of Criminology publishes essays written by our colleagues featuring their research or their analysis of current issues. In this essay, Christine Gervais (Associate Professor) presents her research on consequences to relatives of youth who sexually offend.

Chaque mois, le blogue du Département de criminologie propose des billets rédigés par nos collègues et présentant leurs recherches ou leurs perspectives sur des enjeux d’actualité. Dans ce billet, Christine Gervais (Professeure agrégée) présente sa recherche sur les conséquences sur les proches des jeunes qui ont commis une agression sexuelle.

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Collateral Consequences to Relatives of Youth who Sexually Offend

By Christine Gervais

In collaboration with Elisa Romano (Professor of Psychology, University of Ottawa), our study examined the stigmatizing and silencing effects experienced by relatives of youth who have sexually offended. Based on interview data from parents within Eastern Ontario, our research focused on the complex challenges that parents of sexually offending youth face as they negotiate the best interest of their child, while at the same time attempting to manage the best interest of the children harmed and of other children (including the offending child’s siblings, cousins, neighbours, and friends). Our findings indicated that in addition to being responsive to the needs of their offending child, parents were also highly attentive to both the short and long-term well-being of the survivors.

Our research also analyzed the complex ways in which concerns for security and exclusion against child perpetrators by criminal justice professionals either fostered or hindered efforts to address youth sexual offending. Our findings exposed CJS-generated exclusion due to a lack of communication and a neglect of individual needs, especially among youth struggling with mental health challenges. By contrast, we illustrated how child- and youth-friendly security, inclusive healing, and accountability practices were prioritized and negotiated by both parents and some child rights-oriented police officers in various settings.

Through a mixed-methods design, involving semi-structured interviews and self-report questionnaires, our study also shed light on the range of mental health impacts on parents who reported difficulties with emotion management, stress, mood and coping. Yet, despite the adverse circumstances in which parents found themselves following the disclosure of their child’s harm-generating behaviour, many demonstrated resourcefulness and resilience as they sought to address their needs and those of the affected children simultaneously.

Our research also revealed a range of safety, emotional and interpersonal impacts on siblings whose experiences are often overlooked, and are thus under-serviced by practitioners and understudied by academics. We examined the challenges encountered by brothers and sisters during the criminal justice and child welfare investigations, and within their relationships with the offending youth, their parents and other relatives, including grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.  Our results demonstrated the need for greater acknowledgement and support of abuse-affected siblings.

In addition to peer-reviewed articles published in Child Abuse & Neglect, Journal of Family Violence and Children & Society, and with the intention of improving services for families affected by youth sexual offending, we have disseminated our research results through sensitivity-training workshops among professionals and practitioners within police services, lawyers’ associations, school boards, child welfare agencies, and mental health services in Eastern Ontario. In collaboration with parents, we also co-developed a resource pamphlet entitled: What do you do when your child has hurt another child? It has been distributed across criminal justice and child welfare agencies throughout the province of Ontario.