Residential Care

Reporting sexual abuse in residential care. Who do residents trust the most?

This 2017 Dutch study examined whether clients in residential care are more likely to report sexual abuse to front line professionals compared to  other professionals (referred to as ‘treatment professionals’).  In the Australian context, front line professionals are residential care workers. The ‘treatment professionals’ include psychologists, other therapists, teachers etc.

Based on attachment theory and ecological theory, the study predicted front line professionals to perceive child sexual abuse in residential homes more often than treatment professionals. The rationale being they are literally closer to clients than treatment professionals given they are present in the residential setting during the day or night, taking care of the children. Treatment professionals are less present; they see the children only incidentally during treatment and therefore it might be assumed that they have a less close physical relationship with young residents.

The study used a questionnaire format to collect data from 164 of the 256 residential institutions in the Netherlands (i.e. 64% of all institutions in the Netherlands participated in the study). Three hundred and fifty four (354) staff returned the questionnaire. Overall, they reported 750 instances of sexual abuse, of which 558 were definite incidents of sexual abuse and 192 suspected incidents of sexual abuse.

Surprisingly, young people were 75% more likely to report sexual abuse to treating professionals as compared to front line staff. Thus, the study concludes:

Therefore, being physically present and having a physically close relationship with young people in residential care is not decisive for professionals to perceive incidents or to suspect sexual abuse. On the contrary, treatment professionals’ have a less physically close relationship with their young clients as they are not physically present in the residential home on a daily base, but that does not prevent them to signal sexual abuse. Probably treatment professionals have a lot of expertise that helps them to perceive more sexual abuse.

The study does not provide further explanation of why this might be the case, other than that the treatment professionals may be more aware of sexual abuse. The more important issue is the extent of sexual abuse that is not reported.  The authors make no comment on this, however it is suggested that the reporting of the incidence of sexual abuse in residential care by residents is approximately the same as for professionals.

As a psychologist, I am not surprised that people do not inform the people they live with about sexual abuse they have experienced. It is often easier to reveal this information on a confidential basis in the privacy of a psychologist’s rooms.

Take out for Practitioners

Involvement by third party professionals is a key strategy in preventing sexual abuse in residential care.



Timmerman, M. C., et al. (2017). “Professional proximity in perceiving child sexual abuse in residentialcare: The closer the better?” Children and Youth Services Review 76: 192-195.

About graemembaird

I am a psychologist with a special interest in improving the outcomes of families, children and young people in the Out of Home Care and Juvenile Justice systems.
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