Guardian Ad Litem Training in Child Sexual Abuse Issues

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Guardian Ad Litem Training in Child Sexual Abuse Issues

Karen Oehme, J. D., PROGRAM Director, Clearinghouse on Supervised Visitation

If the court orders supervised visitation between a parent and child under § 39.0139, such visitation can only be with a person who has had special training in the dynamics of sexual abuse or at a Supervised Visitation program that has complied with certain requirements. Programs that accept sexual abuse cases must have the following on file:

  • Agreements with the Court regarding child sexual abuse cases

  • Annual Affidavits of Compliance

  • Agreements with DCF

  • Documentation of staff training through the Clearinghouse on Supervised Visitation specifically in child sexual abuse dynamics

  • Protocols for obtaining background information on sexual abuse case referrals

Training in child sexual abuse dynamics is available for free online at

What is the Risk of Contact?

When considering family reunification, the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers standards state: “Renewed contact between clients and family members at risk for being sexually abused requires careful monitoring and supervision. Clients continue to pose some level of risk for reoffending even after completing treatment or supervision. The main priority in considering family reunification is the emotional and physical safety of potential victims. Members should only recommend contact with familial victims or family member under the age of 18 when a nonoffending parent or another responsible adult is adequately prepared to supervise the contact, the victim or minor is judged to be ready for such contact by another professional who can monitor their safety, and clients have made substantial progress in their treatment.” (ATSA, 2001, p. 26).

What have Supervised Visitation Providers Observed in Sexual Abuse Cases?

Florida’s supervised visitation providers have observed a number of examples of inappropriate behavior by alleged sexual offending parents during scheduled visits. These behaviors include the parent:

  • Attempting to whisper to the child or to speak privately to the child so that the visit monitor can’t hear what is said.

  • Playing with toys or other objects near the offending parent’s genitals or in the lap of the parent so the child will reach for them and have physical contact.

  • Tickling the child, or encouraging other physical contact.

  • Exposing genitals.

  • Leaving pants unzipped “accidentally.”

  • Use of apparent code words.

  • Masturbating.

  • Choosing certain toys that have meaning to the child’s abuse and/or were used to sexually abuse the child.

  • Displaying photographs of individuals, trips, or locations to the child that depict aspects of the child’s victimization experience.

Also cause for concern among Florida’s supervised visitation providers has been behaviors observed in children with histories of child sexual abuse during court-ordered visits with their alleged offending parent:

  • Toileting accidents (not developmentally expected) during, immediately prior to, or immediately after court-ordered visits.

  • Crying beyond what typically occurs during the provision of court-ordered supervised visitation services.

  • Exhibiting unusual clinging behavior towards residential, non-offending parent or caretaker.

  • Engaging in head banging, or other types of self-injurious behavior.

  • Exposing genitals in a developmentally inappropriate manner.

  • Attempting to engage in sexually explicit play with other children, visiting parent, or staff during visits.
  • Using sexually explicit language during visits.

  • Drawing sexually explicit pictures during visits or using dolls or toys in a sexually suggestive manner.

Effects of Child Sexual Abuse on Child Victims

Children who have experienced sexual abuse often display physical, behavioral, and emotional effects of their experiences. Some of these effects are listed in the chart below. You should note that while these effects are consistent with child sexual abuse, they may also be attributed to other conditions as well.





Genital injuries

Sexually transmitted diseases

Urinary tract problems

Difficulty walking or sitting

Preoccupation with genitals

Toileting accidents


Sleep disturbances

Changes in behavior


Lack of interest in activities

Self-injurious behavior

Fears (of taking baths, of being alone)

Eating disorders

Acting out

Unusual sexual knowledge for age








Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome


Children who have experienced sexual abuse often display a pattern of behavior and emotional response to help them deal with their abusive experiences. Summit (1983) how referred to this pattern as the Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome. Summit’s work was groundbreaking in that it allowed readers to see sexual abuse from the point of view of the child. The sequence of behaviors of the offending parent and the child’s reaction are presented below. It is important for GALs, attorneys, judges, and supervised visitation providers to become familiar with this syndrome.

The Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome



Offender’s Behavior

Child’s Reaction

The offender, either overtly or covertly informs his or her victim that his/her sexual behavior is a secret. Overtly, the offender may say things like “If you tell, they’ll put me in jail,” or “If you tell, I will kill your mother.” In a more covert manner, the offender may remind the victim either through words or behavior of the stigma associated with sexual behaviors. The offender uses isolation and intimidation and takes advantage of a child’s helplessness in the face or an authoritative adult.

The victim may be confused, scared, or ambivalent. She may feel guilty about enjoying the special attention that she has received, or frightened that “something bad will happen” if she tells anyone. The victim may comply with her abuser’s demands out of fear that whatever the overtly or covertly implied consequences of telling are, they will indeed come to pass.



Offender’s Behavior

Child’s Reaction

Offender takes advantage of the natural power and authority that adults hold over children. He exerts power and control over his victim, telling her that “no one will believer you,” or that no one cares.

As a result of the adult’s power and authority or in response to the threats made by the offender, the victim feels helpless or powerless to stop the abuse.


Entrapment & Accommodation

Offender’s Behavior

Child’s Reaction

Offender lies or distorts his actions towards victim, telling her that this is something all daddies do, or that he is only teaching her how to be a good wife. He repeatedly engages in the sexual victimizing behaviors.

Trying to survive, the child tries to “get used to” the abuse. Accommodation is part of the child’s survival skills. It is her response to repeated sexual victimization. She may ‘accommodate’ to abuse by denying her feelings, withdrawing, denying what is happening, dissociating from abuse. This may explain why some sexually abused children may interact with an abusive parent at supervised visitation in a seemingly appropriate manner.



Offender’s Behavior

Child’s Reaction

Offender may deny abuse if disclosure is made, calling victim liar, mentally ill, or manipulated by other parent into creating a story. Further threatening of victim may occur.

Much sexual abuse is never disclosed. Disclosure may be accidental, may come through anger, or may result from prevention education. As Summit wrote: “Unless specifically trained and sensitized average adults…can not believe that a normal, truthful child would tolerate incest without immediately reporting…” This is the crux of the Accommodation Syndrome.

During this stage, victim may ‘drop hints’ to the non-offending parent, to her relatives, friends, or teachers about the abuse. Depending on the reaction she receives, she may fully disclose, or stop any discussion.



Offender’s Behavior

Child’s Reaction

Offender may continue to deny allegations, convince non-offending parent that abuse did not occur. Offender may also put increasing pressure on child to “take it back,” blaming her for problems now facing family.

Not all child victims recant or change their account of the abuse, but some do, in part because they are not believed, or because by disclosing they are subject to out-of-home placement, medical exams, constant interviews with protective service workers and/or law enforcement. Thus, the child faces deep loss with disclosure: loss of peace in her life, security, her familiar environment, her friends, and her family.



Some studies have indicated that non-offending parents may:

  • Have drug and alcohol dependency problems,

  • Have heightened levels of depression, and

  • Suffer from heightened levels of anxiety.

These problems may have developed in response to the circumstances under which the non-offending parent resided and the abuse occurred. Clinical research does not support the view that the non-offending parent should be blamed for the abuse.



Reaction to Investigation and Supervised Visitation

Denial of Sexual Abuse

Even with findings of sexual abuse, the parent may make statements saying there has been a big mistake, someone is making all of this up, etc. The parent may also try to convince the visit monitor that the alleged abuse couldn’t have happened.

The non-offending parent may express denial of any knowledge of the sexual abuse of the child(ren) to visit monitors.


Even with confirmation of sexual abuse, non-offending parents exhibiting rationalization may try to involve the staff in convincing DCF or the court that the allegations are inaccurate by statements such as, “Can you please tell the judge or my DCF investigator how nice my husband is to Casey? He’s just a very affectionate father.”


Minimization may be demonstrated by the non-offending parent in statements they make to supervised visitation staff which indicate an effort to diminish the sexual abuse. For example, statements like, “it only happened once or twice,” “it was only fondling, it could have been much worse” indicate minimization of the abusive experience.


Non-offending parents may also exhibit signs of defensiveness to visit monitors.

They may tell staff repeatedly that they had no role in the abuse nor were they aware that it was happening and seek some kind of affirmation from staff about their parenting skills.


Parents may experience guilt for not recognizing symptoms of sexual abuse in their children, and may express this guilt to supervised visitation staff.

Parents may tell staff that they feel just terrible. “How could the abuse happen?” they may ask staff.

Ambivalent Feelings Toward Offending Parent

Non-offending parents may still have ambivalent feelings toward their offending partner. They may express anger, fear, disgust as well as caring, concern and protectiveness toward the other parent.

They may fear what will happen to their relationship as a result of the abuse investigation.

During investigations and supervised visitation services, this ambivalence may result in a residential parent being angry toward the other parent one week and tearful the next.

Ambivalent Feelings Toward Child(ren)

Non-offending parents may also exhibit ambivalent feelings toward their children.

Investigators, GALs, attorneys, and visitation staff may observe the non-offending parent being both very concerned and at times frustrated and angry toward the child(ren) for reporting the abuse, having to come to a visitation program, etc.

Sadness or Depression

Non-offending parents may express sadness or exhibit signs of depression (weeping, flat affect, sighing, slowed body motions) during their interactions with staff. They may start crying as they leave their child for a visit. investigations and


Non-offending parents may be very fearful that their child(ren) will not be protected during visits with the offending parent. They may make such statements as “Are you sure your staff will not let anything happen?” and “What if my spouse tries to do something else during the visit?”


Non-offending parents may also be very angry at both the offending parent as well as the child(ren) reporting the abuse. They may result in angry outbursts during interviews, intake at visitation programs, or at other times.

The Guardian Ad Litem at Supervised Visitation

The GAL may:

  • Request that the court order supervised visitation.

  • Review records.

  • Observe visits.

  • Interview Supervised Visitation staff.

If a GAL requests to monitor a supervised visit, the program will do the following prior to the first observed visit:

  • Obtain a copy of the court paperwork appointing the GAL. The Order of Appointment and the Oath of Acceptance are two documents which are essential for visitation program records. These can be obtained from the GAL Office.
  • Contact the GAL to review program rules. The GAL should have a clear understanding of the Supervised Visitation program’s goal: to facilitate safe contact between the parent and child. The GAL’s presence at the visit should not in any way interfere with visit, unless otherwise ordered by the court.

  • The GAL should be wary of drawing conclusions about the visit.

There are certain behaviors of a GAL that are inappropriate during scheduled visitation services.


GALs, DCF, caseworkers, therapists, parenting evaluators, and others may ask to observe the visits at the supervised visitation program. In the absence of a court order to the contrary, their presence should not interfere with the visit. During a visit, these personnel should not:

  • Interview the child, or ask questions relating to the court case.

  • Interview the parent or ask questions relating to the court case.

  • Interact with the parent or child – the visit is the parent’s time to interact with the child.

  • Talk with staff in the presence of the child, except when absolutely necessary.

  • Redirect parent-child interaction – it is the Supervised Visitation staff’s responsibility to facilitate and redirect interaction.

  • Supervise the visit. Unless the court has ordered otherwise, supervised visitation staff, not other personnel, are responsible at all times for controlling the visit –the presence of other personnel does not change the level of supervision required by the Supervised Visitation program for a particular case.

During a visit, GALs, caseworkers and other personnel should:

  • Remain passive observers to the visit.

  • Stay as unobtrusive as possible.


Any supervised visitation program accepting referrals of cases involving sexual abuse must have specific visit rules already established and available for review by all parties.


RATIO OF STAFF TO VISITING FAMILIES: There should be one visit monitor to each visiting family in child sexual abuse cases. In cases of large families, a supervised visitation program may use more than one monitor to ensure that all family members are supervised adequately.

Rationale: This visit rule allows the monitor to focus on one family, reducing distractions; the monitor to remain in the room at all times; the monitor to see and hear all interaction between parent and child; the child to feel protected; the allegedly abusive parent to be aware of the close scrutiny; the non-abusive parent to feel more comfortable with the visit; and the court to know that the child is being adequately protected.

LANGUAGE REQUIREMENTS: The visit supervisor should have fluency (both spoken and understanding) in the language of the child and the visiting parent. If the parent or child is hearing impaired, the program should obtain the services of a neutral sign-language interpreter for every visit. The issue of language should be discussed at intake, so parents are put on notice as to prohibitions on the use of a language that the monitor does not understand.

Rationale: It is imperative that the visit monitor understand what is being said between a visiting parent, residential parent, and child in order to prevent possible victim-blaming, threats, etc.

PHYSICAL SEPARATION: Families in which a sexual abuse allegation has been made should not be in the same room s non-sexual abuse cases. The potential for involving other families in the abusive family’s dynamics is greatly lessened with physical separation from other families.

Rationale: By having families with sexual abuse histories in a private room, the visit monitor is less likely to be distracted and any potential for involvement with other children is reduced, and the risk for other children is minimized.

PHYSICAL CONTACT: Physical contact between the visiting parent and the child should be closely scrutized, and subject to the following restrictions:

  • Any physical contact should be brief and should only be, if at all, initiated by the child. However, any physical contact which appears inappropriate or sexualized will be stopped by staff immediately, even if the child does not appear distressed. Children who have been “groomed” as part of their sexual abuse experience may initiate physical contact. Staff should be aware of this dynamic.

  • No object – furniture, office equipment, toys, etc – should block the view of the visit monitor.

  • The following types of physical contact should be prohibited:

    • Tickling,

    • Lap-sitting,

    • Rough-housing,

    • Prolonged hugging or kissing,

    • Tongue kissing,

    • Kissing on any area below the chin,

    • Stroking,

    • Hand holding,

    • Hair combing,

    • Changing diapers or clothes.

Rationale: This rule reduces the possibility of sexual abuse or physical abuse occurring during visits or of misinterpretations of contact (e.g., false allegations of abuse).

  • The following additional behaviors should also be prohibited:

    • whispering,

    • passing notes,

    • hand signals or body signals,

    • photographing the child,

    • audiotaping or videotaping the child,

    • exchanging gifts, money, or cards.

Rationale: This reduces the possibility of verbal threats, minimizes triggering events for the child and enhances staff control of the visit environment.


The visitor should not bring any items to the visit, including

  • toys,

  • games,

  • books,

  • written material,

  • food,

  • additional clothing,

  • photographs,

  • drinks,

  • music,

  • tapes (audio or video),

  • dolls,

  • jewelry,

  • pets (except necessary service animals),

  • or household items.

Rationale: This reduces the possibility of a perpetrator bringing to the visit covert or overt reminders of the child’s abusive experience. It also reduces the possibility of “bribes” to the child for recanting.


  • Each program should have written rules relating to the use of toilet facilities during visits, and parents and the child (depending on the age of the child) should be made aware of these rules prior to the first visit.

  • Children must use the toilets on their own, or, if a child is not old enough to use the toilet on his/her own, he/she should be accompanied by staff. Parents may not accompany their children to the toilet in sexual abuse cases.

  • Children may not accompany their siblings or other children to the bathroom.

  • Babies who wear diapers or training pants (i.e. Pull Ups) should be changed by staff in a room separate from the visiting parent.

Rationale: This reduces the possibility of physical or sexual abuse incidents during visits or the misinterpretation of visiting parent’s behavior during toileting.


There should be no off-site visits in cases with sexual abuse allegations.

Rationale: This rule reduces a heightened risk of the child being revictimized in an uncontrolled setting; reduces exposure to an uncontrollable and unpredictable environment outside of a program; and reduces the potential for the monitor to be unable to effectively intervene if anything prohibited happens.



A father was court-ordered to a visitation program with his 4-year old daughter. There was an allegation of sexual abuse, but program was not provided with any details or background information. At each visit, the father brought over-sized crayons for his daughter to use during the visit. He sought permission from the program director to bring crayons and construction paper, and she allowed their use. At each visit the man and his daughter sat quietly at a table and drew pictures. Staff believed the interaction was positive. Some time later, DCF staff informed the supervised visitation staff that the father had used such crayons to penetrate his daughter’s rectum.

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