A new law standardizing Kansas’ response to child-on-child sexual assault could cost $126,000 and result in more than 3,200 treatment referrals a year.
Gov. Laura Kelly signed legislation Friday that directs the Department for Children and Families to immediately refer a minor to treatment if the agency receives a report that the child sexually abused another child.
The new statute also requires the department to document whether treatment was provided to the child accused of abuse, the reasons for needing it and the outcome.
The agency estimates 3,264 children a year would need to be referred to treatment. That estimate includes both foster children in the agency’s care and children who are the subject of reports from the DCF child abuse hotline.
Agency officials say the added counseling work means DCF will have to hire two more staff members at a cost of more than $126,000 per year for salary and benefits. The Legislature did not appropriate additional funding to pay those costs this year.
Republican state Sen. Molly Baumgardner of Overland Park introduced the bill after stories broke last year of foster children assaulting other children in DCF custody. She pressed to make sure the agency had a consistent response to such incidents.
“It was very disconcerting to me, learning that there wasn’t a set process,” she said. “We need all of our kids to be safe.”
Baumgardner said she was inspired by a similar law that passed in Missouri in 2015, requiring the state’s Children’s Division to perform assessments and offer voluntary services after receiving a report that one child sexually abused another.
The Kansas law also states that the services for children who commit abuse are voluntary — unless DCF determines that the risk of future sexual behavior problems is high if the child does not receive treatment. It defines “a child with sexual behavior problems” as a minor who has allegedly committed sexual abuse against another child.
DCF says it already has procedures in place for handling reports of abuse allegedly committed by children. In an email, a department spokesman said a worker first determines whether a report of abuse is substantiated and what kind of treatment might be needed. The information is also passed to a committee, who makes a final decision on the reliability of the report and the need for treatment for the child who allegedly committed the abuse.
Currently, law enforcement is also required to conduct an investigation of reported sexual abuse of a child.
Alicia Johnson-Turner, a special assistant to DCF secretary Laura Howard, said DCF would only provide referrals, rather than direct treatment. She said the agency may pay for treatment on a case-by-case basis.
Johnson-Turner said two organizations in the state, in the Kansas City and Wichita areas, provide evidence-based treatment for children with problematic sexual behavior. She said children who live outside those areas may be referred to community mental health centers for psychotherapy.
“That might be targeted at sexual behavior,” she said. “It just wouldn't be one of the evidence-based models.”
The Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault, based in Kansas City, Missouri, treats Kansas children who demonstrate age-inappropriate sexual behavior.
Such behaviors are different than a child’s curiosity about their own body, or consensual sexual behavior between teenagers of the same age, said MOCSA’s director of counseling services, Rene McCreary. It’s often caused by sexual abuse, early exposure to pornography or other types of trauma, such as witnessing domestic violence.
Children who demonstrate problematic sexual behavior — such as exposing themselves, touching other children’s genitals, using inappropriate language or gestures, or touching themselves in public — are unlikely to repeat it, she said.
“When kids act out in a sexual way, it’s pretty unusual for them to do it again,” McCreary said. “Especially after receiving treatment.”
But it’s still important for children to learn the social skills and impulse control taught at MOCSA’s 18-week program, she said. The treatment involves both group and individual therapy for children and their families. Children round out the program by writing an apology letter.
“It's really important to us,” McCreary said, “to provide this model in the way that it's been studied and proven to work.”
Foster children are at risk of developing inappropriate sexual behaviors due to their living conditions and their exposure to trauma and abuse, said Heidi Olson, a pediatric sexual assault nurse at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City.
Olson told lawmakers that almost half of the sexual assaults treated at Children’s Mercy in the past several years were committed by minors, with 11- to 15-year-old boys being the most likely to do so.
“Those kids aren’t even old enough to drive, and yet they are acting out with this sexually harmful behavior,” Olson said in an interview. “The way to approach this is to get kids into therapy and treatment that really works and addressing those behaviors, versus them being adjudicated and going to jail.”
It’s essential for treatment to be administered at a young age so a child can heal and learn about boundaries, she said.
For adults, “the recidivism rate is much higher,” Olson said, “so I think this is really significant.”
Nomin Ujiyediin is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @NominUJ.
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