Working with young victims of sexual crime

Being subjected to sexual crime affects all aspects of a young person's life and severely disturbs his or her development. 

How common is it?

Experiences of sexual violence, abuse and harassment are very common among young people.

Where?

A sexual crime may take place anywhere – at home, in school, in a shopping centre, in the street, or, increasingly, on the Internet.

Culprit

The culprit may be a family member, a friend, an acquaintance (often from the Internet), a person with authority (a teacher, trainer, or employer), or a total stranger.

Reporting the crime

Young people often find it difficult to report a sexual crime. The reasons include a lack of words, shame or guilt, a feeling of having been involved, and the fear of being exposed, punished, or subjected to revenge. Moreover, the sexual violence and harassment may have become a normal part of everyday life. Lack of life experience and knowledge about the rights of the individual also prevent many victims from reporting the crime.

The importance of sexual self-determination

In order to develop physically, mentally, sexually and socially, a young person has to have the freedom to decide about his or her own sexual activities. Being forced to have involuntary sexual experiences is harmful for this development.

Growing up

A young person's life contains many changes. Leaving childhood, becoming independent of one's parents, taking control over one's body, developing a sexual and gender identity, becoming a member of society, building up one's ideals and plans for the future and working to reach one's dreams are all part of growing up. Sexual violence and abuse affects all aspects of the young person's development.

Consequences for young people

The symptoms of sexual crime vary and may affect the victim for the rest of his or her life, particularly if not properly treated. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression are typical consequences of sexual crime among both young people and adults. The consequences may include low-spiritedness, cheerlessness, anxiety, timidity, aggressiveness, alcohol and drug abuse, sexual denial or risk-taking, losing friends and gaining different ones, continuous suspicions aimed at oneself, and a crisis of self-esteem. The young person's plans for the future may also become unclear and his or her motivation to study and ability to focus decrease. 

Riitta Ylikomi, psychologist, psychotherapist

Concerning victims of violence in general, please read the guidelines in the "Working with traumatized victims" section. 

Tips for the police

1. When talking to a young person, treat him or her as respectfully as you would treat an adult. Listen to what he or she is saying and take it seriously! However, remember that the young person is not an adult, and make sure that he or she also understands this.

2. Note that a support person or a counsel may be very important for the young person.

3. Make sure that there is sufficient support available for the victim. Parents and others close to the victim as well as other people and organizations may be of great help.

4. Let the young person be the central person in matters concerning him or her! If the victim is accompanied by parents, teachers or other people, do not fall into the trap of discussing the matter with them instead of addressing the victim directly.

5. Let the young person know that his or her story is an essential part of the case evidence and that he or she therefore has to give as many details as possible.

6. Be aware of the fact that the young victim may not possess sufficient vocabulary to describe the experience. Help him or her to find the right words!

7. A young person may try to protect him or herself by acting in an annoying, defiant or otherwise difficult manner. Silence may also be a way of protecting oneself. Be aware of this and do not let it distract you.

8. Young people occasionally act without thinking and try how far they can go. Never blame the young person for having acted unwisely or without thinking and therefore become a victim of sexual crime. No matter how a young person may have exposed him or herself to the crime, the culprit is the only one to blame.

9. Ask the young person how his or her family and friends have reacted upon hearing about the crime. How others react may greatly affect what the young person chooses to tell or not tell and how he or she thinks about the discussion with the police.

10. Meet the young victim more than once. He or she may come to think about new details after having told the first version of the story!

11. Give the victim clear information about the investigation. Tell him or her what is happening and why, and make sure that he or she understands. Ask if he or she has understood, and also give the same information in writing.

12. Avoid changing the one to be in contact with the victim.

13. Cooperate with child protection professionals and with support networks for the young.

 In court

1. Remember that young people are often much less mature than they look.

2. Ask questions based on the answers the young person gives you in order to get more details. A young person may avoid saying too much, believing that he or she may get into less trouble by saying as little as possible.

3. Make sure that the young person understands what the trial is about, what the court expects from him or her, and who will be present and why.

4. Be aware of the fact that all practical arrangements that increase the young person’s feeling of safety during the trial help him or her to remember and talk.