Restoring Relationships in Sibling Sexual Abuse: A Paradigm Shift

Introducing the VORS Principle – Nancy Falls and Melissa Maltar

It is astonishing that for 40+ years it has been known that sibling sexual abuse occurs up to 5 times more frequently than (step) father-daughter abuse (Finkelhor, 1979; Finkelhor, 1980) but there still exists little knowledge about how to address, treat and reunify siblings.  The sibling relationship can provide life’s longest intimate relationship and can also be the most damaging.  Whether or not intervention is provided, we know that many families/siblings reunify as adults.   Unfortunately, there is minimal evidence upon which to base removal and contact decisions and no evidence to indicate whether each sibling’s treatment and well-being outcomes are related to contact decisions. How do we individualise and structure a reunification process with ethical decision-making while balancing the unique developmental needs of each child involved?

It is well established that there is no single factor that can explain the aetiology of sexual offending behaviour and there is also no single aetiological risk factor that explains sibling sexual abuse.  We also know that sibling sexual abuse is unique in its dynamics and impact because: 

  • Siblings share more of their lives genetically and contextually than with other family members (Haskins, 2003);
  • Siblings share knowledge, perceptions, attitudes, feelings and beliefs beginning when one sibling first becomes psychologically aware of the other (Briere, 1984; Trepper & Barrett, 1986 in Haskins, 2003);
  • • Sibling sexual abuse is unrecognized, underreported, difficult to identify, often avoided, (Ascherman & Safier 1990; Carlson et al. 2006; Finkelhor, 1980), and there is cultural blindness to its frequency and impact (Crowder, 2002; Peterson, 1992; Rowntree, 2007);
  • Sibling sexual abuse can involve greater use of violence, intrusiveness, frequency and duration (Adler & Schutz, 1995; Ascherman & Safier, 1990; Caffaro & Conn-Caffaro, 2005; Carlson, et al., 2006 Cyr, et al., 2002; Finkelhor, 1980; Gioro, 1991; Hardy, 2001; O’Brien, 1991; Peterson, 1992; Rudd & Herzberger, 1999; Russell, 1986);
  • There are heightened “Bad Parent Syndrome” and divided loyalty issues e.g. parents/carers(Barbour, et al.,  1999);
  • And, often the sexual abuse is uncovered when victims, as adults, seek treatment for issues they may not even associate with the sibling abuse (Caffaro and Conn-Caffaro 1998; Canavan et al. 1992; Carlson et al. 2006; Laviola 1992; Weihe 1997).  

These factors provide a rationale for a more flexible and individualized set of principles to address sibling sexual abuse and reunification.  As such, we propose the use of the VORS Principle (Voice, Openness, Responsibility and Safety) to assist in ethical decision-making, guiding professionals and family members to assess their readiness for reunification at Disclosure, Investigation, Assessment and Treatment stages. Applying the VORS Principle removes the rigidity of universal models, allows consideration for the uniqueness of each family and views the adolescent through a developmental lens. The VORS Principle is victim driven and considers the safety of all children as paramount when families want to reunify. The VORS Principle emphasises that contact allows for hope and hope is a predictor of successful reunification (Skau et al, 2008).  


We ask ourselves at the Disclosure, Investigation, Assessment and Treatment phases: 

• Does the child who was sexually abused (the child), the adolescent who sexually harmed (the youth), and members of the family (the family) have a ‘Voice’? These questions would refer to their ability to feel empowered, express their needs and seem unafraid of the consequences of speaking up. 

• Does the child, the youth, and the family have ‘Openness’?  This refers to the family’s communication patterns, such as their ability to demonstrate empathetic listening and responding, to use self-expression, to confront secrets and to engage in conflict resolution and clarification. 

• Does the child, the youth, and the family have ‘Responsibility’? This refers to the ability to invite the youth to take responsibility; for families to take a ‘Both And Position’ where they can support and hold accountable as a way to locate responsibility appropriately (McNevin, 2010). Can they shift away from the Accountability Axiom? Meaning, if you cannot feel the anguish of the behaviours you engaged in, you shift it to others (Jory and Anderson, 2000)  

• Does the child, the youth, and the family have ‘Safety’? This refers to the family system’s ability to provide consistent, predictable and non-shaming roles, rules and responsibilities for all family members, and establish a “new normal”.

Inspired by the work of those who have created previous protocols and models to guide family reunification, we are proposing a more flexible and customisable framework to assist professionals and families to make decisions about readiness to reunify following sibling sexual abuse. Reunification must be recognized as an adjustment period for families and a potentially fragile time for the family system (Terling,1999). Our framework proposes the application of the VORS Principle throughout the healing process.

Temporary separation of the child who was victimised and the adolescent who engaged in the sexually abusive behaviour may be most necessary during the Disclosure, Investigation and Assessment periods.  However, removal is not necessary in all sibling sexual abuse cases. Decisions can be made on a case-by-case basis using the VORS Principle.  In treatment, ‘Ccommunication’ between the siblings can begin immediately in the form of letters vetted by the therapist. Clarification occurs when the adolescent can empathically acknowledge the harm caused. Contact is a gradual process, beginning in a therapeutic context. Reunification is the repair of the sibling relationship. These are distinct achievements in the family therapy work. 

Each family is unique with diverse strengths and challenges.  We need to work collaboratively, applying the VORS principle with the information that is known at the time.  The purpose of the VORS Principle and the proposed framework is to: assist in ethical decision making; to create better road maps for families; to present a more holistic way to address sibling sexual abuse; to support parents; to engage collateral partners; and, to create a “new normal” in the family system. Reunification is framed as the repair of the relationships and allows for the application of hope. Where there is hope, there are possibilities.


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Melissa Maltar, MSW, RSW, Manager, Clinical Services 
Nancy Falls, Ed.D., RP, Manager, Training & Consultation 
Radius Child & Youth Services, Toronto, Canada