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March/April 2014 Issue

Immigration and Sexual Abuse — Protecting Undocumented Children
By April Dirks-Bihun, PhD, LISW, MSW
Social Work Today
Vol. 14 No. 2 P. 22

Undocumented children are highly vulnerable to sexual abuse, and detection and reporting are difficult because of their noncitizen status.

Imagine that you’ve been walking for three days with only the clothes on your back and sparse food and water, and you’re constantly in fear of strangers who are paid with money or barter to guide you through mountainous desert terrain to the United States from Mexico.

Now imagine that you’re an 8-year-old boy who’s traveling like this, without his family and desperately trying to gain entrance into the United States. Possibly you’re traveling alone in order to find your mother and father. You may have embarked on the journey alone to work in the North and send financial support to the family back home.

This is the case for thousands of young boys and girls who cross into the United States each year. These children are undocumented immigrants, or aliens or noncitizens. These children, traveling alone on a perilous journey, are more likely to be victims of sexual assault than children who aren’t attempting to illegally cross the U.S. border.

As a school social worker and clinician in private practice, I have had the opportunity to work with undocumented immigrant children who have made a similar journey into the United States only to find themselves in a situation in which they may be abused and go unnoticed by helping professionals. Some of the many ways undocumented children come across the Mexico/U.S. border is by walking; riding in the trunks of cars, train cars, or semitrailers; or through underground tunnels.

Children illegally immigrating into the United States are at increased risk of sexual abuse for various reasons, such as traveling alone without a trusted guardian or falling victim to human traffickers. Fueled by a demand for prostitution and pornography, an untold number of children are trafficked and illegally smuggled into the United States from south of the border each year. Many of these children are victimized by human traffickers because of factors such as economic necessity, a history of physical and sexual abuse, or being abducted and placed into the trade.

Barriers to Detection and Reporting
Social workers who work with immigrant populations may encounter undocumented children who have been sexually abused. Even undocumented children living in the United States who aren’t survivors of human trafficking or who haven’t crossed the border alone are at risk of this abuse. Sexual abuse is difficult to identify because it often goes unreported and unseen. It’s a taboo topic within many traditional Latino families and therefore isn’t openly discussed.

Unlike physical abuse, which may be identified by marks such as bruises or burns, sexual abuse of children is difficult to identify unless children disclose the abuse to another person who’s in a position to help them. Children face many barriers when reporting sexual abuse, but there also are unique barriers that affect the ability of children in undocumented populations to report the abuse. Language may be the first and most critical barrier for those in need of child protection services. Additional obstacles to reporting abuse include social and cultural barriers, a limited understanding of the legal system, and limited access to public facilities where reporting may take place, such as medical facilities and schools.

The fear of deportation keeps many undocumented immigrant families from seeking the protections and services they need and can be a deterrent to reporting child sexual abuse. I’ve worked with children who had been told by their abuser that their parents, siblings, aunts, and uncles all would be deported if the child told anyone about the abuse. These threats can be effective in protecting the abuser because the child may fear the negative consequences for the entire family if he or she reports the sexual abuse.

I’ve frequently needed to reassure families that deportation isn’t standard protocol for my job as a social worker. However, families had learned from experience that any involvement in government services, and especially police matters, were a potential threat to the family remaining in the United States. Unfortunately, the fear of deportation and insecurity regarding involvement in the child welfare process prevents many children and their families from receiving appropriate services related to child sexual abuse.

Social Work With Undocumented Survivors
Learning techniques for working with Latino children who are survivors of sexual abuse is essential because social workers likely will work with Latino immigrant families, given that this population is the fastest-growing minority in the United States (U.S. Census Bureau, 2011) and Latino children may be more likely to be victims of sexual abuse than non-Latino children (Finkelhor, Ormrod, Turner, & Hamby, 2005; Newcomb, Munoz, & Carmona, 2009). In fact, some data indicate that children of Latino immigrants are up to five times more likely to be confirmed as survivors of childhood sexual abuse than those who aren’t children of Latino immigrants (Dettlaff, Earner, & Phillips, 2009).

It’s virtually impossible to evaluate the actual rate or likelihood of sexual abuse among undocumented children because these children are difficult to identify and often don’t receive social services. There’s a great deal of confusion on the part of practitioners as far as how exactly to treat immigrant children, and there’s no research on the topic of treatment specifically for undocumented children who are survivors of child sexual abuse.

As the undocumented immigrant and the Latino populations both continue to grow, there inevitably will be an increased demand for social workers to intervene with children and adolescents who have experienced sexual abuse. To serve this population, there are several best-practice strategies that social workers can implement while working with these clients.

Understand Culture
Becoming a culturally competent practitioner requires more than a basic understanding of Mexican food and the Spanish language. Working toward cultural competence requires understanding a range of complex issues, such as immigration, the risk of deportation, cultural norms and values, family structure, history of violence, and acculturation. Culturally competent practice develops over time and is increased through experience with members of a cultural group.

In the case of working with Latino families, cultural competence can be demonstrated by showing respect to family members because cultural values of shame, importance of family bonding (familismo), and themes related to respect and family honor (respecto) may affect the likelihood that the family will report sexual abuse.

As an initial step, social workers should bridge the gap by placing bilingual helping professionals in diverse population centers where children and their families can feel more comfortable communicating their needs. The topic of childhood sexual abuse can be an especially sensitive area when a practitioner is struggling to grasp the unique cultural attributes of the Latino immigrant population.

Build Trust
When working with Latino families and their children, it’s important to create a climate of trust in which families can report suspected child abuse without fear of negative consequences or deportation. It’s my experience that undocumented individuals will be more likely to seek social services if they’re allowed a degree of anonymity at the onset of working together. For example, to gain this trust and create a climate of anonymity, forgo acquiring a detailed social history and citizenship information, such as a Social Security number, during the first meeting. Latino families also should be educated about their legal rights and child protection issues.

Even with a climate of anonymity, it’s essential to create a climate of trust so families will feel safe receiving social services and reporting suspected abuse without fear of deportation.

Another way to build trust is to increase communication by using bilingual social workers and translators with Spanish-speaking families.

Learn the Story With Narrative Therapy
Along with understanding culture and building trust, it’s important to empower sexual assault survivors and their families. I’ve found that narrative therapy as developed by Michael White and David Epston, first published in their text Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends, has been a useful framework when working with sexual abuse survivors of any age but especially with Latino clients who have experienced childhood sexual abuse.

Narrative therapy works well as a model for abuse treatment because it gives the person who has experienced the abuse a degree of separation from his or her experience, and the approach relies on the belief that we all “story” our lives in an attempt to make sense of our experience and any trauma that we may have endured.

I’ve found that narrative therapy is an essential tool when helping a survivor draw on themes of strength and resilience as he or she works through trauma associated with sexual abuse. The theory is culturally competent because clients are in control of their own story and the experts of their own situation, not the social worker. This approach is essential when working with Latino survivors because they will be able to draw on their own cultural experience as they explore what the sexual abuse means to them and work through recovery with the aid of a trained professional.

When working with sexual abuse survivors, there are four main tools that I draw on from themes found in narrative therapy:

• Look for the exception or unique outcomes to the trauma created by the abuse experience. In the case of childhood sexual abuse, it’s important not to minimize the abuse experience but rather to help the client identify the theme of survival that comes out of the story.

• Externalize the problem and remind clients that they experienced childhood sexual abuse and that they aren’t permanently labeled as a sexually abused child. In other words, help clients understand that the abuse was something that happened to them, and the occurrence doesn’t define their entire personality.

• Reauthor the story by working with clients to construct their own account of what occurred surrounding the incident of sexual abuse. This is important because, in the case of childhood sexual abuse, the survivor often feels that he or she has lost control of his or her own body and general well-being. Narrative therapy enables the client to take back control by encouraging him or her to retell the story from the point of view of the child who experienced the abuse and enables the client to establish a dominant narrative that will allow him or her to take control of the experience.

• Reinforce the strength’s perspective, which is something that I like to combine with narrative therapy techniques because it’s empowering to identify client strengths and survival skills. Latino families have many strengths, and even the strength it takes to illegally cross the border into the United States is a motivating factor that can be utilized when working with the family and child involved in a sexual abuse case. Undocumented immigrant children may demonstrate such amazing resilience, family strength, and endurance that their ability to heal from sexual assault within the family system may be a motivating factor that can be built on during recovery.

Increased Demand
As the undocumented immigrant population and the Latino population in general continue to increase, there inevitably will be an increased demand for competent social workers to work with children and adolescents who have experienced sexual abuse. Helping Latino children and undocumented immigrants obtain child protection services is complicated, especially when the risks of accessing services (such as shame and a fear of deportation) may outweigh the benefits for some children in desperate need of services.

I’ve identified several best-practice strategies, stemming from core values of cultural competence, trust, and the strengths perspective that social workers can implement while working with undocumented Latino immigrants who have experienced childhood sexual abuse. Narrative therapy is a particularly useful framework when working through trauma associated with sexual abuse in a culturally sensitive way.

— April Dirks-Bihun, PhD, LISW, MSW, is an associate professor in the school work program at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids, IA, who teaches about her experiences working with undocumented immigrant families as a school social worker and as a clinician in private practice.


Dettlaff, A. J., Earner, I., & Phillips, S. D. (2009). Latino children of immigrants in the child welfare system: Prevalence, characteristics, and risk. Children and Youth Services Review, 31(7), 775-783.

Finkelhor, D., Ormrod, R., Turner, H., & Hamby, S. L. (2005). The victimization of children and youth: A comprehensive, national survey. Child Maltreatment, 10(1), 5-25.

Newcomb, M., Munoz, D., & Carmona, J. (2009). Child sexual abuse consequences in community samples of Latino and European American adolescents. Child Abuse & Neglect, 33(8), 533-544.

U.S. Census Bureau. (2011). The Hispanic population: 2010. Retrieved January 2, 2014, from http://www.census.gov/prod/cen2010/briefs/c2010br-04.pdf.

White, M., & Epston, D. (1990). Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends. New York, NY: WW Norton.