The child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome (CSAAS), identified by Roland C. Summit in 1983, describes a common disclosure pattern for victims of child sexual assault (CSA). The syndrome was developed on the basis of clinical observations of victims made by Summit and other treatment professionals. According to Summit, secondary trauma results when the child’s allegations of sexual abuse are met with anger and disbelief by trusted adults (e.g., parents, clinicians). Summit’s aim in documenting the disclosure process was to increase understanding of CSA among treatment professionals, and to encourage validation and therapeutic intervention for victims.
The CSAAS has five components: (1) secrecy; (2) helplessness; (3) entrapment and accommodation; (4) delayed, unconvincing disclosure; and (5) retraction. The first two components are implicit vulnerabilities of children exploited by perpetrators of CSA; the latter three are chronological stages in the CSA disclosure process. Children’s submissiveness allows them to be easily coerced by adults. Threats such as retaliation and dissolution of the family (particularly when a parent is the perpetrator), as well as blaming the child, are methods used to elicit secrecy and compliance, and signal to the child that what is happening is inappropriate. Contrary to popular belief, the majority of CSA is perpetrated by a trusted adult such as a parent, relative, or close family friend, which may magnify the child’s feelings of helplessness. According to Summit, the psychological survival of the child depends largely on his or her ability to adjust or accommodate to the ongoing abuse. For example, children may cope with the abuse by taking responsibility for it. This coping mechanism may be a less traumatic alternative to accepting that they were abused by someone they rely on for care and protection. It may also provide the child with some feeling of control over the abuse, including an ability to end it (e.g., the child may think, “If I act differently the abuse will stop”). As a result of the child’s fear and sense of helplessness, disclosure generally occurs long after the abuse and is characterized by indecisiveness and hesitation. This delayed, unconvincing disclosure can make the allegation appear fabricated, and the child may be further victimized by the disbelief and anger from adults who learn of the abuse. In response, the child’s accusation may be spontaneously retracted in an effort to repair the damage caused by the disclosure, or because the child is pressured to withdraw his or her claim.
It is critical for the long-term psychological health of victims that their experiences be validated and their innocence acknowledged. However, due to the confounding pattern of disclosure, the veracity of legitimate allegations is frequently disputed. Consequently, Summit developed the CSAAS with the goal of increasing awareness among treatment professionals as to why that pattern exists. Of note, the CSAAS was developed on the basis of legitimate sexual abuse; therefore, it cannot be used as a diagnostic tool to identify victims of CSA. Furthermore, there has been a general lack of empirical study of the CSAAS, and the few existing studies have yielded equivocal results. Thus, testimony regarding the CSAAS is controversial and is often inadmissible in court. Future research on this topic is clearly warranted.
- Summit, R. C. (1983). The child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome. Child Abuse & Neglect, 7, 177–193.
- Summit, R. C. (1992). Abuse of the child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 1(4), 153–163.
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