No single state or federal agency manages children with sexual behavior problems. Sometimes child protective services (or child welfare) are involved. Sometimes law enforcement is involved. Some states have other agencies who oversee cases of children with sexual behavior problems. Each state has different regulations, policies, and rules for governing how it will address cases of children who have demonstrated such problems. The information below provides general guidelines regarding these agencies.

Child Protective Services

Every state in the union has child abuse and neglect reporting laws as well as Child Protective Services that are required to investigate suspected abuse and to protect children. Many children with sexual behavior problems, particularly preschool-age children, have experienced trauma, including child abuse. First and foremost, these children must be protected from further harm. Child Protective Services are provided by the state and are charged with protecting children from child maltreatment, including child sexual abuse, physical abuse, neglect, and emotional abuse. For children who are American Indian or Alaska Native, Indian Child Welfare is required to be involved in child protective matters.

In most states, child protective services address child abuse and neglect by a caregiver. In general (but it differs by state and jurisdiction), child protective services will investigate cases in which a child has demonstrated a sexual behavior problem when:

  • there is reason to suspect that one or more children involved in the sexual behavior may have also been abused by a caregiver;
  • a caregiver has been aware of the sexual behavior problems and has not taken protective actions to prevent future sexual behaviors;
  • a child with sexual behavior problems needs appropriate treatment, and the caregiver fails to enroll and participate in such services (particularly when the youth has demonstrated aggressive, coercive, and/or repeated sexual behavior problems); and
  • the caregiver is not providing appropriate protection and safety measures, due to such things as substance abuse or domestic violence.
  • The sexual behavior demonstrated by the child is considered harmful or abusive.

For information about reporting suspected child abuse and neglect see

In these cases, Child Protective Services will conduct an assessment or an investigation. An assessment is designed to identify service needs of the family and link them with supports. An investigation is initiated in the more severe or risky cases, and is designed to determine if abuse or neglect has occurred so that needed safety measures can be taken. Assessments and investigations often include interviews of the children, caregivers, and other involved adults. The investigation may also include an assessment of the safety and risk factors in the home environment.

Some jurisdictions use Child-Advocacy Centers to conduct interviews with the children. Child-Advocacy Centers are child-friendly environments and have specially trained interviewers who typically work in conjunction with child protective services, law enforcement, and district attorneys.

The results of the investigation and child protective services’ response can vary depending on the case, situation, and jurisdiction. Possible results and responses may determine one or more of the following:

  • Child abuse and neglect are not confirmed, but services are recommended. A specific treatment program may be recommended by child protective services.
  • The children involved in the sexual behavior problems were themselves victims of child abuse. If so, safety measures will be required. If the person who was the abuser is in the home (such as the father, the aunt, or someone else), that person may be required to leave the residence. Another option is that the child may be placed in foster care or in a kinship care home.
  • The caregiver “failed to protect” the children involved. These are cases in which child protective services believe that a caregiver knew about the sexual behavior problems or other risky situations and failed to act to protect the child. Responses can range from close monitoring and requiring services to the removal of the children from the home and the placement of the children in protective custody. Sometimes the state/Child Protective Services may remove all the children. At other times, just the child with the sexual behavior problems will be required to live in a home separate from his/her siblings. The caregiver would then be given a treatment plan to complete, to demonstrate that the caregiver has the capability to protect the children.
  • The caregiver was neglectful when failing to find and participate in needed mental health or behavioral health services for a child with sexual behavior problems. If the caregiver is required to follow through with services, but fails to, the child may be removed from that adult’s care and placed elsewhere to receive the required services.
    Having Child Protective Services involved with your family can be somewhat intimidating, due in ‘ part to your level of uncertainty about what could happen. But the service’s goal is the same as your goal, which is to keep your children safe from harm. With education, advocacy, and support, a partnership can be developed with Child Protective Services to help your children. Here are some recommendations to help with this process:
  • Advocate that your children and family receive the types of treatment found to be most effective (see link).
  • Develop a support network that will provide a safety team for your children and provide you with emotional support.
  • Directly address any personal matters that would interfere with your ability to provide the types of supervision and parenting your children need, such as treatment for depression, substance abuse, or violence in the home or community.
  • Advocate that all caregivers provide a safe and caring environment that meets the needs all children.
  • Advocate for a lawyer who knows your child’s rights and understands and supports the best interests of your children and you.
  • Communicate regularly with the Child Protective Services worker assigned to your family. If you have problems with communication with that person, contact the worker’s supervisor.
  • If you disagree with the findings of the Child Protective Services investigation, you can appeal. Every state is required to have an appeals process for caregivers.
Legal System

The legal system may become involved with families of children with problematic sexual behaviors in a variety of ways. If Child Protective Services are involved and confirm child abuse or neglect, then the children and caregivers will likely be involved in the court system. States refer to this court with different names, but often it is called Family Court. Cases involving Child Protective Services may include a treatment plan for the family will be issued through the court. The family will be seen in court in front of the judge periodically (perhaps monthly, or every three or six months) until enough progress has been made that the case can be closed. 

The juvenile justice system can also be involved with families of children with problematic sexual behaviors through law enforcement and juvenile services. This involvement may happen in cases where older youths (such as 11- or 12-year-olds, but sometimes younger) act out sexually with much younger children, particularly in cases where force, coercion, or aggression is used or in cases where the sexual behavior is explicit and intrusive (such as intercourse). In these cases, law enforcement may conduct an investigation that involves the interviewing of all children and adults potentially involved in the situation. Law enforcement will also conduct examinations of the scene or collect other evidence. States can charge juveniles with sexual offenses, but each state differs with regard to the age group to which juvenile statutes apply. Some states have applied juvenile statutes to children as young as 7 years old, but states more typically have an age limit of no less than 10 years of age. 

After finding that a youth has committed a sexual offense, the legal system may respond to these cases in one of the following ways: 

  • postponing charging the child if the youth participates in services, and then dropping charges upon completion of the program; 
  • charging the child with a sexual offense, placing the child on probation, and requiring service participation; or 
  • charging the child with a sexual offense and placing the child in a juvenile facility. 

Some states are now placing youths (mostly adolescents) with sexual-offense histories on public sex offender registries on the internet. It is important for caregivers to educate themselves about the registry laws in their own state. The Task Force Committee on Children with Problematic Sexual Behaviors from the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers reports that registering children and publicly labeling them as sex offenders for life puts the children themselves at risk of significant harm that can range from educational discrimination and rejection to ostracism and vigilantism. No broad public protection is provided by the registration of children because children with problematic sexual behaviors simply are not a high-risk group, especially if provided with appropriate treatment. The full report of the Task Force can be found on the publications page of their Web site (  

Tips to Remember
1 Each state has different regulations, policies, and rules for addressing problematic sexual behavior of children.
2 It is not unusual for Child Protective Services to become involved to investigate the safety and assess the well-being of all the children involved.
3 Juvenile services may be involved with older children with problematic sexual behaviors.