The Catholic University of America

Exploring the Phenomenological Experience of Child Sexual Abuse in Deaf Women through the Creation  of a Sandtray World


Dr. Beth G. Betman


Child sexual abuse is a multi-faceted societal phenomenon that creates a multitude of concerns for the social work profession. It is well documented that child sexual abuse can be traumatic and can lead to serious psychosocial problems in adulthood (Finkelhor & Browne, 1985; Gil, 2006; Knell, 1983, Lumly & Harkness, 2007; Sgroi, 1982).  Multiple studies have shown that deaf children are at particularly high risk for child sexual abuse (Dobosh, 1999; Dube, 2011; Embry, 2000; Sullivan & Knutson, 2000; Willis, Vernon, & Scanlon, 1987: Willis & Vernon, 2002).  Yet, there is a paucity of research on this topic with this population. This phenomenological, exploratory study investigated the “lived experience” of Deaf women who were sexually abused as children and perceived posttraumatic growth that may have come out of the experience. Data were collected through participant’s creation of a sandtray world.  The data were analyzed using Moustakas’ five-step approach to phenomenological research.  The conceptual framework for the study was Jungian theory, Sandtray theory, and Posttraumatic Growth. Data analysis revealed the following themes on the experience of child sexual abuse with these adult Deaf women: 1) the need to feel safe; 2) the experience of dysfunctional behavioral and social relationships; 3) the importance of supportive relationships in surviving the abuse; and 4) the perceived presence of posttraumatic growth.  Despite the presence of emotional scars, all participants saw their abuse as a part of their life’s journey, making them who they are today.  In contrast to existing scholarship and research, none of the participants in this study identified being Deaf as the reason for their abuse, or as a hindrance in disclosure or receiving appropriate services. There is a vast need for more research to understand the experience of Deaf individuals who have experienced child sexual abuse, the potential for posttraumatic growth, and the potential of sandtray to expand options for alternative evaluation and intervention approaches with this population. The findings of this study help inform social workers, who provide services to Deaf individuals, about a more syntonic evaluation and treatment modality for addressing a sensitive topic with a vulnerable population.