Why Children May Not Disclose
Only about 10% of children who are abused will tell an adult during their childhood. Of these, 75% disclose accidentally. For example, while talking with a friend about what they do before bedtime, they may tell their friend something that is concerning, and their friend may tell a parent.
Children may not disclose for a variety of reasons. They may:
- be afraid of not being believed or of being judged
- be ashamed, embarrassed about, or feel responsible for the abuse
- have been threatened by the abuser
- not want to lose any perceived benefits
- not know who they can tell
- be afraid of what will happen if they tell
- not recognize they have been abused
Although we cannot force children to disclose abuse, we can act in ways that may increase the likelihood that they will disclose. This includes:
- Maintaining open and honest communication with the child
- Communicating that children are never responsible for abuse
- Making sure children have the words they need to describe situations that make them feel uncomfortable (i.e. anatomically correct terms for body parts)
Responding to a Disclosure
When responding to disclosures of child sexual abuse it is important to remember a few key things both for the well-being of the child and to maintain the strength of a potential investigation.
- Let the child describe what happened in her or his own words. If you need to ask questions, carefully select your words so as to allow the child to talk freely (“Tell me about that”, or “What is the ‘pee-wee game’ you mentioned?”). Do not ask questions that suggest a particular answer (“Is the ‘pee-wee game’ something that involves playing with your private parts?” “Is this something your daddy showed you?”) Use the child’s own words and avoid correcting the child or substituting your own words (such as using the words “private parts” or “penis” if the child says “pee-wee”). If a word is ambiguous, such as “noodle” or “pee-wee”, ask the child to tell you what s/he means by that word.
- Gather only the minimum amount of information necessary to meet the threshold of reasonable suspicion. Multiple interviews are not only painful for the child but may also be used to weaken the child’s case if it goes to court.
- Maintain a calm demeanor. Avoid showing embarrassment, disgust, anger or shock. These strong emotions may scare a child, make a child feel that s/he is in trouble, or send the message that what happened was bad, dirty, wrong, and shouldn’t be talked about.
- Believe the child. It is extremely damaging for a child who is telling the truth to be dismissed or disbelieved; moreover, research indicates that false reporting is very rare. For these reasons, maintaining a posture of belief is critical. It is the responsibility of investigators to determine if abuse has occurred.
- Reassure the child. Children often feel shame or guilt about the abuse. It is critical that you reassure the child by telling her or him “It took a lot of courage for you to tell me about this. I’m glad you told me and I want you to know that what happened was not your fault.”
- Respond. While children are often apprehensive about what will happen after they disclose, it is important to demonstrate that adults care and are willing to take steps to protect them. Be honest and up-front with the child about your requirement to respond and about the steps you will take. Assuring a child that you will keep the content of a disclosure a secret can lead to broken promises and a further betrayal of the child’s trust in adults.
Additionally, remember to seek support for yourself if you need it.
Adapted from the Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault, Inc. 2005. Best Practices in Sexual Violence Prevention Education
Reporting Incidents of Suspected Abuse in Vermont
In Vermont, reports of child abuse are made to the Department of Children and Families by calling (800) 649-5285 - 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Some professionals are mandated reporters and are legally required to report suspected abuse within 24 hours.
When you call DCF, a social worker will ask you questions about the situation and record the information you provide. It is helpful to have as much information as possible including: the names of the child’s parents/caretakers; the child’s name, date of birth, home address, school or child care facility; and the nature and extent of your suspicion of abuse/neglect.
If you are unsure whether to make a report you can also call for advice on your situation.
Please see the DCF Flyer on Reporting for more information.