If a child breaks an arm or runs a high fever, you know to stay calm and where to seek help because you've mentally prepared yourself. Reacting to child sexual abuse is the same.
When you react to disclosure with anger or disbelief, the child will likely:
- Feel even more ashamed and guilty.
- Shut down.
- Change or retract the story, when, in fact, abuse is actually occurring.
- Change the story to match your questions so future tellings appear to be "coached." This can be very harmful if the case goes to court.
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Very few reported incidents of child sexual abuse are false.
Think through your response before you react. You'll be able to respond in a more supportive manner.
- Believe the child and make sure the child knows it.
- Thank the child for telling you and praise the child's courage.
- Encourage the child to talk, but don't ask leading questions about details. Asking about details can alter the child's memory of events. If you must ask questions to keep the child talking, ask open-ended ones like "What happened next?"
- Seek the help of a professional who is trained to interview the child about sexual abuse. Professional guidance could be critical to the child's healing and to any criminal prosecution.
- Assure the child that it's your responsibility to protect him or her and that you'll do all you can.
- Report or take action in all cases of suspected abuse, both inside and outside the immediate family.
- Don't panic. Sexually abused children who receive support and psychological help can and do heal.
Try not to show anger toward the offender, who may be someone the child loves. You can add to the child's burden by showing how upset you are.
DISCOVERY of sexual abuse means you've witnessed a sexually abusive act by an adult or youth with a child, or you know by some other means that abuse has taken place.
Report your discovery immediately to law enforcement.
- Tell the child's name and where he or she lives.
- Tell where you are at the present time, where the child is, and where the offender is, if known.
- Tell what the child said to you.
- Tell what interactions you saw between the alleged offender and the child.
- Tell what other behaviors, if any, you've observed in the alleged offender.
- Tell what signs in the child you've seen.
- Tell what access the alleged offender has to the child.
And remember, if you discover child pornography, you've discovered sexual abuse. Child pornography is illegal.
SUSPICION of sexual abuse means you've seen signs in a child, or you've witnessed boundary violations by adults or other youth toward a child.
Set limits. Ask questions.
If you are a "bystander" who witnesses a boundary violation, or sees a situation in which a child is vulnerable, it's not important to know the intentions of the person who crossed the boundary. What is important is that you reinforce the boundary - even if you are in front of others, or in a public setting.
Describe the behavior
"It's against policy for you to be in the classroom alone with a student."
Set a limit
"You need to take your conversation to the student lounge."
"I'm on my way there, now, so I'll walk with you."
Offenders are rarely caught in the act of abusing a child, but they're often seen breaking rules and pressing boundaries.
Child sexual abuse is a crime.
Know the the policies for reporting disclosures, discoveries, and suspicion in your organization.
- All 50 states require that professionals who work with children report reasonable suspicions of child abuse. Some states require that anyone with suspicions report it. Information about each state's requirements is available at the Child Welfare Information Gateway www.childwelfare.gov.
- If you are a professional who works with children (e.g., a teacher; a nurse), there are special procedures and reporting requirements you must follow. Your employer should provide mandated reporting training.
Know the agencies that handle reports of abuse.
Two agencies handle most reports of child abuse: Child Protective Services (in some states this agency has a different name) and law enforcement.
Some states designate Child Protective Services as the agency that accepts reports of suspected child abuse. Others designate law enforcement. Some do not designate or designate both. Many states have toll-free lines that accept reports of abuse from the entire state. To find out where to make a report in your state, identify the Child Abuse Reporting Numbers at The Child Welfare Information Gateway website, www.childwelfare.gov.
If the legal system does not provide adequate protection for a child, visit the National Center for Victims of Crime at www.ncvc.org or call 1-800-FYI-CALL for referral information.