What to Do
If you suspect your child or another child is being abused or
neglected, he/she needs your help, understanding, and comfort. Your reaction
is extremely important. The research indicates that the response of the individual
hearing the childs disclosure is a key factor in the childs post-abuse
Respond supportively. If a child tells you he/she is being sexually abused, be supportive and let the child know that you are taking his/her statements seriously, even if you are having difficulty believing that the childs statements are accurate/true. It is important to understand that it is often very difficult for a child to disclosure abuse. Reassure the child that he/she did the right thing by telling you and that you will try to help.
Remain calm. While it is natural to feel anger, shock, horror and/or disgust, it is important not to display these emotions in front of your child. Children do not like to upset their parents/caregivers and are likely to take back their statements in order to lessen a parents distress or because they believe you are angry at them, or that they are to blame for allowing the alleged abuse to occur. Remember no matter how much abuse prevention information has been provided to the child, no child can stop a bigger and stronger child, an adolescent, or an adult from abusing them if that it the stronger, more powerful individuals wish.
Do not jump to conclusions. A child may tell you about a situation or experience that sounds inappropriate, but may turn out to have been harmless or developmentally appropriate. Do not act too hastily as this may get in the way of protecting your child in the long run.
Do not press the child for details about the abuse if he or she does not volunteer them. This is extremely difficult as it is human nature to want to find out what may have happened to your child. It is often necessary for a parent/caregiver to try and get some basic details in order to make an informed decision as to what action needs to be taken. It is important to ask only open-ended questions such as Can you tell me what happened? This question can be followed up with And then what happened? Suggestive questioning may result in a child providing inaccurate information since children, especially very young children, feel obligated to answer questions asked by adults. It is in your childs best interest to be interviewed as soon as possible by a professional with expertise in interviewing children suspected of having been sexually abused. There is usually a significant wait for sexual abuse evaluations, in particular, as not that many professionals conduct them. It is in your childs best interest to minimize the number of interviews (although this is not always possible) as it may be traumatic for your child to be repeatedly asked to talk about the alleged abuse.
Do not promise secrecy.
It is important to tell the child that you may need to involve other people
to help, but that you will not tell anyone who does not need to know.
Reassure the child that you are not angry. While it is tempting to tell the child that the abuse is not his/her fault, many children feel that it is their fault. To repeatedly communicate something contrary to the childs own belief may result in the child feeling that you simply dont understand. If your child is self-blaming simply tell him/her that you do not think he/she is at fault and you hope that someday he/she comes to understand that he/she is not to blame.
Try to protect the child from further abuse: If possible, temporarily suspend contact with the alleged abuser if possible. Creating a safer environment conveys to the child that he/she made the right decision by coming to you. If, however, there is a probate visitation order that allows for contact between the child and the alleged abuser, you will have to approach the court or your attorney if you have one. You cannot simply violate a court order. You can also ask DSS for advice.
RECOMMENDATIONS SPECIFIC TO SUSPECTED SEXUAL ABUSE
Do not under any circumstances confront the alleged perpetrator of the sexual abuse regardless of whether the alleged abuser is a child, adolescent or adult. This is one of the most common and costly mistakes a parent or caregiver can make. It is important to obtain as much information from the alleged child victim as possible before confronting the alleged perpetrator. To confront the alleged perpetrator [even it if is another child in the family or extended family] is to possibly place the child at further risk and compromise the systems ability to help your child. You may also be putting yourself in jeopardy. If the alleged abuser has access to the child, possibly pressure will be brought to bear on the child to take back his/her statements and the child will possibly give in to the pressure. This may result in the perpetrator having continued contact and causing further harm to the child. It is not the parents responsibility to confront the alleged perpetrator. That is the responsibility of the child protection system or the police.
The circumstances/context of a sexual abuse allegation determine the model of intervention. While the following steps are recommended, each case is unique and you may need consultation regarding how to proceed. If you are in the process of divorce, divorced, or if there is an existing probate order for visitation between your child and the alleged abuser [possibly paternity has been established], the only appropriate model of intervention is a court-ordered sexual abuse evaluation. It is very important to tell the court about your concerns and request that the court appoint a neutral evaluator to conduct the sexual abuse evaluation using the appropriate evaluation model.
Contact the childs pediatrician or local child protection agency (Department of Social Services) and request consultation regarding the best course of action in your particular case. DO NOT DELAY! Any unwillingness on the part of a parent/caregiver to entertain the possibility that abuse might have occurred can only make matters worse and possibly compromise your childs chances of safety and for dealing with the aftereffects of the alleged abuse.
If the alleged sexual abuse has occurred within the last 72 hours, your pediatrician may recommend that you take your child to a hospital emergency room so that cultures can be taken in order to determine the presence of a sexually transmitted disease [STD]. Once 72 hours have elapsed, it is not possible to do these cultures so time is of the essence. Otherwise you should request that your pediatrician examine the child. It is important to note that while most children known to have been sexually abused have normal medical examination, it is very reassuring to both parents and children to learn that the medical examination was normal.
It is in the childs best interest for representatives of the formal intervention system (DSS, District Attorneys Office) to conduct the initial interviews with your child. This is because there is extensive research in the area of interviewing children for suspected sexual abuse that has documented that multiple interviews, at times, can confuse/contaminate information provided by children for a variety of reasons, and this may compromise the systems ability to protect your child down the line. As well, in Massachusetts, DSS and the DAs offices work collaborative and have set up a coordinated intervention called a SAIN [Sexual Abuse Investigative Network] interview whereby an individual trained as a forensic child interviewer interviews the child while other professionals who have a need for information view the interview from behind a one way mirror.
SAIN is an acronym for the Sexual Abuse Investigation Network in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. These interviews may have other names in other states. The acronym SAIN must not be confused with a similar acronym, SANE (Sexual Abuse Nurse Examiner). The SAIN interview is videotaped and the data is preserved for future use by the legal system. Allowing your child to participate in a SAIN interview does not mean that you are agreeing to prosecution.
Has my child been sexually abused? Learning that your child may have been sexually abused is traumatic for any parent/caregiver. Be sure to seek support/consultation for yourself. Many parents naturally have strong reactions to such a challenging situation and it can be extremely importantto obtain counseling in such circumstances.
Sexual Abuse Evaluation vs. Therapy: Not all children are able to comply with the verbal format that the forensic interviewers are obliged to utilize during a SAIN interview, especially very young children. If your child is unable to participate, he/she may be able to do so in the future. Some children are better served by having a sexual abuse evaluation conducted by a mental health professional trained to interview children suspected of having been sexually abused. Not only are they trained to obtain the information in a non-leading, non-suggestive manner like the forensic interviewer, but the evaluation will have a broader focus than just finding out what happened including how your child seems to have been affected by the abuse experience. The evaluator will likely recommend the type of treatment most effective in remediating the trauma.
Therapy or Counseling: While your child is likely to benefit from the services of a mental health professional in terms of counseling/psychotherapy, to simply take your child to a mental health professional for counseling before knowing whether or not he/she has been sexually abused is premature. A knowledgeable therapist is unlikely to take a child on for treatment without knowing what he/she is being asked to treat. Therapy is not usually the best way to obtain information regarding suspected sexual abuse and interviews by a therapist not trained in forensic interviewing are likely to confuse the data and compromise the systems ability to protect your child.
Maintain/Restore Childs Daily Routines. Try to restore daily routines that are familiar to your child. This type of structure can be very reassuring to your child and conveys that life goes on as before. Concerns regarding abuse often result in a dramatically changed circumstances in a childs life. Anticipate that your child may very well take back his/her statements in response to these changed circumstances and or changed nature of relationships with faily members. The research indicates that retracting statements is common during the process of disclosure.
Respect your child s
privacy. The older the child the more concerned he/she may be about other
people finding out about the alleged abuse, especially peers. It is essential
that friends and relatives respect your childs privacy as well. Do not
share information unnecessarily. They may only need to know that the child had
a bad or traumatic experience and that you are dealing with it. If friends or
relatives are to play a role insuring the childs safety, only provide
them with enough detail to facilitate their role in keeping the child safe unless
you have good reason to think your child could benefit if this person knew more
information and that the information would be kept confidential.
Contact your local child protection agency. For DSS phone numbers in Massachusetts, click here. For toll-free child abuse hotlines in other states, click here or call the national toll-free ChildHelpUSA hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453).
The American Academy of Pediatrics(1) suggests the following:
If you suspect your child has been abused, get help immediately through your pediatrician or a local child protective agency. Physicians are legally obligated to report all suspected cases of abuse or neglect to state authorities. Your pediatrician also will detect and treat any medical injuries or ailments, recommend a therapist and provide necessary information to investigators. The doctor also may testify in court if necessary to obtain legal protection for the child or criminal prosecution of a sexual abuse suspect. Criminal prosecution is rarely sought in mild physical abuse cases but is likely in those involving sexual abuse.
Your child will benefit from the services of a qualified mental health professional if he has been abused. You and other members of the family may be advised to seek counseling so that youll be able to provide the support and comfort your child needs. If someone in your family is responsible for the abuse, a mental health professional may be able to successfully treat that person as well.
If your child has been abused, you may be the only person who can help him. There is no good reason to delay reporting your suspicions of abuse. Denying the problem will only make the situation worse, allowing the abuse to continue unchecked and decreasing your childs chance for a full recovery.
The following are steps you should take in the days and weeks after finding out about abuse:
Seek out counseling for your child, yourself, and other members of your family from a social worker, psychologist, pastoral counselor, or other mental health professional. This is extremely important for your childs recovery.
Make sure to seek out support
for yourself - dont hesitate to ask for professional help. You cannot
help your child if you are too upset yourself.
Try to follow normal routines around the house. Your child may need reassurance that he or she is still the same person as before.
Make sure other family members and friends respect your childs privacy. They do not need to know explicit details - just that the child has had a bad experience and is now safe. Give enough information to other children in the family or neighborhood to ensure their safety, but let your child lead the way in talking about what has happened to him or her.
Note that children may take back their disclosure of abuse after seeing the consequences of telling. Remember that children usually do not make up stories about abuse to begin with; they are much more likely to try to deny it afterwards out of fear.
The following is a list of DSS phone numbers in Massachusetts. When calling to make a report, please ask for the Protective Screening Unit. These offices are open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. At any other time, please call the Child-At-Risk Hotline at 1-800-792-5200.
The following is a list of State toll-free child abuse reporting numbers.(2) For States not listed, or when the reporting party resides in a different State than the child, you can call 800-4-A-Child (800-422-4453) or your local DSS agency.
(1) American Academy of Pediatrics Medical Library. Child Abuse and Neglect. 2000.
(2) National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information. (February 2002). State Toll-Free Child Abuse Reporting Numbers Resource Listing. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.