Will Know What to Say When a Child Tells?
Reporting child sexual abuse when you have a 'reasonable suspicion'.
Posted Jun 04, 2018
What if I am wrong? A common question. Should I report or not report? A common misstep. When there is reasonable suspicion of child sexual abuse, you must report your suspicions to the police or child protective services or both. But why do many adults fail to act —fail to do what is in the best interest of a child? State laws only require us to have ‘reasonable suspicion” which means that you do not need ‘proof’ that abuse is occurring to report. When you have a reasonable suspicion—you have witnessed physical or behavioral signs of maltreatment, either in a child or a parent, or both—OR—a child has told you—disclosed—they are being abused.
Making a good faith report—acting in the best interest of the child is the only way we can help victims receive treatment sooner. The promises for a better recovery from the trauma start with intervening immediately.
My three attempts at disclosing what was happening in my home failed terribly. I share them as a small case study as to how children are silenced. My first attempt was to tell a nun, Sister Catherine, who had noticed a bite mark on my neck. Sister Catherine bent down and placed her hands over mine in a prayer position, and gathered my nail-bitten fingers into her own. She stared at the mark just above the collar of my blouse. I knew how it looked, not just a red mark but not quite a bruise. I was embarrassed.
“What happened to your neck?” she asked.
I said nothing.
“Call her mother. Tell her to come to my office immediately,” she instructed another nun.
She asked me again, “Young lady, who did this to your neck?” I stared away at the blue-eyed, long-haired Jesus portrait that hung crooked on the green cement wall. Sister Catherine then snapped open her desk drawer and took out a pen and paper and said, “Write it down. The name of the person who did this to your neck.” I thought for a long time while she paced back and forth behind me. Soon enough my mother strutted into Sister Catherine’s office. She wore a bright yellow terrycloth short set with matching high heels. I flinched as soon as I saw my mother; her ‘don’t you dare say a word look’ caused me to drop the pen after I had written the name — Charlie Brown. Sister Catherine looked at the paper, rolled her eyes, then instructed my mother to follow her into to the hall. It was imperative that they talk — immediately. I heard my mother mumbling through the closed office door and watched Sister Catherine’s head shaking back and forth emphatically as she dismissed my mother’s words. Sister Catherine finally ended their conversation and, without lowering her voice, plainly said, “This is a serious situation and your attitude is not helping. I will expect you to address this situation at home and for this never to happen again.” My mother brought me home as if she were sick and plastered Band-Aids across my neck. I was sent to my room, where I spent the rest of the day, making Kleenex flowers; enough flowers to cover the entire comforter my sister had helped me sew together from two sheets for a Brownie badge.
The second time I tried to disclosed I told a friend, another eight year old girl. The next day we were playing, the little girl said her mother told her to tell me I should stop making up stories. I protested and said I wasn’t making it up—it was true. She replied, my mother said you are too happy, you wouldn’t be so happy if you were being hurt.
And the third time, I was a fourteen year old teen. I had run away and was taken in by my boyfriend’s parents. His mother was a kind, sympathetic social worker. However after I shared with her why I had runaway, she told me to never repeat what I told her to anyone—ever! I would end up in foster care—all the children would—and that is worse than being home. My experiences as a child and my research as an adult helps me make the following recommendations.
When a child tells you that they are being abused they need, at minimal, these five things from you:
1) Patience. Please don't rush us to tell you our story. We need time and patience. The story may not come out all at once—it may take hours, days, weeks, months, years. We are processing the trauma as we tell. We are grieving as we tell. We are angry as we tell. We are hearing the words come from our mouths for the first time—and we are afraid of being judged, shamed, silenced, not believed. Do not ask us questions about the abuse. Let us tell you when we are ready.
2) Listen with composure. What do we mean by composure? We mean sit comfortably, refrain from making comments with your expressions such as widening your eyes, covering your mouth with your hands—just listen. Ask us if you can hold our hand, or put your hand on our shoulder. Ask us open ended questions like “then what happened?”
3) Keep our space private and quiet. Ask if we are comfortable? Do we need a glass of water? tea? Are we hot? cold? Ask us if we feel safe? If not, where would we feel safer?
4) Offer compassion, not pity. Offer support, not drama. Tell us you believe us. Tell us you will get us help. Tell us we are not alone. Tell us you care.
5) Keep our story confidential until it is safe for you to report it to authorities. Don’t tell anyone else without asking us first. Ask us, may I share what you told me with___? Don’t make the problem about the us—it is our problem—say something like, “I will get us the help we need.”
When you do make a good faith report to authorities about child sexual abuse, it is helpful to have the following information ready:
Name and age of child
Where the child lives
Where the offender lives
Types of abuse you are suspicious of
When you report a known case of child sexual abuse, it is helpful to have the following information ready:
Date, time, and location the child told you about the abuse
Dates and times you suspected abuse, if there were any
The name of the perpetrator and if they are aware that the child told you
The name of the non-offending parents, if they are non-offenders
And finally, safety first when reporting child sexual abuse. Don’t contact any household members that live with the child. This could put you and the child’s safety at risk. Remember 90% of child sexual abuse happens with people know to the family or a family member. It is broken down like this: 30% of children are abused by family members and as many as 60% are abused by a person the family knows and trusts.