Children can be hard to communicate with, and depending on their age it can be difficult to understand what they are trying to tell us. That is why when a child comes to you (an adult) and speaks to you about their abuse, it is crucial to listen to what the child has to say and to act in a way that lets the child know they are safe.
It is important that adults react responsibly to a disclosure or suspicion of child abuse. If you suspect that a child may have been abused or is at risk for abuse, it is not up to you to try and prove your suspicions. Trying to do this may contaminate or ruin the investigation and may put the child at further risk. If you suspect a child is being or has been abused or if a child/adult discloses abuse, you must report this information to a child protection agency and/or the police.
Do's and Don'ts of disclosure
If you have seen or heard something that makes you suspect child abuse, it is important to remember the following:
1. Control your emotions
Try to be calm and relaxed.
Do not look shocked, disgust or say mean thing about who you think may have abused the child
- If you feel that you cannot control your feelings, call your supervisor or a trusted friend to talk.
2. Remain calm and composed
Children can mistake or interpret anger or disgust as directed towards them. It is important to remember that you are not angry with them, but at what happened, so remain calm and composed.
- Encourage the child to talk in his/her language and ask just enough questions to act protectively.
- Say,"Can you tell me more about that?"
- Do not conduct any form of an interview with the child.
3. Believe the child
- The majority of children do not lie about abuse. Let the child know you believe them and want to get them help.
- Allow the child to talk.
4. Explain it's not their fault
- Make sure the child knows it is in no way their fault.
5. Give positive messages and support the child
- Reinforce how proud you are of the child for telling you. Reassure them with positive reinforcements such as:
- "I know you couldn't help what happened."
- "You were very brave to tell."
- "I'm glad you are telling me about this."
- "I'm sorry that this has happened to you."
- "You are not alone. This happens to other children too."
- "I will do everything I can to help."
- "I am here to love and support you."
- "I want you to tell me the truth. It won't make me mad, shocked, or embarrassed."
6. Answer honestly
- Be a good listener not an investigator. Answer the child's questions honestly -this may be tough but it is important that you do
7. Respect the child's privacy
Let the child know you will respect their confidentiality by not discussing the abuse except to those directly involved in the legal process. Do not discuss the abuse in front of people who do not need to know what happened. Do not push the child to give details, instead leave that to the professionals -they will know how to handle it.
Once you recognize the disclosure that the child has made, the child must feel that you believe him/her and that they can confide in you and you will help them. Just remember - breaking the silence is a huge step for the child. Remember to stay calm during the disclosure and do not ask any leading questions or questions that may make the child think you are doubting him/her.
8. Keep a stable environment
Although the child has been through a traumatic experience, do not change the rules for them -the most important thing they need right now is stability.
9. Take action and report to the Department of Health and Human Services and/or Law Enforcement
As an adult, it is your duty to report the incident. Michigan law requires that any person that in certain professions with regular access to children who know or has reason to suspect that a child has been abused must report it to local Law Enforcement authorities and/or to the Department of Health and Human Services. Reporting does not mean that you are certain that abuse has occurred. Reporting abuse or suspected abuse is simply a request for professionals to investigate further.
1. Do NOT overreact or panic
- When discussing the experience with the child, do not let your emotions get the best of you. It is important for you to remain calm and composed. Children need help and support to make it through this difficult time.
2. Do NOT pressure for details
- Do not pressure the child to talk and do not avoid talking about the abuse. Let the child talk at his or her own pace -forcing information can be harmful.
3. Do NOT confront the offender
- Leave this task to the authorities. It is your job to be a support system for the child.
4. Do NOT make promises you can't keep
- Do not promise you will not tell anyone, as you need to tell someone in order to get help for the child.
5. Do NOT blame the child
- NEVER, EVER blame the child or minimize the situation. Abuse is never the child's fault.
Signs of a disclosure
Less often do children come to you in private and tell you specifically what is going on, which is why it is important to know the signs of a disclosure when they do happen. One of the more common ways children disclose is through indirect hints.
"My babysitter keeps bothering me." or "Mr. Jones wears funny underwear."
Usually a child uses this form of hinting because he or she hasn't learned the specific vocabulary. He/she may feel ashamed or embarrassed to talk about it directly; or the child has promised not to tell. Sometimes it is a combination of these reasons. If you notice this behavior, gently encourage the child to be more specific. It is important to bear in mind the limits of his or her vocabulary; he or she might not be able to explain exactly what is happening.
Additionally, the child may disguise the disclosure
"I know someone who is being touched in a bad way." or "What would happen if a girl told her mother she was being molested but her mother didn't believe her?"
The child might be talking about a friend or sibling, but it is just as likely that they are talking about themselves. Encourage the child to tell you what they know about the "other child."
Often the offender uses threats to force a child to remain silent, so the child may disclose with strings attached
"I have a problem but if I tell you about it you have to promise not to tell anyone."
When this happens it is important to let the child know it is not their fault. Tell the child you believe them and want to get them help. In order to do so, you need to make a confidential report to safe grown-ups who can help. You will respect their need for confidentiality so you will not discuss the abuse with anyone except to those directly involved in the legal process.
Another sign to watch for is if a child has explicit knowledge beyond their years.
A child talks about the appearance of body parts, how they taste, smell, or feel.
These can be indicators something else is going on. Be sure to gently ask the child more questions. As parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and adults, it is our responsibility to protect children.
IF YOU SUSPECT ABUSE, CALL CENTRALIZED INTAKE, 855-444-3911 , RIGHT AWAY. IT IS NOT YOUR RESPONSIBILITY TO INVESTIGATE ABUSE, INTERVIEW THE CHILD OR GET ALL THE FACTS. JUST CONTACT THE AUTHORITIES WITH YOUR SUSPICION SO THAT CHILDREN AND FAMILIES GET THE SUPPORT AND CARE THEY NEED. IF A CHILD IS IN IMMEDIATE DANGER, ALSO CALL 911.