Sometimes, a child/youth might self-disclose an abusive situation to an adult in your organization. These disclosures can be direct, where the child or youth self-identifies as the victim, or more indirect, where the child/youth describes the situation as though it is happening to someone else and is asking for advice about helping the “friend.”
If faced with an abuse disclosure by a child/youth, you might feel at a loss about what to say. Research indicates that the adult response to a child’s/youth’s disclosure can have an impact on their recovery, so it’s vital to communicate that you are very glad that they told you, that you believe them, and that they are not to blame. Whether or not you believe the story the child/youth has told, they have told you for a reason. Until you know why, the child/youth must feel believed (the number of false reports by children/youth are negligible). It may also help the child if you communicate that this happens to other children, and they are not alone. Of course, a direct disclosure from a child/youth requires an immediate report to the Department of Children and Families (DCF) and/or to law enforcement or the Child Advocate.
Should the child’s parents be notified about the intention to report?
The issue of how and when to involve parents, especially if it is the parents who are suspected of the abuse or neglect, is always difficult. If the family is told before DCF gets involved, it is always possible that the child/youth could be further harmed before any protection is in place. Although families will sometimes remove children from the organization or flee the area, professionals argue that a family who is told that a report is being made can also be helped to recognize that reporting is a helping, rather than a punitive, gesture. If your organization has a good relationship with the family, this is especially true. However, it is characteristic of abusive and neglectful families to isolate themselves—and that makes it more difficult to predict how they will react to a report to the authorities.
When in doubt, it would be best to call DCF and ask for their direction. The bottom line is that the immediate protection of the child/youth must always be your primary concern.
Guidelines for disclosures
Here are some additional guidelines to help you talk with a child who discloses abuse:
- Do not let the child/youth “swear you to secrecy” before telling you something. You may need to report.
- If a child/youth asks to speak with you, try to find a neutral setting where you can have quiet and few interruptions.
- Do not lead the child/youth in telling their story. Just listen, and let them explain what happened in their own words. Do not pressure them for a great amount of detail.
- Respond calmly and matter-of-factly. Even if the story is difficult to hear, it is important not to register disgust or alarm.
- Avoid making judgmental comments about the abuser. It is often someone the child or youth loves or with whom they are close.
- Reassure the child/youth that they are not at fault. Children/youth often feel (or are told) that they are to blame for their own maltreatment and for bringing “trouble” to the family.
- Do not make promises to the child/youth that things will immediately get better. In reality, things may get worse before they get better, but conveying this to the child or youth may cause greater anxiety.
- Do not confront the abuser. This may cause more harm to the child/youth.
- Ask the child/youth if they feel safe going home. If they do not, or if you believe that it isn’t safe for the child/youth to return home, this should be considered an emergency and handled immediately by contacting DCF and/or the local police department. Do not take the situation into your own hands. Provisions for the child’s/youth’s safety should be made by an appropriate agency.
- Respect the child’s/youth’s confidence and limit the number of people with whom you share the information. The child’s/youth’s privacy should be protected.
- Explain to the child/youth that you must tell someone else in order to get some help. Try to let the child/youth know that someone else may also need to talk with them and explain why.
- Assure the child/youth that you or another staff member will be available for support whenever possible. 1
Remember that children and youth who disclose are often frightened or anxious and will need reassurance, encouragement, and support in the weeks following disclosure. DCF staff can help guide everyone concerned about how to provide this support.
1 Crosson-Tower, C. (2003). The Role of Educators in Preventing and Responding to Child Abuse and Neglect. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
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