Responding to a Child’s Report of Abuse

from Preventing Child Abuse (fourth edition) by Beth A. Swagman

An important factor in a child’s ability to recover is the reaction of the person the child tells about the abuse. As responsible adults, what do we say and do? The following suggestions may help you and the child cope with a disclosure.

    • Believe what they are telling you. Children rarely lie about abuse.
    • Listen. Go to a private place away from the distractions of other children, TV, and so on. Let them tell their story in their own words. If the child has difficulty verbalizing, drawing pictures or using dolls might help.
    • Do not ask “why” questions because they tend to lay blame on the child (for example, “why didn’t you run away?”). Make sure the child knows that it is not his or her fault.
    • Remain calm. The child will believe that your anger, shock, or horror is directed at him or her.
    • Don’t ask the child to show you any bruises that are beneath his or her clothing or underwear; simply note the bruises that aren’t concealed.
    • Reassure the child that he or she did the right thing by telling, that the child is not to blame, that you are sorry this has happened, that this has happened to many other children, that these children had the same feelings, and that they recovered and so will the child. Reassure the child that you will do your best to get the help he or she needs and to protect the child from further abuse.
    • Keep your opinions of the offender to yourself, while placing full responsibility on his or her shoulders. Many children are victims of someone they have loved and trusted, and your negative comments may be perceived by the child to be a reflection of his or her worth as well.
    • Do not frighten the child by talking about police involvement or medical examinations, or by telling them that they were abused.
    • Do not confront the offender. This could impair a formal investigation by giving the offender time to invent a story. Also, a perpetrator can plant seeds of doubt in your mind about the truth of the child’s story.
    • Report the abuse to the police and to a child protection agency. Most children want the offender to get help and want to protect other children from abuse. Abusers will not seek help voluntarily and will not stop offending on their own.
    • Get counseling for the child. The emotional aftermath of sexual abuse will not disappear by itself. Your child will need to resolve many issues that can be dealt with more effectively with the help of professionals.
    • Support the child. Respect his or her privacy, keep a routine, and answer questions calmly.


Responding to Families Notified of Alleged Abuse

From Preventing Child Abuse (fourth edition) by Beth A. Swagman


Here are some guidelines for situations in which you have responsibility for talking with families about an alleged abuse against one of their children.
  • Remain calm and nonjudgmental.
  • Anyone who makes a report to the police or child protection authorities is usually granted anonymity, so do not identify the reporter unless you are given permission to do so.
  • Do not share any statements made by the child with a parent or relative implicated by the child as an abuser. It is advisable not to share the child’s statements with anyone other than the authorities until the identity of the abuser can be determined and authorities have determined whether the child is protected from contact with that person.
  • Do not attempt to convince a parent that the alleged abuse happened or did not happen; do not attempt to discredit the child or cast suspicion on the alleged abuser.
  • Do not investigate with a parent or family member what may be happening in the home, and do not share information with a parent that has not been shared with the authorities.
  • Do not make promises to a parent or family member about the outcome of the investigation.
  • Listen to any information a parent may offer about the incident and record it immediately after the conversation; report additional information to authorities through the reporting procedure outlined in our Care & Safety Policy.
  • Offer the parent(s) emotional support; this may be necessary for several months.
  • Suggest resources for the parent(s) including books or literature that may be helpful to them. Later, counseling resources may be necessary for the parent(s), child, or the family.
  • Allow the parent(s) to express disbelief, anger, and grief; the parent(s) may be in shock or denial at the mention of abuse allegations.
  • Do not minimize the type of abuse, its impact on the child, or its harm to the child.
  • Assure the parent(s) of the need to maintain privacy unless disclosure is necessary to protect the well-being of other children.