How Should I Respond To Disclosure Of Abuse?
If you believe a child is in immediate danger or in a life-threatening situation call Police on 000. If you wish to report a child protection matter, call the Child Protection Hotline on 132 111. If you require assistance or would like to talk to a trained professional about the issues in this article, please call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.
Children are more likely to disclose abuse to somebody they trust, such as a parent or friend. If a child has disclosed abuse to you, your role is to support, advocate for, and help the child connect to professional services that will keep them safe and guide their recovery. It is not your role to counsel the child or investigate their claims.
Children may disclose abuse at any time, while it is occurring, immediately after it has ended, or years later. If a child discloses they are currently being abused, safety is the immediate priority. Many children accidentally or indirectly disclose abuse, or sometimes attempt to alert adults they trust to the fact they are being, or have been abused, through behavioural changes, making ambiguous verbal statements, or engaging in risk-taking behaviours. Some may deny the abuse if asked directly, or say that they forget, only to disclose later. The child might say they made a mistake, lied, or that the abuse happened to another child, which may be for a number of reasons including: pressure or threats from the perpetrator or family, relationship to the perpetrator, fear of negative reactions or not being believed, fear of consequence, feelings of shame; and/or stigmatisation.
What to do during the disclosure
Give the child your full attention
If you're in a busy or noisy place, ask if you can move to a place where you can hear them properly. Remain sensitive to the child's needs and let them know that you want to be able to give them your full attention. Respect their wishes about where the best place is: some locations may trigger memories of abuse, such as being in an isolated, quiet place with an adult.
Disclosure of child abuse can be distressing for the adult hearing it. Allow time for the child to trust that he or she will be listened to and helped. Remember, particularly when the disclosure is of past abuse, that the child has already survived the abuse, the only thing that changed is you are now aware of it. If the child senses your distress, reassure them that they are not the cause of your distress and you are upset because adults are meant to care for children and you are sad because some adults hurt children.
Reassure the child
Address any concerns about the child's safety, particularly if they fear potential consequences of disclosing. The child needs to know that the abuse and anything that happens afterwards, is the sole responsibility of the perpetrator and not the child for disclosing.
Acknowledge the child's strength for disclosing the abuse
Acknowledging a child's bravery and strength in discussing such a distressing topic can help the child feel in control of their situation, which is crucial for their recovery. Children often only disclose the minimal details of the abuse, therefore if it is possible, gently prompt with questions such as: "Can you tell me more about that?" but do not pressure the child for details.
Allow the child take their time to speak
Disclosure of abuse is difficult and something children may only be able to do a little at a time. Some children may not wish to talk much about the abuse, others, however, may need to talk for longer about different aspects of their experience. It is important that the child does not feel rushed or panicked and that you have plenty of time to soothe and reassure them. Some children may disclose indirectly over several days or weeks. Remind the child that you are there to listen to anything they wish to say, when they are ready. Children must have control over the process, however, this must be balanced with their safety and the safety of others. If the child has not disclosed but you have reasonable grounds to suspect abuse, you may need to contact police or child protection authorities in your state/territory.
Let the child use their own words
Children describe their experiences in their own way. When clarifying what children are saying, only ask relatively general questions that are aimed at eliciting just enough information in order to determine what action is required and which authority should be contacted, such as "are you saying ... ?". Quizzing the child for details or asking them to repeat their story a number of times can create the impression you doubt what the child has said, which may also be interpreted as "leading" the child which can have unintended consequences if legal action is taken. If your conversation is later used during legal proceedings, it is important that the child's account is not seen as having been distorted by your questioning.
Don't make promises you can't keep
Child abuse tends to rely on secrecy, and children learn at a very young age to hide what is happening to them, fearing the repercussions for themselves or other family members and may ask an adult to promise secrecy before disclosing. By telling the child: "I can't make that promise, but I can tell you I will do my best to keep you safe", you can reassure the child, manage expectations, and encourage them to speak about abuse.
Tell the child what you plan to do next and ensure they understand
Do not speak in terms the child may not be familiar with. Advise the child that you will need to talk to another person about their experience, to keep them safe, and reassure them that you will support them through that experience. Let them know they can ask about what will happen next as often as they need to. In an overwhelming situation, information can be hard for children to retain and they may need reminding. Only reveal the disclosure to others where necessary and let the child know who you intend on disclosing to.
Do not confront the perpetrator
Perpetrators of child abuse are often charismatic people who can work hard to shift responsibility from themselves to others. Confronting an alleged perpetrator should only be done by professional child protection workers or the police to avoid risk to the child's safety. Remember, your role is to support the child, it is the role of the authorities to investigate the claim.
If you believe a child is in immediate danger or in a life-threatening situation call Police on 000.
If you wish to report a child protection matter, call the Child Protection Hotline on 132 111.
If you require assistance or would like to talk to a trained professional about the issues in this article, please call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.