What to Do When a Child Discloses Abuse or Neglect
Every ten seconds in the United States, a child abuse report is made in the United States. And four to seven children die every day as the result of abuse and neglect. In the Scott and Rock Island Counties alone, twenty school buses could be filled with children who have been abused and neglected.
Child abuse and neglect negatively impact thousands upon thousands of kids in this country every year, and often these children continue to feel the effects into adulthood.
Should your child--or any child--disclose abuse or neglect to you, are you prepared to handle the situation effectively and know the right follow up steps? We have outlined important points for you so that you are ready should it happen.
Child abuse disclosures are typically a process, not a single event. Sometimes children are trying to tell us something for a while before we understand what it is they are telling us. Tune in to the children around you. Listen to what they are saying (verbally and non-verbally).
A child will be feeling many things during this time. It is essential you remain calm in that moment. Later, ensure you get help from your own support network. Hearing stories of abuse or neglect can be very challenging to deal with even for adults.
Respect the child’s privacy
Speak to the child in a quiet space away from others.
Remind the child
Remind them that they were right for telling you and it is not their fault. Be sure to tell them that you believe them (remember, false reports are rare). And assure them that you will do what you can to get them help.
Don’t make promises you can’t keep
It is important not to promise a child to keep their information a secret-- you know you have to get help for them. Additionally, if they are disclosing abuse or neglect, you know that another person has already violated some trust. Be sure you are an adult that they can count on. Be honest about next steps-- let them know that you need to tell someone who can help keep them safe. Let them know who you will be talking to-- the police, the principal at the school, etc.
Acknowledge the child’s feelings
Children will be feeling a lot of different things, both in the moment of speaking with you, and in the moments that follow. Some emotions can include grief, shame, fear, sadness, and many others. Acknowledge those things: “That must have been ____ (scary, etc.), I’m sorry that happened to you.”
Allow the child to lead the discussion
Allow the child to tell you what happened in his/her own words. You may ask for clarification if necessary, but do not ask a lot of questions of the child. Investigators and especially trained interviewers are the professionals in this area. It is NOT YOUR JOB to investigate the situation – only listen so that you can make the report. Most children fully disclose only one time. Additionally, don’t ask closed-ended questions. Instead, ask for clarification on things like, “who is he?” but if the child doesn’t answer, then don’t ask again. Make the report.
NEVER ask a child “why?”
We don’t understand why people hurt children, and certainly children never will either! Asking “why?” is inappropriate and implies blame. Additionally, don’t ask a child why they never told anyone before. The important thing is that they are telling you now. We never want to place blame on the child.
Keep the child informed
Tell the child about what might happen next. Tell them you are getting help. If you don’t know what will happen next, tell them you don’t know. Be honest. Again, be an adult the child can trust.
Call the hotline and authorities
Call for help immediately! If a child is in immediate danger, dial 911. Additionally, the hotline is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week (State of Iowa Child Abuse Hotline: 1-800-362-2178. State of Illinois Child Abuse Hotline: 1-800-252-2873). If the lines are busy, be sure to leave your number to be reached later. Have as much information as possible when making the call, but it’s okay if you don’t know everything! You only need to suspect abuse in order to make a report - you do not need all of the details. Share the information you know and then let the experts to their work.