When a child tells you that they have been touch inappropriately, the first thing to do is to BELIEVE THEM! The child must summon enormous courage to disclose abuse. They must trust you if they told you this very painful truth and they are looking to you for help. The second thing to do is to assure them that it is not their fault. Child abusers often convince their victims that they are somehow responsible for their own abuse. They may also threaten to harm the child or other family members if the child “tells”. You can begin the healing process by telling the child that abuse is wrong and that it is not their fault.
Now comes the hard part. It is very important that you do not ask the child too many questions. This event could become a criminal investigation and you do not want to interfere in any way. You do not want to be accused of putting any ideas in the child’s mind by asking leading questions. Just get the “minimal facts” – enough to confirm your suspicion that abuse has occurred – and then call for professional help. If the child has disclosed that he/she has been abused by a family member, call the New York Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-342-3720. If you feel that the child is in danger, call the police. If the child is bleeding or bruised, go the hospital.
Although you may be tempted to talk with the child about the events, it is best to practice “reflective listening”. Reflective listening is a supportive yet neutral approach to receiving the child’s information without offering your own opinion, suggestions or conclusions. In this way, you cannot be accused of planting ideas in the child’s mind that may later “pollute” their testimony or statement. For instance, if the child says: “Uncle Joe told me that I’m his girlfriend”, you would respond by saying: “So, he told you that you are his girlfriend?” Another example – if the child says: “He lied to me”, you might say “It sounds like you are upset”. You are neither agreeing nor disagreeing with the child. You may reinforce to the child that abuse is not their fault and that that are very brave to tell.
Child abuse is a horrible crime that occurs too often. Children are both victims and witnesses to this crime. Their statements and testimony are often the only evidence that we have to convict an abuser. You, as the person to whom a child has disclosed, can do your part to insure a strong investigation by being careful not to compromise a child’s statement to authorities by asking too many questions.
The Child Advocacy Initiative of Cayuga County houses the SAVAR (Sexual Assault Victims Advocacy Resource) program and will offer a victim immediate advocacy and mental health support. These are the professionals who know how to help the child (and non-offending family members) to deal with the issues of abuse. These advocates and therapists are trained to support and assist an abuse victim without any risk of damaging an investigation.
A final note: If you have been the individual to whom a child has disclosed abuse, you may want to speak with someone about how to cope with the event. Please feel free to call us and we can help. The SAVAR Hotline number is 252-2112, or you can call 253-9795 and ask for assistance.