How do I respond to the child?

Children tend to disclose child abuse and neglect to those who they trust, feel safe with, or to those who they believe can help them. Disclosures can be direct or indirect. An example of an indirect disclosure is, “Sometimes my uncle keeps me up at night.” A disclosure can also be disguised, for example: “I have a friend who gets a beating.” It is important to recognize the clues and ask follow-up questions as some children may only disclose or provide hints once. For some children who have experienced abuse, an in-school safety program may be the first time they realize that what happens to them does not happen to all children. How children are responded to when they disclose will impact who and what they tell in the future.

During the disclosure:

  1. Praise the child for telling. Realize the disclosure is difficult and take what the child is saying seriously. Reassure the child that he or she did the right thing by coming to you. 
  2. Believe the child and avoid denial. Children rarely lie about child abuse and neglect.  Reassure the child that he or she did nothing wrong and that you believe them. The child may have been told that no one will believe them if they tell or may have been threatened with harm to themselves or someone or something they love.
  3. Provide a safe environment. Make sure the setting is confidential and comfortable. Avoid communicating with shock, horror, or fear about what is said, no matter what it may be. The child may interpret a shocked and horrified reaction as if he or she is horrifying and shut down. The child needs you to be confident and supportive. Speak slowly and appear calm. Never stop a child in the middle of his or her story and ask him or her to tell someone else.
  4. Listen and don’t make assumptions. Listen more than you talk and respond with affirmative statements such as “that must have been very difficult for you.” Avoid advice giving or problem solving. Don’t put words in the child’s mouth or assume that you know what he or she means or is going to say. Let the child use language he or she is comfortable with. Don’t rush the disclosure.
  5. Do not interrogate the child. Don’t ask the child leading questions, e.g., “Were you at home?  Did your Mom hit you on the face?” Don’t ask the child for details. This can make it harder for the child to disclose. Listen to the child, letting him/her explain what happened in his or her own words. Limit questioning to only four questions if the child has not already provided the answers:
  1. What happened?
  2. When did it happen?
  3. Where did it happen?
  4. Who did it? (How do you know him/her if the relationship is unclear)
  1. Make no promises. The child may be fearful of many things–they could get taken away from their family; the person who hurt them could go to jail; their parent will be angry with them. Don’t tell the child they won’t as these things may happen. Also, don’t tell the child that you won’t tell anyone what they tell you. Tell the child what you are going to do, what is going to happen next, and who else they may need to talk to. This will help the child to feel some control over what happens next, within the boundaries of the law.
  2. Document exact quotes. Don’t write what you think the child meant and don’t summarize. Listen carefully to the child and write down what the child says, even if they use slang or unpleasant language. This information will be important when you make the report.
  3. Be supportive and not judgmental. Don’t talk negatively about the person who abused the child. Even though the child may disclose terrible things, the child may still love that person and may only just be beginning to recognize that he or she is being abused. Reassure the child that he or she is not at fault and has done nothing wrong. Don’t ask questions that might imply the child was at fault like–Why didn’t you tell me before? Are you telling the truth?
  4. Respect the child’s privacy. Don’t share what the child told you with anyone who doesn’t have a need to know.
  5. Do not confront the alleged perpetrator. Confronting the perpetrator may lead to further harm. Doing so may cause several different reactions including coaching the child about what to say when interviewed; threatening the child to not tell of the abuse; and hiding the child from authorities or harming the child.
  6. Report any suspicion of child abuse and neglect immediately. When reporting child abuse to the appropriate authorities, it is important to have the following information: what happened, when it happened, where it happened, and who did it.  You will be asked for some identifying information such as your name, address, where you work, and how the child disclosed. Teachers and other school personnel should learn the school’s policy for making reports to child protective services or law enforcement. Some schools have policies on who at the school handles child abuse report; if that occurs follow-up to make sure the report was made.


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