If you think a child has been sexually assaulted
If a child discloses sexual abuse to you, understand that they have chosen to tell you because they have a strong degree of trust in you. Be there for them. The following are general guidelines in how to respond to a disclosure of sexual abuse and what to expect:
- Be calm. One of the most important things a person can do is respond in a calm and matter of fact manner. Do not rant and rave or be overly emotional during the disclosure which can cause the child more anxiety and fear about revealing everything that has occurred.
- Believe the child. Children rarely lie about sexual abuse. If you don’t have enough information about what is going on, try to ask only non-leading questions (Who did this? How did that make you feel? Where did this happen? Tell me everything you remember about that from start to finish). Do not promise not to tell anyone if they tell you, tell them that you will do everything you can to protect them and you will stop the abuse from happening again. Do not attempt to conduct an entire interview with the child to ascertain every last detail; this could make prosecution of the offender much more difficult. Please leave it to the professionals! The only reason you are asking for elaboration is to find out which professionals you need to contact. Do not perform your own investigation.
- Assure the child that the abuse was not their fault. Some children may feel that they were complicit with the abuse for a variety of reasons. Tell the child that no matter what they tell you, you will love them regardless of the circumstances surrounding the assault.
- Take notes. Keeping a journal of what the child tells you, who else they told, what prompted the disclosure, their exact words are all very important to the investigation. Remember to note times and dates/circumstances. Do not let the child hear you discuss their disclosures to others.
- Prohibit all access the offender has to the child. Tell the child that you are there to protect them and keep them safe. Put your words into action by immediately restricting any access the perpetrator has with the child.
- Call the police. Get the matter investigated. If the incident occurred recently, go to the hospital immediately for a sexual assault examination. Crucial evidence can be recovered by medical personnel who are trained specifically in treating rape victims and child victims of sexual abuse. This may assist in prosecution of the offender.
What to expect after a report is made:
- Police contact. A call to 911 will ensure that the proper law enforcement agency is dispatched to your home to initiate a report. Depending on the circumstances, you may be asked to take the child to the hospital for an examination. In most cases, the police reports are forwarded to the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) and assigned to a detective who specializes in the area of child sexual abuse.
- Sexual assault examination. In many circumstances, it will be recommended that the child is examined by a specially trained sexual assault nurse at your local hospital. The medical personnel and usually a victim advocate will be at the hospital for both you and the child. The sexual assault examination may sound traumatic and scary, but it is not. There is nothing invasive about this examination. Nothing will be done during the examination that will cause your child any physical pain or discomfort. The medical professionals make every effort to make the examination a painless, respectful process. If you went to the hospital before contacting the police, medical staff will likely report the incident as mandated by law.
- Case assignment to a detective. Certain cases of child abuse will be handled at the patrol officer level while most sexual assaults will be investigated by a detective. When they receive your case, you will be notified and may be asked more in depth questions about your situation. If the child in question is under 12 years old, it is likely that the detective will schedule an interview with a child interview specialist.
- Forensic child interview. SIU has access to two highly trained Child Interview Specialists who are not police officers. These professionals offer a safe, non-threatening and child friendly environment where they interact with the child at Dawson Place. The goal of the Child Interview Specialist is to obtain a non-leading and accurate account of a child’s memory of the incident. The child interview specialist will not force a child to talk about anything they do not want to talk about during the interview. There are occasions when what was believed to be a child’s vague disclosure of abuse is resolved when the professional interview is conducted.
- Access to victim advocates. Dawson Place will also assign a victim advocate in many circumstances to families of victims. These advocates can offer services and put you in touch with resources that can be comforting in your time of stress. You can be scheduled time for free counseling for your child, as well as you and your family if needed. Assistance with restraining orders, crime victim’s compensation and other services are at their fingertips and they are happy to help you in your time of need.
- Prosecution. Once the detective has completed the investigation, the offender may be arrested or the charges may be referred to the prosecuting attorney’s office for review and charging decisions. The prosecutor’s office will contact you and may want to speak with you about the case. The prosecutor’s office also has their own advocates who will be by your side through the process and through the court proceedings, if necessary. Not every case that gets referred can be tried in a court of law. That does not mean that the abuse did not happen, it only means that the attorney did not believe that there was enough evidence to convict the offender.
- Healing process. Just because the legal case is over does not mean that the scars the child bears will go away. The good news is that children are resilient and CAN live normal, happy lives after even the worst cases of abuse, the key is follow-up care. You don’t have control of the prosecution process, but you have ultimate control in the healing outcome for a child. Whether it is private practice counseling or with our professionals at Dawson Place, help is there for the asking far beyond the last court date. Studies say that children who don’t receive help after being abused have problems with trusting themselves or others, hold onto shame and guilt, suffer mental health issues and may have difficulty with future relationships. Ongoing support of your family can prevent your child SURVIVOR of sexual abuse from a life sentence of trauma and re-trauma, leading to happy, vibrant lives.