Ramona Alaggia, Delphine Collin-Vézina and Rusan Lateef (2017) in Trauma, Violence and Abuse Vol 20(2), p 260-283
When & Why…
What does the latest research tell us about when and why people disclose child sexual abuse?
For every one case of child sexual abuse reported to authorities, there may be as many as 30 more unreported cases (Ijzendoorn, Euser and Bakermans-Kranenburg, 2011). Supporting more children and young people to speak up about abuse will ensure they are protected and receive timely support, as well as reduce the risk of the perpetrator harming more children.
Barriers to telling
It should be noted that research design often used the expression “telling” rather than “disclosing” when questioning participants - so this may be a more meaningful expression when working with clients. For example asking “when did you first tell someone about the abuse?” may be more meaningful than asking “when did you first disclose the abuse?” which sounds very clinical.
Broadly, the researchers identified that barriers can be about the victim, others around them or societal/cultural factors. These are summarised below.
Younger victims are less likely to disclose on purpose, rather they may give an accidental or indirect disclosure.
Male victims may be less likely to disclose due to fear of being seen as homosexual, stigmatised as a victim or further harmed by the perpetrator. Where the perpetrator was a female they were also less likely to disclose due to gender stereotypes that men can’t be abused by women.
Psychological factors including self-blame, shame and fear of negative consequences for self and family may be barriers to disclosing.
Children and young people are less likely to tell the perpetrator is a family member or living with the family, as well as when they don’t think they will be believed
Children and young people in families that have rigid gender roles, poor communication, isolation, domestic violence or a patriarchal structure - are also less likely to disclose sexual abuse.
Children and young people are less likely to tell when in communities and cultures that do not openly discuss sexuality or consider unwanted sexual experiences as inevitable.
Children and young people may also be less likely to speak up in cultures where women are devalued and children are discouraged from voicing opinions. As well as when victims believe that they, or their family, will be stigmatised and shamed within the community for speaking up
Finally, children and young people may be prevented from disclosing in communities where there is minimal involvement with available caring adults such as teachers or neighbours.
What helps children to speak up?
Broadly - research seems to be more focused on barriers to disclosure rather than facilitators, but a few key factors have been identified:
AWARENESS: Children must be aware the act is abusive in order to purposefully disclose. This may occur as they get older, when they receive protective behaviour education or when they begin to experience intolerable symptoms such as anxiety or depression.
DETECTION: Children are more likely to disclose when someone has observed the abuse or they are asked directly about it.
RELATIONSHIPS: Children and young people are more likely to disclose progressively in a trusted relationship, where they are encouraged to talk openly. For children, this may be with a counsellor and adolescents may be more likely to disclose to friends than an adult.
What does this mean for practice?
Providing education on protective behaviours and healthy relationships may support children to identify and speak up about abuse they may be experiencing. If you work in a child and youth serving organisation, you may want to include regular protective behaviour workshops, such as the ones offered by Safe 4 Kids (click on button for the link).
If teenagers are more likely to disclose to friends, then we may need to give all teenagers skills in responding to such information. Lifeline developed the Peer Skills Training after noticing that 12% of calls were from concerned friends. If you work in a child and youth serving organisation - you may want to organise a Peer Skills workshop for young people accessing your service or you can get trained as a facilitator to run the workshops yourself (click on the button for the link).
While asking children and young people about abuse may increase the likelihood of disclosure - your questioning can also have an impact on later forensic procedures and court outcomes. For this reason, it is worthwhile being trained in techniques for helping children to give a reliable disclosure of their abuse. This is particularly valuable if you work with particularly vulnerable children and young people. The Centre for Excellence in Investigative Interviewing offers such training on-line (click on the button for the link).
Got a bright idea?
Tell us what you thought of this article and the implications for practice in the comments below.