Child Abuse Disclosure
One of the most frustrating and puzzling aspects of the child abuse epidemic is the child’s tendency to accept the abuse and not tell anyone. Nearly 75% of abused children do not disclose their abuse within the first year and 20% wait five or more years before telling anyone. This is all the more frustrating when you consider that non-disclosure allows the abuser to continue his acts unabated. The reasons for non-disclosure, the ramifications the abuser experiences afterwards, and the reasons why disclosure is so critically important are varied.
Why children do not disclose
The large majority of children do not tell anyone about their abuse until years after the abuse has ended. In fact, disclosure after the first attack is a very rare occurrence. The reasons for not disclosing vary but the offender’s use of deception and trickery is an often cited reason.
Some children are just too young to understand what is happening to them. Abusers frequently tell their victims that their sexual acts are a game, that it’s how adults show kids that they love them, and most deceptively, that it is a secret and the child should tell nobody. Children have been taught to trust and respect adults and to do what they say. Young children, all-trusting of adults, may be confused as to what is happening to them.
It is also common for the abuser to use their authority, power, and strength to intimidate and threaten the child. They may threaten them with physical harm or use threats that cause mental anguish. In intrafamilial cases, the abuser may tell the child that they would go to jail if the child told anyone about the abuse and the child, fearful of losing a family member, will keep quiet about the abuse. In some instances, the abuser may terrify the child by threatening harm to their family, parents or siblings, often in graphic terms that will terrify the child. The abuser may demonstrate their power by hurting a small animal or another child. In a documented case, the abuser told the child that he would do the same things to her brothers and sisters if she told anyone about the abuse that was taking place. The child complied and found out 40 years later that all the brothers and sisters had been told the same thing. They were all being abused, simultaneously, by the same offender.
The abuser may bribe the child with promised favors or use other forms of trickery to frighten or worry the child. In one documented case, the abuser told the child that a “red car” would periodically drive by the house to check on them and see if they had told anyone about the abuse. From that point on, every time a red car drove past the child’s home, the child knew the abuser’s threat was real and that their every move was being monitored just as the abuser had told them.
In addition to fear, children often do not tell because they fear nobody will believe them. They may feel the abuse is punishment for being bad (whether the offender tells them that or not) or they may worry about getting a loved one into trouble. The child may be ashamed (common with teenage victims) or embarrassed, especially if they experienced involuntary sexual satisfaction during the sexual abuse incident (also common).
And finally, children almost always see no positives of disclosing, despite the fact that non-disclosure almost always leads to many years of continued sexual abuse. Even if the child had been taught previously that disclosure was the right thing to do, they may see no concrete benefit from telling someone about the abuse. The child that discloses is an unusually strong and brave child.
The mental anguish and confusing can be quite harmful to the child. The abused child may be confused by the attention and feelings that accompany the abuse. This can lead to long lasting mental and behavioral issues. We teach our children to trust adults and that adults tell the truth. Via threats, bribes, or trickery, the offender is able to keep the child from telling anyone about the abuse. The child may recognize that something is not right with the situation and that leads them to doubt their ability to recognize when they are in danger. They also learn that their judgment, which is often telling them something is off, is fallible. Mental behavioral issues soon surface.
Stats about disclosure
- 50% said the abuser warned them not to tell
- 45% did not tell after the first incident and were abused again
- 43% said the thought of telling someone had never occurred to them
- 40% had not realized the act was wrong
- 33% told soon after the first incident occurred
- Only 20% that did not tell after the first incident had no further abuse
How children react after disclosure
For those that choose to disclose, the outcome can still be tough. If the disclosure comes years after the abuse, the story the child tells may sound unconvincing. Children often initiate their own coping skills during the abuse and recovery and these very coping skills that they implement may cause their perceptions and memories of the events to be altered. Their stories may not be consistent and this may lead adults to doubt the child’s story. This is regretful because the child will already feel guilt, fear, confusion, and worry about disclosing. An adult doubting their story compounds and magnifies these negative feelings.
In addition, a child’s family environment plays a big factor in outcome of a child’s disclosure. If a family is dysfunctional, for instance one where the mother is parented by the child or where a mother is totally powerless within the home, they have proven to be much less supportive of the victim. Additional factors such as drug abuse or alcohol abuse tend to stifle the parents objectivity too. With regards to the common situation whereby the father figure is the abuser, the shock of the child’s disclosure often hurts the mother’s self esteem because of her perceived inability to protect the child from the abuse. This may lead to the mother rejecting the disclosure as untrue.
In addition, the threats that were made by the abuser may actually come to bear. Families often split apart after a disclosure and many times, if it’s an intrafamilial case of abuse, one or more of the parents or parental figures may be removed from the home or imprisoned. It’s no wonder that between 8% and 22% of the children attempt to recant their allegations. The initial sense of relief that inevitably follows the child’s freedom from the abuser’s control is shattered as the consequences of their disclosure come to light.
If the child’s disclosure leads to criminal prosecution of the offender, a whole new can of worms is opened up. Almost half the children are forced to testify in court with some having to testify twice. About half the children who go to court say they wish the case would stop and virtually all of the children who have previously testified in court say they would not disclose again if given the choice. Nearly all (85%) describe the experience of testifying negatively. All of this, with a conviction rate of only 50% (about half the cases end in a guilty plea without going to court).
Thankfully, once the initial shock of disclosure blows by, feelings change. Years after the court case has ended, the majority of the victims say they are glad that the case went to court. If a new victim were to ask them if they recommended they disclose, 91% say “yes”. After time to think about it and time to mature, victims of child abuse that disclose are glad that they did.
Ramifications to children who did not disclose right away
- 70% were abused again
- 63% reported having difficulty sleeping
- 61% said they felt sad or depressed
- 45% recalled a fear of being alone
- 35% said they had nightmares about the abuse
- 33% were abused on an ongoing basis (several more abuse incidents)
- 20% experienced up to 10 more abuses
Why some children do disclose
If 75% of the abused children do not tell anyone about their abuse until at least a year later, what is so special about the small percentage of children that do disclose? Sadly, disclosure by a child is rarely voluntary and the factors that promote disclosure give us good insight into what we, as adults, can do to promote disclosure by abused children. Most disclosures are influenced by one of three factors. In some cases, an accidental discovery of the abuse triggers the disclosure. Some may feel compelled to attribute this to dumb luck but in reality, adults can tip the scales by being aware of the warning signs and behavioral indicators of abused children. In many instances, suspicious family members seeking answers will trigger the disclosure. It is not uncommon for family members or friends to notice something odd about the child’s behavior and to take the child aside and ask them if anything is wrong. And unfortunately, the third way disclosures are triggered is when a medical event, such as pregnancy or disease, results from the abuse and the child is forced to seek medical attention.
A large proportion of victims choose to disclose when they reach their teenage years. This is a time of development and maturity, a time when they are beginning to become independent and feel more comfortable in their judgments. Sadly, those that wait until the teenage years to tell someone have most likely experienced the unspeakable horrors of sexual abuse for many years already.
Studies have also shown that there are four decision making stages that occur prior to disclosure. In the first stage, the child recognizes that the abuse is wrong. As adults, it is important that we educate children in what is appropriate and what is not acceptable. If we do not, this first stage will never occur. Secondly, the child suppresses or overcomes the fear of telling. Adults should make sure the “door is open” at all times and ensure the child understands that they have someone to talk to. Adults should point out that abusers lie and deceive in order to promote this fear within the child. Thirdly, the child decides when to tell. And finally, the child decides who to tell.
It may also be helpful to understand some basic differences between children who disclose and the children who do not tell.
Characteristics of kids that disclose right away
- Children that disclose shortly after the first incident tend to have prior education by parent or close relationship with parent. The “door is always open”.
- The abuse was a spontaneous act with no prior thought. In these cases, the abuser had no time to groom the victim before the abuse.
- Some event or other change provided the child from self protection from further abuse. In some cases, this could be as simple as an adult letting the child know that they are there to protect them if they need it.
- In many cases, the child was aware of further threat to other children and chose to prevent assault of others by the same man.
Characteristics of children who do not tell right away
- Young at the time of the first incident.
- Were abused by a family member
- Were injured during the abuse (which causes even more fear of harm)
- Experienced pre-abuse grooming.
- Lived with an alcoholic or drug using parent
How adults can promote disclosure and why it is important
There are actions parents and other adults can take to encourage a child to disclose. Studies have shown that later psychological functioning in an abused child is greatly influenced by the reaction of adults when the child discloses. Even though child abuse is taboo and adults do not want to believe it happens, it is imperative that the child knows that you believe them and that the abuse was not their fault. The child needs to be assured that it will never be their fault. Children who are believed and supported fair much better in post psychological treatment. Studies have shown that children whose mother reacted negatively to the disclosure experience 2 1/2 times more post-abuse symptoms.
It is also important that children are educated and reminded frequently. A single “say no and run” educational video from their school will not suffice. Children must be continually reminded what is appropriate touching and what is not and must understand what they are to do if an adult touches or harms them. There have been studies regarding abuse education and its effectiveness. Although somewhat helpful, many abused children have been educated but either did not see how that education applied to them or had simply forgotten about the lessons they had been taught.
If you child acts uncomfortable around someone, this gives you a chance to gently explore to see if something out of the ordinary is going on. Don’t lead the child, but probe carefully. This requires adults pay careful attention so subtle clues can be detected.
What we can do better to promote disclosure
Originally schools and agencies focused on child abuse prevention, educating children on how to say “no”. Now they focus more on disclosure, letting kids know it’s ok to tell. Regardless, studies show that children still do not report though even after being told to. The answer to the question, “how do we better protect our kids”, was answered by a survey group of abused children. Their suggestions included:
- Talk about it more often
- Be more specific with more examples, less preachy and more realistic
- Start educating the children at a younger age.
- Have programs taught by people who’ve been through it
- Say that it is bad for you to not tell
- Explain what will happen after you tell
- Do more one-on-one programs rather than group programs
Note: the statistics mentioned in the report below were derived from studies conducted by the Child Witness Project and funded by the Family Violence Prevention Division of Health.