What to do if a Child Discloses Sexual Abuse to You

Hearing a disclosure – a child telling you that someone has abused him/her – can be scary. How you respond can be critical. A lot of thoughts may run through your mind.

  • You may be worried about the child and yourself.
  • You may be unsure of how to respond or what to say.
  • You may be unsure of the child’s comments and information.
  • You may not be sure if the child has been abused.
  • You may be angry with the parent or alleged abuser.

How you respond is very important. Responding to a disclosure of abuse or neglect is a big responsibility.

Please keep in mind:

  1. Children often are reluctant to tell about abuse.
  2. The majority of perpetrators in sexual abuse cases are non-related caregivers; i.e., baby-sitters, step-parents, boyfriends, girlfriends or adoptive parents.
  3. Children often love the person who is abusing them and simply want the abusive behavior to stop. Because they love and care about the person, they may be reluctant to get the person in trouble.
  4. Many perpetrators tell children to keep the abuse a secret and frighten them with unpleasant consequences.
  5. Children may start to tell someone about the abuse. If the person reacts with disgust or doesn’t believe them, they will stop disclosing the events. Then they may not tell anyone about it until they feel brave enough or have established a sense of trust with someone. This may delay them from seeking help.
  6. If a child begins to tell you about possible abuse, please listen carefully.

Ideas that can help

  • Find a place to talk where there are no physical barriers between you and the child.
  • Be on the same eye level as the child.
  • Don’t interrogate or interview the child.
  • Be tactful. Choose your words carefully. Don’t be judgmental about the child or the alleged abuser.
  • Listen to the child.
  • Do not project or assume anything.
  • Let the child tell her own story.
  • Find out what the child wants from you.
  • A child may ask you to promise not to tell anyone.
  • Be honest about what you are able to do for the child.
  • Be calm; reactions of disgust, fear, anger, etc., may confuse or scare a child.
  • Assess the urgency of the situation. Is the child in immediate danger? Safety needs may make a difference in your response.
  • Confirm the child’s feelings. Let him know that it is okay to be scared, confused, sad or however he is feeling.
  • Believe the child and be supportive.
  • Assure the child that you care. Some children will think you may not like them anymore if they tell you what happened. Let her know that you are still her friend and that she is not to blame.
  • Tell the child it is not his fault. Many children will think that the abuse happened because of something they did or did not do. Don’t over dramatize.
  • Tell the child you are glad he told you.
  • Tell the child you will try to get her some help.
  • Let the child know what you will do. This will help build a sense of trust, and he will not be surprised when he finds out that you told someone.
  • Tell the child you need to tell someone whose job it is to help with these kinds of problems.
  • Report your suspicions to the appropriate agency. Check our Resources page.
  • Urge anyone who was victimized to contact WINGS, so they can receive support from others and begin to heal.

After a Disclosure:

  • After your child has revealed abuse, you may be shocked, confused and/or angry. Regardless of what you are feeling or thinking, it is important to respond to your child appropriately.
  • Remember that your child is a child, and treat him/her as such. Don’t expect your child to respond like an adult.
  • Be supportive of your child, but do not treat him/her differently.
  • Keep to your regular routine as much as possible.
  • Do not expect your child to appear “changed.”
  • Do not question your child about the abuse. By doing so, you may jeopardize the police investigation.
  • If your child wishes to discuss the abuse with you, just listen and be supportive.
  • Be prepared for depression or “let-down” weeks or months after the disclosure. Your child may become withdrawn or act out repeatedly over time.
  • Do not advise your child on what to do or say in a police interview beyond encouraging them to tell the truth.
  • Sexually abused children may be susceptible to feelings of low self esteem. Help your child nurture a positive sense of individual identity with positive messages.
  • Explain in simple, age-appropriate terms what is happening throughout the police investigation (or as your child has questions).
  • Acknowledge any feelings of anger, guilt, frustration, sadness etc., that your child may experience. Let your child know it is okay to feel anything. Teach him/her appropriate ways to express his/her feelings.
  • Be aware of your own reactions and get support and help as you work through your own feelings.
  • Don’t discuss the abuse with others in yourchild’s presence.

Children often feel a sense of relief after disclosing abuse. Support from the parent or caregiver is one of the most important factors in your child’s healing process. By offering support, you play an important role in your child’s mental and emotional health.

Mandatory Reporting

Because child sexual abuse is a felony in many locations, religious ministers, teachers, counselors and other formal caregivers would do well to learn the laws of their locale pertaining to the reporting of suspected abuse. In California, for example, a caregiver has 36 hours to make a call to Child Protective Services and write a follow up report of a reasonable suspicion of child abuse.

The person reporting is protected by law, and laws of confidentiality are waived. Christian caregivers often find it difficult to report abuse. They worry about the impact of reporting on the family unit, as well as the breaking the trust of the victim. Christians are also concerned with the image and testimony of the church in the larger community. Since so many Christians are victims and offenders, the image and testimony of the church would be greatly enhanced by dealing with the issue squarely and responsibly.

Reporting needs to happen for several reasons:

  1. The long term effects of not reporting and not receiving help may be devastating to all involved.
  2. Other children both in and out of the home may be at risk.
  3. Reporting makes treatment available to the offender, the spouse and the child.
  4. Reporting also puts authority behind the aggressor’s need for counseling. Remember, most aggressors vowed for years to stop . . . and didn’t.

In some jurisdictions there is no statute of limitations for reporting the abuse because of generational ties. Since so many aggressors are people from within the church, the church has an obligation to help the aggressor, including helping him face the law. The cycle must be broken. Mothers who were abused must model the protection of their children adequately. To do this, they will need help.

All 50 states of USA have passed some form of a mandatory child abuse and neglect reporting law in order to qualify for funding under the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) (Jan. 1996 version), 42 U.S.C. 5101, et seq. The Act was originally passed in 1974, has been amended several times and was most recently amended and reauthorized on October 3, 1996, by the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment and Adoption Act Amendments of 1996 (P.L. 104-235). CAPTA mandates “minimum definitions” for child abuse and sexual abuse.

Every state has a hotline for reporting abuse and neglect. Check our Resources page.

Many states have broad statutes requiring “any person” to report.

Immunity. CAPTA requires states to enact legislation that provides for immunity from prosecution arising out of the reporting abuse or neglect. In most states, a person who reports suspected child abuse in “good faith” is absolutely immune from criminal and civil liability. For that reason, most healthcare attorneys will advise a client “that it is far better, in theory, to be faced with defending a civil action for reporting suspected abuse rather than the bleak alternative of defending a civil action . . . if a child is injured or killed as a result of failing to make a report of suspected child abuse.” Mandatory Reporting: Hidden Dangers by Attys. Jennifer L. Cox and Jennifer A. Osowiecki.

False Reporting. The 1993 CAPTA amendments require states to enact legislation providing for prosecution in false reporting cases (reports made without having a reasonable belief that the report is true.) The false reporting laws must be read together with the immunity statutes and case law, however; persons who report in “good faith” are immune from civil and criminal liability. As a matter of public policy, prosecutors should be extremely selective in initiating false reporting prosecutions so that reporting is not discouraged.

Clergy. In the wake of the Catholic church sex abuse scandal, many states have revised their mandatory reporting laws to include clergy as mandatory reporters.

All states require the report to be made to some type of law enforcement authority or child protection agency. Reporting to a parent, relative or another worker will not satisfy the reporter’s legal duty under the statutes.

Your Responsibility as a Parent
As a parent, you are the most important adult in your child’s life. Your child looks up to you. We understand that you care for your children. While you are concerned about your children’s safety, you cannot always ensure it. However you can equip them with information and skills to build self-protective behavior.

The most important factor for your children’s protection is a strong self-esteem. Let them know how important they are to you. Be available when they need to talk. Be honest and open with them when they ask difficult questions. Always believe what your child tells you, no matter how unbelievable or difficult to believe it is.

Talking about child sexual abuse with your child may seem difficult but the possible consequences of not talking with your child are even worse – that they may be sexually abused and not know where to turn for help.

“How” to bring up the topic of child sexual abuse for discussion with your child can be as difficult as actually talking about it.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Learn to feel comfortable with the topic of human sexuality and make sure that you first know the information yourself before talking with your child.
  • Set general and personal safety rules with your child. For example, teach your child safety rules such as “look both ways before crossing a street” or “never play with matches.”
  • Make use of the moments when your child is naturally being inquisitive. Don’t avoid questions like – where do babies come from or what is sex. Dignify children by answering their questions. They might look to other ways, often inappropriate, to satisfy their curiosity.
  • Play the “What if…” game with your child. For example, ask your child, “What if we get separated in the market and you can’t find me, what would you do?” “What if someone wanted to touch your private body parts, what would you do?” Use relevant situations and encourage your child towards the correct answer.
  • Read stories to your child about children who have been in difficult circumstances and how they overcome those difficulties. Telling/reading these stories will give your child a positive outlook regarding his/her safety concerns. This could also provide the child with the opportunity to tell you about problems for which s/he needs help.


1.  If the CSA has not been reported to law enforcement, help the responsible caregiver or victim to report it or you report it. A court case in Michigan USA illustrates the importance of complying with legal requirements and notifying the authorities of any instances of suspected abuse.  The Michigan Child Protection Law was amended in 2002, effective 2003, to require mandatory reporting by clergy but this was not widely known. In 2011, the overseer for the area, Jerome Frandle, was arrested and charged that he “did knowingly fail to report suspected child abuse or neglect.”
Jerome’s attorney filed a ”motion to dismiss.” During that hearing the Court found that “Mr Frandle is a member of the clergy as defined by the statute.” Since then the State of Michigan has dropped the substantive case. Court documents are available here.

2.  If the alleged perpetrator is a Worker (Minister) or Elder, they are to be immediately suspended from their duties in the church pending outcome of investigation/trial.

3.  Provide Law Enforcement with the pertinent information necessary for a thorough investigation.  If the alleged perpetrator is a Worker (Minister), provide a list of all the Worker’s fields of service and all former mailing addresses.

4.  There is to be a diligent and compassionate search to locate any other possible victim(s).  Notify all the Workers Staff, Elders and Friends in all the alleged perpetrator’s field(s) about the pending investigation/trial and suspension of duties.

5.  IF the alleged perpetrator is proven innocent of CSA, then he is to be fully restored to his former position with honor. IF the alleged perpetrator is proven guilty of CSA by investigation, trial or confession, and if he was a Worker (Minister) or Elder, then he abdicates his place in the Ministry or Eldership forever.  Notification of outcome of case will be made to all persons notified in #4 above, as well as to Worker Overseers and their staff worldwide.  This is to ensure that the Perpetrator will never be placed in a position of authority/trust in any another area and as a warning to others.

6.  IF Worker or Elder is proven guilty, the Workers will consider whether an apology is appropriate to the victim(s) and their families on behalf of the workers.

7.  It is an important duty of all Workers (Ministers) to be educated about CSA as part of their responsibility as a minister.

8.  Workers and Elders should work to develop policies and procedures to reduce incidence of CSA.

9.   Workers (Ministers) should encourage outside professional counseling for those in the Church who need it for emotional issues. Workers should not attempt to counsel individuals themselves.

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