Child sexual abuse: disclosure

Child Sexual Abuse


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Facts about disclosure

•    Disclosure is rarely a spontaneous event and it is more likely to occur slowly over time as part of a process.

•    Some children disclose at the time of their abuse while others wait weeks, months or years before telling their story.

•    Some children will tell purposefully yet others will do so indirectly or only after being encouraged by others to talk.

•    Some children will tell but then recant especially if they have been pressured by others.

•    Young children tend to tell their mothers and adolescents tell their peers.

•    Disclosure to a professional is rare and this poses significant challenges for workers when trying to find evidence of and stop abuse.

•    There are many reasons why children don’t tell. They may think they won’t be believed, feel ashamed or responsible for the abuse, or they may be threatened by the perpetrator.


Individual or contextual factors influence the disclosure process

•    Age is a predictor of disclosure with younger children being less likely to disclose than older children.

•    Girls are more likely to disclose than boys and children with disabilities face unique challenges in disclosing.

•    Children abused by family members make calculated decisions about disclosure. They consider who they
tell, whether they will be believed, how much they should tell and if others will be upset if they tell.


The impact of grooming on disclosure

•    Understanding grooming is an important frame of reference for disclosure. If a child is made to feel like they are responsible for or complicit in the abuse, their sense of shame will make them very reluctant to disclose.

•    If the perpetrator is known to the child they find it very difficult and are very unlikely to disclose. The severity of abuse by itself is not a predictor of disclosure and may be moderated by other factors such as the identity of the perpetrator.


Obstacles posed by families, communities or cultural values can prevent  a child  from disclosing

•    Communities may have limited awareness and understanding about child sexual abuse and may not believe a victim’s claim. There may be a limited range of protection options available in the community and subsequently disclosures are viewed as futile and unhelpful.

•    Asking community and family members about their understanding and beliefs towards child sexual abuse may help us understand barriers to disclosure. It could help build a more supportive environment for disclosures. Be alert to family functioning and dynamics.

•    Children living in the presence of drug or alcohol addiction, domestic violence, neglect or physical abuse, are less likely to feel supported and less inclined to disclose.


Family support

•    Children who think they will receive support from and be believed by their family are more willing to disclose.

•    Think and ask questions about the level of perceived and actual support the children receive in the family. How helpful or supportive are mothers/ fathers generally? Get to know the dynamics, culture and the vibe of the family and put yourself in the shoes of the child – would such an environment make you feel like telling?


Recanting  disclosures

•    Children recant allegations of child sexual abuse for a number of reasons: they may realise the consequences of telling and decide secrecy is a better option; they may be pressured by others to recant or their disclosure has been met with a complete lack of support.

•    Remember recanting does not indicate a false allegation. To evaluate the risk of recantation ask questions about the child’s relationship to the offender? What was the family’s response after disclosure? If a child has been removed from the family – do they come and visit? Is there any evidence of direct pressure on the child to recant?


Open-ended questions

•    An interview with open-ended questions in a facilitative manner with active listening generally results in an expansive narrative of the abuse.

•    To have more free flowing discussions with children ask them general questions such as ‘tell me about’ or
‘what sort of things do you do with your mum/dad?’ Follow up with more open ended questions that solicit more information about one aspect of an account or experience.


Practice active listening

•    When a child talks, lean in, nod, smile and show that you care about what they say and how they feel. Thank them for helping you understand.

•    Never assume you heard it correctly the first time.

•    If a child becomes hesitant and reluctant to disclose, don’t ask a lot of closed ended questions in succession- take a step back and try and let the child get back into their story and reassure them that it is right to tell.


Watch a video on the disclosure of child sexual abuse from the Research to Practice seminar.