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HISTORY: Responding to the Disclosure of Abuse

If the child/adolescent is willing to disclose information, allow the disclosure. Early statements are often more spontaneous and have considerable legal value. It is essential to document verbatim what is said. Use the taking of the history to reassure the child that it was not his/her fault that the abuse took place or that he/she was unable to avoid or stop it. This reassurance helps reduce the sense of guilt, shame, stigmatization, embarrassment, and isolation he/she might be feeling. The box below describes additional ways to respond to the disclosure.

What to Do When a Child/Adolescent Discloses Abuse
  • Control the natural response of shock
  • Support the child/adolescent for telling you
  • Use age-appropriate language
  • Ascertain the words the child/adolescent uses to describe genital anatomy and give permission to use them
  • Ask questions needed for a report to Child Protective Services: who, what, when, where
  • Do not lead with questions
  • Do not offer promises that can't be kept
  • Explain that the information may need to be repeated

Young children have difficulty describing what they have experienced and often tell only a small portion of the abuse at a time. Do not assume intercourse or sodomy did not occur because the child initially relates only fondling or inappropriate touch. Allow time for the child/adolescent to ask questions and express concerns. Children with limited sexual knowledge are often concerned about undetected internal injuries, inability to have children, or disfigurement of the organs.

Children/adolescents do not respond to sexual abuse in the same manner. They may respond in a neutral, positive, or negative manner depending on how the activities were represented. Therefore, do not automatically presume that the child was psychologically damaged, embarrassed, or hurt by the experience. Young children are most likely to express confusion, excitement, or ambivalence and may be less likely to understand the inappropriateness and implications of their experiences. Positive feelings toward the suspected perpetrator should not be interpreted to mean that the abuse did not occur. The primary concern is to ensure the well-being and future safety of the child/adolescent.

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History: Overview   History: Taking Steps  History: Communication Challenges  History: Taking a History from the Parent/Caregiver  History: Taking the History from the Child/Adolescent  History: Responding to the Disclosure of Abuse  History: Additional Resources 

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