Overcoming Barriers to Children Disclosing Abuse

“How do you say what you don’t know? Words around sex and child sexual abuse are literally barriers to disclosure in that children do not have the words.” Mental health organisation

“The repercussions are huge, threats to take children away, fear of losing everything and at the hands of white people who don’t understand my culture or beliefs. Disclosing child sexual abuse will make the situation worse, not better. The woman will fear being sent back home and having her children taken away.” Domestic violence charity

“Racism in society is ongoing. Victims and survivors of child sexual abuse who are affected by racism feel there is no protection for them.” Women’s support organisation speaking about the Arabic experience.

“We have had sexually abused boys tell us that they cannot tell anyone because their parents have told them that ‘Boys don’t get abused.’” Organisation supporting the Congolese community

Source: Engagement with support services from ethnic minority communities April 2021 IICSA Engagement Team

Why do we all need to learn about disclosure?

I have been delivering training on managing children’s direct disclosure of abuse for many years now. It’s a vital skill that every member of the children’s workforce should have in their safeguarding toolkit because we can never predict who a particular child will disclose to, and so we all need to know what to do. Handling disclosure poorly may mean that the child (and other children affected) will not receive the protection they need, that the perpetrator may not receive the justice they deserve.

The barriers to children disclosing abuse are huge

When children do speak out it is often many years after the abuse has taken place. The ongoing Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse found that more than two thirds of the hundreds of victims and survivors of child sexual abuse they spoke to did not tell anyone about the abuse at the time. One piece of research carried out by the NSPCC indicated that the average time it takes for a victim of children sexual abuse to talk about what has happened to them is eight years (Allnock and Miller 2013 NSPCC).

Children are reluctant to seek help because they may:

  • feel they don’t have anyone to turn to for support
  • be afraid they will get in trouble with or upset their family
  • want to deflect blame in case of family difficulties
  • feel ashamed and/or guilty
  • need to protect themselves from having to relive traumatic events
  • have sought help in the past and had a negative experience
  • feel that they will not be taken seriously
  • feel too embarrassed to talk to an adult about a private or personal problem
  • worry about confidentiality
  • lack trust in the people around them (including parents) and in the services provided to help them
  • fear the consequences of asking for help
  • worry they will be causing trouble and making the situation worse
  • find formal procedures overwhelming
  • may not realise they have experienced abuse, for example if they have been groomed
  • face additional barriers to telling someone because of their vulnerability, disability, sex, ethnicity and/or sexual orientation.

In April 2021 an important piece of research was published which highlighted the barriers to disclosure experienced by ethnic minority children. The report by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse concluded that victims and survivors of child sexual abuse from ethnic minority communities were reported as saying that do not trust the police or social care. The Inquiry spoke to 107 organisations over 18 months, including domestic and sexual violence support services, women’s groups, religious charities, mental health agencies and specific ethnic minority organisations. The report detailed other key barriers to reporting child sexual abuse among these communities including language, closed communities, culture, shame and honour and education.

To read the report: engagement-report-ethnic-minority-communities-29-april-2021.pdf (iicsa.org.uk)

So what can we do?

The most recent edition of Keeping Children Safe in Education (Sept 2021) sets out in greater clarity than ever before as to how professionals should respond when a child tells you directly that they are being abused. The detailed guidance is offered within the context of child on child sexual violence and sexual harassment, but it is useful in any situation where a child decides to disclose abuse to us.

The guidance firstly explains the importance of picking up on the signs of abuse and not waiting for a disclosure before taking appropriate action. Children may show the signs of being abused either in their appearance or behaviour, or we may be made aware of the abuse indirectly by overhearing a conversation or a rumour about it from other children.

As KCSIE goes on to make clear, your initial response to a report from a child is incredibly important. How we respond to a report may affect the likelihood of future victims coming forward. Recent research has shown that some victims of peer abuse in particular have felt very discouraged in talking about their experiences with professionals because they were not taken seriously the first time they spoke about it, with the abuse being dismissed as horseplay or similar.

So how should we respond? Firstly, by approaching the situation with an appropriate gravity, whether the abuse has taken place within the setting or online, and without apportioning any blame to the victim. We should engage with the children who disclose to us with respect for the relationship of trust that has been accorded to us by them.

‘442. It is essential that all victims are reassured that they are being taken seriously, regardless of how long it has taken them to come forward and that they will be supported and kept safe. Abuse that occurs online or outside of the school or college should not be downplayed and should be treated equally seriously. A victim should never be given the impression that they are creating a problem by reporting … Nor should a victim ever be made to feel ashamed for making a report or their experience minimised.’

Ideally, the KCSIE says a disclosure would be made with two adults present, one of which would include the DSL. At the same time, it acknowledges ‘that this might not always be possible’. It is important that when we are in a situation where children are beginning to disclose, we allow ‘flow’, for them to continue talking without interruption or moving them to another location, or asking them to speak to someone else or include someone else.

Online abuse necessitates specific consideration. KCSIE says that ‘where the report includes an online element, being aware of searching screening and confiscation advice (for schools) and UKCIS sharing nudes and semi-nudes: advice for education settings working with children and young people. The key consideration is for staff not to view or forward illegal images of a child.’ The advice urges school to instead preserve evidence by confiscating devices which contains any images and handing them to the police to inspect instead.

Effective management of disclosure in all cases includes adhering to rules of confidentiality and ‘not promising confidentiality…as it is very likely a concern will have to be shared further (for example, with the designated safeguarding lead or children’s social care) to discuss next steps. Staff should only share the report with those people who are necessary in order to progress it. It is important that the victim understands what the next steps will be and who the report will be passed to’.

Be aware that an initial disclosure may only be the first incident reported, rather than a single incident and that trauma can impact memory. The younger the child, the more difficult it may be for them to remember and indeed comprehend when the abuse started, how many incidents took place. Be mindful that in the case of sexual or physical abuse, one incident of the abuse will make child protection thresholds. There is no need for you to seek more information if this is the case.

Practice active listening skills throughout the disclosure. The guidance describes this process as: ‘listening carefully to the child, reflecting back, using the child’s language, being non-judgmental…not asking leading questions and only prompting the child where necessary with open questions – where, when, what, etc.’ In my experience, professionals are very wary of asking any questions in case they might be ‘leading’ the child. KCSIE says clearly: ‘It is important to note that whilst leading questions should be avoided, staff can ask children if they have been harmed and what the nature of that harm was.’

It is essential that a clear written record is made of the disclosure. Best practice, KCSIE says, is to wait until the end of the disclosure before writing down what you heard. This allows you to actively listen to the child during the conversation and devote your full attention to them. If possible, another member of staff present could make notes, but not at the cost of distracting the child – the most important aspect of the disclosure is your full engagement with the child who is telling their story. Keep your account factual, what you heard said, and not your feelings about it. Remember that your record of the disclosure could become the basis of a statutory assessment by children’s social care and/or part of a criminal investigation. If you are not the Designated Safeguarding Lead, tell them about the disclosure as soon as you can.

Useful resources:

Keeping children safe in education 2021 (publishing.service.gov.uk)

The NSPCC website shares a lot of information for professionals to help them manage a child’s disclosure of abuse, including a section that outlines all the barriers to disclosure, how the PANTS programme can help children talk about what is happening, and research-based tips on how to encourage children to speak to us (show you care, take your time, show you understand). Particularly useful is a succinct video which could be played for a staff briefing: Responding to a Child’s Disclosure of Abuse | NSPCC Learning – YouTube