How do children disclose abuse?
Generally speaking, children don’t intentionally disclose their victimization. There are many reasons for this. As adults, we would feel uncomfortable publicly disclosing even positive sexual experiences with our marriage partners. In the same way, children are understandably reluctant to disclose their sexual experiences—particularly when the experiences are negative. Since most abuse is at the hands of a loved one, the child may be worried what will happen to their parent, and to them, if the parent is removed from the home. A boy may be worried that disclosure will cause him to be labeled as weak or if the abuser is male that he will be labeled as gay. Children who have a biological reaction to sexual abuse may blame themselves for the abuse. Some children have been threatened, had their family threatened, or even pets threatened as a means of coercing them to remain silent. One Christian survivor of abuse told me how her father tortured her cat as a means of keeping her quiet. Children who have been photographed may be scared that the images of them having sex with a loved one will be shown on television. As a result of these and other dynamics, many victims carry their secrets into adulthood, even to the grave.
If children seldom intentionally disclose child sexual abuse, how does the victimization come to light?
In many cases, the child makes an accidental disclosure. In one Christian school, for example, the children were asked to keep a journal as a means of encouraging them to write. One of the children wrote in her journal about her father sexually abusing her, unaware that the teacher would be collecting the journals. In another case, a Christian girl was staying over at a friend’s house and the mother of her friend overheard her bedtime prayer: “Dear Jesus, please don’t let dad have sex with me on my birthday.” Sometimes, older children disclose abuse as part of an angry outburst. In one case, a father denied his teenage daughter the keys to the car and, at a family reunion, the daughter angrily denounced her dad and called him a child molester. Sometimes, a child will tell a best friend who discloses the abuse to an authority figure. In one case, a 14-year-old rape victim detailed the abuse in a letter to her best friend in northern Minnesota. The letter was discovered by the mother of the victim’s friend.
Sometimes a child may present to the doctor with a sexually transmitted disease or perhaps a parent or other party will walk in on the abuse. In one study, 54% of child molesters admitted that, on one or more occasions, they had sexually abused a child with another child in the room and 23% had molested a child with another adult in the room. Apparently, the increased risk of getting caught enhanced their excitement. Moreover, if they could abuse the child with others in the room, this would increase the child’s feeling of helplessness. Perpetrators might do this by abusing a child while a spouse is also in the bed sleeping or while watching TV under the same blanket.
What about false allegations of child abuse?
When people speak of false allegations they usually have in mind a string of day care cases from the mid-1980’s in which a handful of day care providers were convicted of sexually abusing multiple children only to have their convictions reversed on appeal. The appellate courts expressed concern that untrained investigators had unwittingly planted the idea of abuse in the minds of these young children and, once it was planted there, the children came to believe something that in fact did not happen.
In the wake of these high profile cases, there was a rash of studies which found that, with enough effort, it might be possible to convince a small percentage of typically very young children that something happened to them which in fact did not happen. In one study, for example, researchers got some very young children to believe they got their finger caught in a mousetrap when, in fact, they had never had this experience.
Of course, there is no study in which researchers try to convince young children that they have been sexually abused by someone but existing research does make clear that children should be interviewed by well trained professionals skilled in child development, cognitive development, and a whole host of factors that may contribute to a child’s susceptibility to suggestion.
Since the 1980’s, however, federal and state governments have poured significant resources into improving the quality of interviews with children suspected of being abused. Many states have developed intensive, 5-day interviewing courses for front-line investigators. Although these reforms do not eliminate the possibility of a false allegation, they greatly reduce the possibility.
It is also helpful to remember that, even before the investigative reforms, several studies confirm what common sense teaches—that it is extremely unusual for a child, particularly a young child, to make a false allegation of abuse. There are at least three reasons for this.
First, young children have limited knowledge of sexual activity. A 4-year old child who describes performing an act of fellatio on her father did not acquire that knowledge from watching Sesame Street. Even if the child was exposed to explicit pornography, it is unlikely that she could describe the sights, smells or sounds of sexual abuse unless she actually experienced the event.
Second, in most cases, tremendous familial and societal pressure is placed on the child not to make an allegation of abuse. A child disclosing abuse may be removed from the home, forced to live with strangers, may have to endure an uncomfortable medical examination, may have to speak with adults about uncomfortable sexual matters, and will often be ostracized by their families, and in their homes, schools, and churches. These pressures are so great that many abused children will decide that living with the lie is easier than telling the truth and will recant a truthful allegation.
Third, children are not the sophisticated liars that adults are. Although all human beings can and do lie, young children are not very good at it. A young child may deny taking the last cookie from the cookie jar—but the crumbs on their face give them away.
Given the unsophisticated nature of children’s lies, it is doubtful that many, if any, young children could concoct a detailed, believable story of sexual abuse and keep it intact over several recitations and under the scrutiny of cross-examination at the hands of a skilled defense attorney.
When people speak of “false allegations,” then, they are typically referring to the suggestibility issues referenced above or the possibility that an ambiguous statement was misinterpreted. In one case, for example, a child said, “Daddy put his pee on my pee.” Although this statement could indicate abuse, the investigation revealed the child had used the bathroom, but her father instructed her not to flush the toilet because he was going to use it after her. Even if a well-trained interviewer had not gotten the child to provide these additional details, the original statement, though suspicious, lacked the information necessary to make a charge of abuse. Remember, to convict someone in criminal court of child sexual abuse, the prosecutor must prove his case beyond a reasonable doubt. Standing alone, the statement “daddy put his pee on my pee” would not come close to meeting this burden.
What can I do to increase the chance that any victims in my church or institution will disclose abuse?
First, conduct personal safety classes for children in your Sunday School or any other ministry you may have (school, mission board, etc.) and also encourage parents to speak with their children about personal safety.
Some professionals are opposed to personal safety classes, because they believe the classes put the burden on the child to protect themselves. However, these children have already been led by their perpetrators to believe there is nothing they can do to stop the abuse. A personal safety program may give them a way out. There is some research to support these programs and a great many anecdotes illustrating that some children do make at least a partial disclosure after the abuse. In one Christian church, for example, a 3-year-old victim, who had received personal safety instructions from her mother, subsequently reported being molested by a 12-year-old boy who promptly confessed to the offense and was prosecuted in juvenile court.
Second, recognize that a child making a disclosure of abuse may do it piecemeal or in a manner that distances him or herself from the abuse.
For example, a child may approach a teacher after a personal safety class and ask him/her: “If something like that happened to my friend, who should she tell?” The child may have a friend who has been victimized or she may be seeking more information before deciding if she wants to disclose her own abuse. An appropriate response may be to reiterate the importance of telling and then ask the child directly if anything has happened to them. Many children will not disclose unless directly asked. Any suspicious statements should be reported to the authorities.
Third, periodically give a sermon condemning the sin of sexual abuse.
Many survivors say they wished, as a child, they could have heard the pastor boldly state that God condemns the sin of incest. Although our pastors are adept at preaching against various heterosexual and homosexual sins, we seldom preach against incest. In giving such a sermon, though, it’s important to make the distinction between sin and being the victim of sin. In the Christian community, many perpetrators convince children having a biological reaction to the abuse that they enjoyed the contact, are equally to blame, and will be condemned by the church if they ever come forward. A 13-year-old victim once told me she had kept the secret of her abuse for eight years because the only thing she knew about sex outside of marriage is that it is sinful. A 7-year-old victim once asked, “Am I still a virgin in God’s eyes?” Because perpetrators compound their sin by making the victims feel responsible, we must consistently give the message that God will holds perpetrators exclusively responsible for their conduct.
How can I prevent sexual predators from accessing children in my church?
First, don’t rely simply on a criminal history background check.
Although a criminal history check may satisfy your insurance company it does little in identifying a potential predator. Most predators do not have a criminal history. Studies indicate there is no better than a 3% chance a sexual predator will ever be apprehended. When predators are apprehended, many have accumulated hundreds of victims. There is in the Wisconsin prison system a predator who has confessed to sexually abusing more than 1,200 children. A study of 561 non-incarcerated sex offenders concluded these men sexually abused 195,000 victims. In addition to a criminal history check, churches interested in reducing the chances of putting a predator in contact with children will do a more complete, comprehensive background check that includes a review of child protection records, newspaper stories about the worker, employment history, any records revealing changes in names or dates of births, and speaking with persons who have knowledge of the worker.
Second, educate yourself about the mind of predators.
Understand the mind of the offender and the extraordinary efforts offenders make in selecting and grooming children. One convicted sexual offender described the process this way:
“First of all, you start the grooming process from day one … the children that you’re interested in … You find a child you might be attracted to … For me, it might be nobody fat. It had to be a, you know, a nice-looking child … You maybe look at a kid that doesn’t have a father image at home. You know, you start deducting. Well, this kid may not have a father, or a father that cares about him. Some kids have fathers but they’re not there with them … Say if you’ve got a group of 25 kids, you might find 9 that are appealing … Then you start looking at their family backgrounds … Then you find out which ones are most accessible. Then eventually you get it down to the one you think is the easiest target, and that’s the one you do.”
Since predators seek vulnerable children, church workers must likewise pay special attention to the children at greatest risk. Children and adults who are physically or mentally disabled, children engaging in delinquent behavior or who are having trouble with drugs or alcohol, or simply children of a single parent may be an easy target for predators.
Third, educate parents about predators.
Parents who understand that a predator may look for the one child at basketball games, band concerts, or other school events that never has a parent attend or otherwise demonstrate interest in their son or daughter may choose to take a greater interest in the child’s life. Parents must also understand the dangers of the Internet. A University of New Hampshire study found that 20% of children between the ages of 10-17 have been solicited for sexual purposes online. If a parent would not allow a stranger to enter the child’s bedroom, then a parent should not allow Internet accessible computers in a child’s room or even allow the child to enter chat rooms where predators abound.
What sort of therapy should I refer victims and/or perpetrators to?
It is essential that the psychologist or psychiatrist be experienced in working with victims or perpetrators and be well versed in the abundant research on child sexual abuse. Keep in mind that most psychologists received little, if any, training at the undergraduate or graduate level on child sexual abuse. Accordingly, if a given therapist has not taken the initiative to study the literature and up-to-date research in this area and is not experienced in working with this issue, he or she is simply incompetent to work these cases.
If your community has a child advocacy center certified by the National Children’s Alliance, we recommend contacting that center for a referral.
Where can I learn more?
There are a number of helpful books, articles, and videos that can assist victims as well as equip pastors and other church workers to know how to best serve the abused.
Please check our resources page for an ever-expanding list. GRACE also offers Safeguarding Certification, Assessments, and Independent Investigations. Contact us for more information.