For decades, we at HCWC have stressed the importance of believing survivors of sexual assault or relationship violence when they open up and tell their story.
Talking to someone about abuse or trauma can be an overwhelming and incredibly vulnerable act, which is why it is so crucial not to shut someone down by offering suggestions about what a survivor could have done to avoid the situation or asking if it was “really” rape.
Luckily, our attitudes have been shifting as we collectively become more aware of just how widespread abuse and assault are, thanks in large part to the #metoo movement.
Do we give the same reverence when the person alleging abuse is a child? Or when they describe their abuser as one of their own family members? Someone well-liked by the family or community? What about when they tell you that it happened months or years ago?
Many times, our first instinct is to assume that the child is making up the story or maybe had a strange dream. After all, we don’t really want to believe that our child has been a victim of something so terrible, and we also don’t want to believe that this child’s own parent, cousin, family friend, etc. has harmed our child this way. It’s easier to deny.
Child sexual abuse is a crime that too often goes undetected, for a myriad of reasons.
Everything that might keep an adult from disclosing abuse (shame, fear, embarrassment, feeling guilt, etc.) can be greatly enhanced when experienced by a child, but the biggest factor in a child disclosing sexual abuse is whether they feel that they will be believed or not.
It is easier to believe that a child is lying or confused than to think that a good friend, who volunteers at church and has children of their own, could do something as heinous as sexually traumatizing children.
Anyone who has spent time around children knows that yes, they do sometimes lie, but also that they are not very good at it. If there are crayon drawings on the wall, a kid might genuinely think you will consider that a monkey came in and drew it, just to get them in trouble.
Nevertheless, young children do not fabricate stories about being sexually abused, mostly because they should not have the sexual knowledge necessary to make up an accusation. In addition, the victims of sexual abuse often think that they have the most to lose by telling about it.
Abusers regularly tell children that no one will believe them, or threaten severe consequences if they ever tell anyone about the things done to them.
Of course, abusers often begin grooming their victims long before sexual abuse starts, providing gifts and telling a child about how “special” their relationship is. These are just a few (of many) reasons that victims are hesitant to disclose any sexual abuse.
If your child, or anyone’s child, discloses to you that they have been abused or says something that makes you suspicious of child sexual abuse. Here is what you can do:
- Stay Calm – A child telling you about abuse can bring up strong emotions, but if you show them your anger, extreme sadness, or other intense reactions, it can make it harder for them to further disclose. Believe it or not, they want to protect you, too!
- Believe Your Child – Tell them you believe them, a powerful statement that any survivor of sexual abuse needs to hear. Also, stress that what happened was not their fault, and praise them for having the courage to talk about it.
- Safeguard – Make sure the abuser does not have access to your child and call the authorities to report sexual abuse. For immediate help, call 911. Report to the Texas Dept. of Family Protective Services by calling 1-800-252-5400 or by using their online Abuse Hotline. Texas law states that anyone who knows or suspects child abuse is mandated to report. Trained professionals know how to respond appropriately like the special trained forensic interviewers at HCWC’s Roxanne’s House program who know how to talk to children about allegations of abuse.
- Seek Help – In some cases, a medical exam may be necessary to make sure that the child’s body is safe, and collect evidence, if applicable. Highly trained, discreet professionals conduct these exams. It is also a good idea to contact a mental health professional. In Hays and Caldwell counties, we at Roxanne’s House have children’s counselors who specialize in abuse trauma. Therapy has been shown to reduce distress on families after sexual abuse.
- Comfort – Remind them that they are loved. Let them know that with whatever happens after you report the abuse, you are there to guide them through it and will help keep them safe.
- Keep them informed – The criminal justice process after an outcry of sexual abuse can be confusing and sometimes traumatizing in its own way. Be sure to keep your child updated. Roxanne’s House also offers preparation for children who have to go to court for their victimization. This includes support and advocacy for protective caregivers.
Thankfully, we know that children are resilient and amazing. With appropriate support, they can heal.