How can I respond to a child victim?

When a child tells you, openly or indirectly, about abuse or neglect in his/her family, it is important to recognize the strength that the child has demonstrated by sharing his/her secret, and to honor the trust shown by choosing you as a confidant.

Although it may be a difficult subject for you to discuss, it is important that you handle the disclosure with sensitivity. In part, this can be accomplished by following some general guidelines.

LISTEN TO WHAT IS BEING SAID TO YOU

Do not push the child to share more than he/she is willing. The child needs warmth and acceptance. It is not necessary at this time to reveal intimate details. WARNING: Do NOT question the child on details at all. Either Child Protective Services (DHS) or police officials will do that. You could possibly taint testimony that might prevent a predator from being prosecuted at a later date.

REASSURE THE CHILD THAT HE/SHE HAS DONE THE RIGHT THING BY TELLING YOU

Acknowledge the difficulty of the decision and the personal strength shown in making this decision. Make it clear that the abuse or neglect is not the child’s fault and that he/she is not bad or to blame. 

KEEP YOUR OWN FEELINGS UNDER CONTROL

Be calm and nonjudgmental. Be careful not to criticize or belittle the child’s family. 

USE THE CHILD’S OWN VOCABULARY

Do NOT promise not to tell. Know your limits. This is not a situation you can handle yourself. 

TELL THE TRUTH

Don’t make promises that you can’t keep, particularly relating to secrecy, court involvement, placement and social worker decisions. 

BE SPECIFIC

Let the child know exactly what is going to happen. Tell the child that you must report the abuse or neglect to Child Protective Services. Tell the child that a social worker, that helps families with these kinds of problems, may be coming to talk with him/her.

ASSESS THE CHILD’S IMMEDIATE SAFETY

Is he/she in immediate physical danger? Is it a crisis? Are there others in the home that can protect the child? 

BE SUPPORTIVE

Remember why the child came to you. He/she needs your help, support and guidance. Let the child know that telling you about the abuse or neglect was the right thing to do. It is the only way to make it stop.

TRY TO HELP THE CHILD REGAIN CONTROL

The child is about to become involved in a process in which the primary intent will be to determine his/her best interest. At times, this may seem to sweep the child up in a series of events that are beyond his/her control. Although alternatives may be limited, it can help to let the child make decisions, whenever possible, to allow him/her some sense of self-determination. For example, you might ask the child what you can do to help or make the process less difficult.