If Your Nightmare Comes True…
By Melanie Blow
Q- My child said they were sexually abused. What do I do?
A- Tell your child you believe them. Thank them for being brave and for trusting you- as hard as this is for a parent to hear, it’s harder for a child to say. Reassure your child that it wasn’t their fault and that you’ll keep them safe. Afterwards, call the police. This is not something you can handle without professional help. Don’t ask your child a lot of questions, just let them talk. Don’t say bad things about the abuser- your child probably has conflicted feelings about them, and doesn’t need you threatening them or saying bad things about them. But no matter what, you cannot adequately help your child without the help of professionals. You can call your state’s Child Protective agency, but you are more likely to deal with a highly-trained professional if you call the police. Realistically, both agencies will probably investigate concurrently.
Q- I’ve got a great pediatrician. Should I call them?
A- Not at first. When a child discloses sexual abuse, an exam by specially trained pediatricians with special instruments is in order. Ideally, this will be conducted at a Child Advocacy Center, and if you can’t get to one, it should be conducted by a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner, who will have special training in dealing with traumatized children. The advantage of having a child examined at a Child Advocacy Center is that everything there is designed to be child-friendly, and they can have their forensic interview there, with police officers, CPS workers and psychologists present, without having another appointment. It doesn’t matter how good your child’s pediatrician is- this is something you need to leave to specialists.
Q- My child said they were sexally abused, but I don’t believe them.
A- It is very rare for children to fabricate stories about sexual abuse. And it is not up to you to figure out if your child is one of the outliers or not. If your child discloses abuse, you are morally and legally obliged to have the allegation investigated by the police and/or CPS. If you don’t, it may be considered child neglect, you may be investigated along with the abuser (particularly if the abuser is a romantic partner of yours). You may also betray your child as deeply as their abuser did. Most children are abused by “nice guys”- by people loved by their family and friends. They often put a lot of work into being popular and trusted. Never doubt your child because you like their alleged abuser. Never doubt them because their disclosure isn’t emotional enough, too emotional or unclear- all of those are normal. If they say they were abused by their grandparent, and that person never abused you, that’s not grounds to disbelieve them.
Q- My child said they were sexually abused. I believed them. They had a medical exam, and the exam found no evidence. Did my kid make it up?
A- It is very common for medical exams to reveal no physical evidence of abuse. Quite a bit of child sexual abuse doesn’t involve penetration, and even if it does, the tissue penetrated is very elastic. It is very rare for children to disclose an episode of sexual abuse immediately after it happens, so rape kits are almost never attempted. Physical exams serve two purposes- they can ensure the child didn’t suffer any physical injury or contract an STI, and if they do reveal evidence, it can be very significant in court.
Q- I don’t want my child to have to go through a trial. I can keep them safe by myself. Should I still tell the police?
A- Yes. First, you’re obliged to report it. Second, experts have learned a lot about how to work with traumatized children since the 1980’s, and lots of safeguards are in place to ensure the child isn’t re-traumatized. In most cases the child won’t take the witness stand- it’s common for abusers to confess and plead down, and prosecutors will negotiate for this if there is concern the child can’t stand trial. Many jurisdictions will allow children to testify via closed circuit TV, or submit videotaped testimony. But much of the time, children can be prepared, coached and supported so that the experience of testifying becomes an empowering one. Learning to tell your story is a recovery tool for survivors- children often receive the same benefit from this that adult survivors do, if proper precautions are taken. An additional advantage of having law enforcement handle the case is that, by arresting an abuser, you play a role in sparing another child this pain.
Q- The police said they won’t do anything with this case. Now what?
A- Unfortunately, child sexual abuse cases are hard to convict, and DA’s often won’t try if they’re unsure of a conviction. CPS often investigates these cases concurrently, and they require a lower burden of proof to indicate (verify) a case. An indication will be useful in family court if the abuser is a parent or guardian of the child. And in many states, an indication will keep someone from working in a daycare, a school, and becoming a foster parent. And there is nothing akin to a trial to worry about.
Q- I can’t live with the consequences of this. It will tear up my family, I need them, and so does my child. What should I do?
A- If your child tells you they are being sexually abused, they trust you to help them. Doing nothing betrays that trust. It is also much harder to keep a relative away from a child than it would seem, particularly if the abuse is being kept a secret. Child advocacy centers may be able to provide you with counseling about the changes in your family that will happen after you protect your child.
Q- My husband is having sex with my daughter. Is this because I wasn’t sexually available enough?
A- No. There are different theories about what causes father/daughter incest, and there are different types of abusers. There is usually some combination of abnormal sexual attraction to children’s bodies, entitlement, and a need for domination and control. It is not something caused, or fixed, by availability of adult partners.
Q- I found my kid and his classmate together with their pants off. Did he sexually abuse someone? Was he abused? Will I go to prison over this?
A- It is normal for children to be curious about the bodies of other children. If two children of similar ages, sizes and developmental abilities are engaging in this sort of play, and neither child seems upset by it, this isn’t worrisome. If there is a major age difference, size difference of difference in developmental abilities, if many children are ganged up against one, or if one child seems deeply upset by the ordeal, it may be genuine abuse and professional help should be sought for both children. About 40% of child sexual abuse is committed by other minors. If a child is sexually abusing another child, the abusive child’s parents are usually only investigated if it is clear they knew what was going on and tolerated it, or should have known.
Q- My child just told me they were sexually abused, and they’re 42. They’ve had a lot of problems with drugs and mental illness, so I really am not sure I should believe them.
A- It is more common for a child to disclose abuse as an adult than as a child. It is also very common for survivors of sexual abuse to have problems with drugs and alcohol. False accusations of abuse from adults are very rare, just as they are from children. Saying the words “I was sexually abused” is hard. It’s not something most people will do for no good reason, to further a vendetta, “for attention”, and contrary to popular belief, it is rare for an adult victim to be able to receive any compensation. Support your child, and view this as an opportunity for them to heal.
Q- I got a note from my child’s school that their teacher is being investigated for sexually abusing some of his students. My child never said anything to me about the teacher doing anything inappropriate. What should I do?
A- It’s a good idea to talk with kids about child sexual abuse often. If you’ve done this, it will be easy to have another conversation about it. If you haven’t, use this as an opportunity to start. Talk about touches and relationships that are inappropriate. Mention that some kids have said their teacher was doing inappropriate things to them. Ask if that teacher, or anyone else, did it to them. If your child seems uncomfortable talking about it, don’t push them, but mention it again, later. Reassure your child that it’s always safe for them to talk about this with you. Keep in mind that disclosing is hard for kids, and that sometimes it may take a few discussions about the topic to make a child comfortable enough to talk about it. Also be aware that partial disclosures are common, things like “he’d keep me after class and he’d rub my back, but he didn’t do any of that other stuff”. If you can respond calmly and compassionately with a partial disclosure, the child may trust you with a full disclosure later, if there is more to disclose.
Q- My child said they were fondled through their clothes. Is that really as bad as being raped?
A- The ACE study found no difference in the amount of damage sustained by any form of sexual violation. Sexually abused children may feel intense physical pain, a confused version of arousal, or some combination of both. They will definitely experience someone with power over them, who they trusted, betray them in a deep way. The working definition of child sexual abuse has to do with an adult or much older child experiencing sexual gratification with a child- it doesn’t focus on particular acts, as they are all equally harmful.
Q- My child was abused by someone of the same sex. Does this mean they’ll grow up to be homosexual?
A- No research has found a strong connection between CSA and adult sexual orientation. It’s also important to remember there is no research suggesting that adults who identify as homosexual are more likely to sexually abuse children than adults who identify themselves as heterosexual.
Q- Will my sexually abused child grow up to be a pedophile?
A- There is a link between surviving sexual abuse and perpetuating sexual abuse, but it’s weaker than once thought. It is prudent for therapists and parents to talk about sexual development with sexually abused children, and tell them that if they feel sexual compulsions, they can be helped through them. This is an awkward topic for parents, and is a perfect example of why they need to keep the door to conversation open about this topic, long after the trial, long after the child says they’re fine.
Q- Will my child suffer from this for the rest of their life?
A- Yes and no. The ACE Study proves that certain childhood traumas have the ability to affect someone’s physical, mental, emotional and social health for the rest of their lives. That said, the precise way and degree to which anyone will be affected varies widely. It is very important not to think of or refer to sexual abuse survivors as being “ruined”- many live good lives. As a parent, it is very important that you do what you can to keep your child’s ACE score from increasing, and that you do the best you can to keep them from being sexually abused again. Other research has indicated that children who are believed and supported fare better than children who aren’t. It is also wise for the parent of a sexually abused child to learn about common complications of sexual abuse, including depression/suicide, eating disorders, drug abuse, PTSD, and lack of sexual boundaries. It is common for children, or adults, to attend a limited number of therapy sessions, feel better, say “I’m recovered” and discontinue therapy, only to have major problems years later and need to re-enter it. Forcing or encouraging a victim to forgive their abuser has no clinically proven value, and pressuring the victim to forgive someone may strain their relationship with you. So it’s important to recognize recovery from CSA as something that isn’t linear, is unique to the individual, but is possible.
COO, Stop Abuse Campaign
A survivor of incest, psychological abuse and a host of other childhood trauma, Melanie now uses her talents to prevent Adverse Childhood Experiences. Melanie has over a decade of legislative advocacy regarding children’s issues, and she has been published in newspapers, magazines and blogs all across the country.
Melanie has an ACE score of 6.
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