I have often wondered if my teachers or neighbors had suspected that I was being sexually abused as a child. I’m not sure if they had suspicions and didn’t do anything about it or if they really didn’t see the signs.
Considering the lack of awareness around sexual abuse at that time, I don’t blame anyone for not noticing or knowing what to do with possible signs of sexual abuse. Protocols around reporting abuse at the time of my childhood were very lax and undefined.
Knowing what we know now, there are clear and precise steps you can take to ensure the safety of others if you are concerned that they may be victims of sexual abuse.
These are a few steps to follow if there are red flags of abuse.
“Observing signs of sexual abuse and taking action is not easy, but they are crucial steps to help in preventing sexual abuse.“
Observing is important for gathering information that isn’t based on assumptions or feelings (while those shouldn’t be dismissed) but rather on behaviors. Watch and observe for any of the signs mentioned in the 9 Signs of Sexual Abuse article or any other sign that has caught your attention.
In the case of children, observe their drawings. As the saying goes “A picture is worth a thousand words.” I remember drawing my father as extremely large and myself as unusually small. This was very representative of how I felt inside. In one drawing, I had drawn my father and had drawn a stick for his penis. He was the only person who I drew that had distinct private parts. Teachers nor my mother ever questioned my odd drawings.
Children’s drawings, the way in which they speak of someone as well as their body language can all speak loudly and shouldn’t be ignored.
Before asking questions about the concerns you have, be sure that you have established a relationship. It is important to understand that asking questions about abuse can be extremely sensitive, and an established relationship will ensure a better outcome. In certain situations, there may not be time to establish a trusting relationship but demonstrating your care and concern for a child before jumping into sensitive questions can be very helpful.
Ask open-ended questions to have the best chance of getting the whole story. You can say something like “I noticed this (whatever it is that you noticed) …” or “Can you tell me more about that?” This can be used for something physical or behavioral that you have observed and may be concerned with.
In the case of drawings, avoid asking leading questions as it distorts the child’s narrative. Their narrative is most important.
While open-ended questions give the opportunity for a more thorough answer, it’s ok to ask closed-ended questions to get more detailed information such as “When did this happen?” or “How often does this happen?”
Be mindful of your tone. Your tone is especially important when asking questions about a sensitive topic. Keep the tone casual as opposed to intense or worried, in order to allow the child to open up.
Allow the child to respond and be patient for them to share at their pace. Encourage the child that they are not in trouble and you are asking questions out of concern. This often has to be reiterated as fear of getting in trouble or getting others in trouble is often the greatest deterrent to disclosing abuse.
If you observe behavior that is concerning to you, write it down. A simple notebook where you can jot down the date and observation is sufficient. This is for record-keeping purposes and also to ensure that your observations and conversations are as accurate as possible. Time and emotions can cause accounts to change, even when there is no intention to do so. Documentation can be especially helpful if you suspect sexual abuse, but don’t feel that you have strong enough evidence to begin asking questions. Documentation of slight concerns can help build and support a larger issue that may be right under the surface.
Encourage & Ensure Safety
If a child discloses information about sexual abuse, encourage their bravery and courage to share sensitive information. Depending on your role, and the age of the person, report the information to the appropriate person. Safety is a priority, especially in cases of abuse, so be sure to take the proper steps to ensure immediate and long-term safety.
Before any further action, inform the child that you plan to share the information of concern with someone else who can help further. While there may be pushback, remind the child of your responsibility and desire to help. If a child’s parent isn’t a person of concern, reach out to the parent to discuss your concerns and observations before reporting the suspected abuse to authorities.
You can check out RAINN’s State Law Database to learn more about your particular state’s laws and where to report. You can also call or text the Childhelp National Abuse Hotline at 800.422.4453 to be connected to a trained volunteer who can help walk you through the reporting process. RAINN (Rape, Abuse, Incest, National Network) is the largest anti-sexual violence organization and they provide direct help and guidance online at online.rainn.org.
Be Mentally Prepared
While there is an option to report anonymously, disclosing your name and information can help in supporting a case. Even in anonymous reporting, the identity of reporters can be guessed or given away despite the hope to stay anonymous. Mentally prepare in case this were to occur as it is likely an already emotionally charged situation. Observing and reporting sexual abuse can take a toll on your mental health so be sure to care for yourself.
If you suspect sexual abuse, don’t ignore it. Document what you see and then ask questions directly to the person of concern. With genuine concern and care, gather the information needed to take the next appropriate steps to report. Observing signs of sexual abuse and taking action is not easy, but they are crucial steps to help in preventing sexual abuse.
If you have other steps or actions that you think are helpful to take when suspecting sexual abuse, please share below in the comments.