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Monday, June 13, 2011

New Research Highlights Data on Sexual Abuse Disclosures

A study by Schaeffer, Leventhal & Asnes just published in Child Abuse and Neglect has given child protection workers and others who investigate or assess sexual abuse cases powerful new insights on children's disclosures. This information has very significant implications for clinic work. It is worth a read but here are some of the highlights.

In understanding why a child discloses, the authors state in the abstract, that, "The reasons children identified for why they chose to tell were clas- sified into three domains: (1) disclosure as a result of internal stimuli (e.g., the child had nightmares), (2) disclosure facilitated by outside influences (e.g., the child was questioned), and (3) disclosure due to direct evidence of abuse (e.g., the child’s abuse was witnessed)." From this, we can see that asking matters as well as ensuring that what is observed is not ignored.

The researchers also considered what prevents disclosures. Again, from the abstract, they state, "The barriers to disclosure identified by the children were categorized into five groups: (1) threats made by the perpetrator (e.g., the child was told (s)he would get in trouble if (s)he told), (2) fears (e.g., the child was afraid something bad would happen if (s)he told), (3) lack of opportunity (e.g., the child felt the opportunity to disclose never presented), (4) lack of understanding (e.g., the child failed to recognize abusive behavior as unacceptable), and (5) relationship with the perpetrator (e.g., the child thought the perpetrator was a friend)."

The barriers help us to see that creating an opportunity for disclosures is an important step. Also, continuing to help children see what is and is not abusive along with opportunity to tell will increase the possibility of a disclosure.

In the articles discussion, they note that age seems to influence who a child will first tell. "Younger children were more likely to disclose to adults and older children were more likely to disclose to peers" (p.350).

This research will help interviewers and others close to the child understand why disclosures happen but also why they do not. The authors affirm that it makes sense to ask the child why and to whom. There appears to he a logical explanation. For example, they note, "nowing why a particular child told or waited to tell about sexual abuse will allow investigators to see not only what happened to the child but to contextualize the child’s disclosure within a fuller understanding of his or behavior. For example, rather than cast doubt on the veracity of a child’s disclosure, a delay in telling about abuse, once explained, can be understood as a marker of another form of child abuse, such as when a perpetrator threatens a child with violence if he or she were to tell about the sexual abuse"(p. 351). By asking about the process of disclosure then, one might well learn that the child has previously reported but to a person that did not act. By asking, therefore, what appears to be a first telling of the story may not be. Also by asking about barriers, a lack of telling may contextually make more sense.

The authors further note that this material will help prosecutors explain disclosure to the courts more effectively. It will also help parents understand timing of disclosures.

I recommend the study to anyone working with children reporting sexual abuse.


Schaeffer, P., Leventhal,J.M. & Asnes, A.G. (2011). Children’s disclosures of sexual abuse: Learning from direct inquiry. Child Abuse and Neglect, 35, 343-352.

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