It’s one of the hardest things a parent ever has to face: their children reporting sexual abuse. What do you do if your kid comes to you and says the worst has happened? Who should you talk to, when, and what shouldn’t you say or do around your child?
The single most important thing for a parent to do after a child reports sexual abuse is to give that child the love and support they need to move past the harm. As emotional as that moment may be for you, your child needs to know that they will be okay, and that they are not “damaged” by what has happened.
That starts with your response to your children when they report sexual abuse. Thank them for telling you and believe what they say. Most historical studies about false claims of sexual abuse by children show less than 10% of all allegations were made up. Most of those were by adolescents seeking revenge or a change in their custodial environment. So if your child comes to you and says something inappropriate happened, you should treat that as truth, no matter how much you would rather it wasn’t.
Next, stay calm and be clear about what they are telling you. Ask questions in an open way without suggesting the answer you want to hear. For example, rather than saying, “He didn’t have sex with you, did he?” you could ask, “What did he do with you in the bedroom?” Try not let your face tell your child that you are relieved or disappointed with their answers. Children will often change their stories if they feel like they are causing pain or upsetting others -- especially their parents. This doesn’t mean the sexual assault didn’t happen, but it could make it harder to prove what did occur later on.
Once that initial, painful conversation is over, work with your child and the other adults in their life to make them feel safe. Make sure your child understands that the person that assaulted him or her is the one who did something wrong, not them. Listen to what your child needs to feel protected, and let them do whatever makes them feel safe and comfortable, even if it seems unreasonable to you. This will help them understand they are in control of their own body. At the same time, pay attention to any behaviors that are regressive (bed wetting, sleeping with parents in their bed, sucking thumbs) because these may be symptoms of trauma.
You should also be working with the adults in your child’s life to ensure their safety. If the perpetrator of the abuse is a family member or family friend, take steps to make sure that person is never alone with your child. Create a safety plan with your child’s other parent, caregivers, teachers, and other mentors to shield them from their abuser while protecting their privacy.
No one can or should be expected to respond to children who report sexual abuse alone. There are a number of professionals whose job it is to help you along the way:
Sexual assault of a child is illegal in all 50 states. Anytime a child reports being sexually assaulted by an adult, you should contact the police right away to issue a report and start the criminal investigation. This is true even if the abuser is a member of your family or someone you care about. If this person was willing to take inappropriate actions with your child, he or she may do it again to another child unless someone intervenes. Also, as a parent of a sexually assaulted child, failing to take reasonable steps to report and respond to abuse -- including filing a police report -- can sometimes result in protective services action against you.
Sexual intercourse can physically harm young children. If you believe that your child has engaged in sex you should have them examined by their pediatrician or family physician. In some cases, the police will want a medical examination done right away -- even before the child has a chance to bathe -- in the hope that physical evidence of the abuser may be preserved. Even if the incident happened days ago or longer, you should still have your child see a doctor to make sure there are no physical injuries. The doctor may also be able to recommend a therapist or counselor to help your child deal with the emotional effects of the traumatic event.
Not everything that should happen after a child reports sexual assault needs to happen right away, and you may not even know everything on that list. It is a good idea to speak to a sex abuse attorney or victim’s advocate soon after the report happens. Some prosecuting attorneys’ offices will assign victims advocates to cases that result in criminal charges, but the work they do is limited to that case. A private sex abuse attorney, like our team at Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, can help you identify and connect with the right professionals, prioritize between the demands on you and your child, and help protect your son or daughter’s rights, keeping them from revictimization or becoming traumatized again because of the process.
In many cases, the criminal investigation of a report of child sexual assault will include a forensic examination and interview by a professional trained to help children tell their stories. It is best if these interviews happen early in the investigative process, before a child has time, or a reason, to change their story.
In many cases, the most important professional in your child’s life after a sexual assault is their counselor. A psychologist or therapist trained in trauma recovery can help your child better articulate what happened to them, learn coping mechanisms to deal with the emotional aspects of recovery, and give them a safe space to say whatever they are feeling, even about you. Be sure to protect that confidential relationship. Your child’s therapist may want to speak to you about things that are said or done in therapy or explain how you can help encourage your child between sessions, but you should not press your child to find out what was said in a private session.
As a parent of a sexually abused child, you will have feelings of your own about the situation. While there is no single “right” emotional reaction, many parents feel:
Your child does not need to see you wrestle with these emotions. They have a hard enough task ahead of them dealing with their own. Find a friend to share them with privately, discuss them with your sex abuse attorney, or seek professional support from a counselor or support group. Try not to air your feelings publicly or in a way that they may come back to your child (such as on social media).
There is no easy answer about what to do when a child reports sexual assault. The best advice is to be patient and supportive with your child, and to get the professional help you both need to heal and protect your rights. At Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, we have a team of attorneys who know what to do in the face of sex abuse for children and their parents. We will help you so you can help your child and get the justice and compensation you need to move on. Contact us today to schedule a free consultation.