Academic journal article Child Welfare

Responding to Children's Disclosure of Familial Abuse: What Survivors Tell Us

Academic journal article Child Welfare

Responding to Children's Disclosure of Familial Abuse: What Survivors Tell Us

Article excerpt

This study is based on the reports of 384 adults who were abused physically, sexually, and/or emotionally in childhood by family members. It describes the survivors' attempts, as children, to get help by disclosing the abuse to someone who might intervene; those who did not disclose explain their reasons. The results indicate that disclosure usually did not bring an end to the abuse, and that little action was taken to control the perpetrator, even after disclosure took place. The responses received by the children to their disclosure are linked to their levels of self-esteem and family functioning as adults.

With reports of child abuse proliferating since the early 1980s, professionals who work with children are in creasingly being called upon to respond to children's disclosures of abuse, especially sexual abuse. An effective response from these professionals is crucial to the child's future well-being. To be effective, professionals must learn from survivors of abuse about the responses to their disclosures and how the responses may have affected them. Survivors' memories may not always accurately reflect events; nevertheless, they represent a potential influence on survivors' self-concepts and their interpersonal relationships.

Professionals who receive disclosures can help children on a number of fronts: taking action to stop the abuse, eliciting support from nonoffending family members, and helping children to resolve internal conflicts about being victims of abuse. All these responses help provide the abused child with a protective mechanism, that is, "What was previously a risk trajectory is changed to one with a greater likelihood of an adaptive outcome" [Rutter 1987: 318].

In this study, disclosure is broadly defined to include the revelation of the abuse to adults, either by the child victim or by the adults' observation of the abusive behavior and/or its effects. Observation is included because children may be preempted from disclosing abuse if they believe it is already known to adults in their environment. If observing adults take no action, the child will probably assume the abusive behavior is socially acceptable. Disclosure does not always come as a clear, one-time statementit may be "partial, vague, or vacillating," especially in instances of sexual abuse. Thus, confidants must support children in moving on to active disclosure [Sorensen & Snow 1991: 5].

Knowledge about Disclosure

Current knowledge about survivors' experiences of disclosure includes reasons for not disclosing; conditions facilitating disclosure; perceived benefits of disclosing; and unsupportive and supportive responses by observers/confidants and the effects of those responses on children.

Reasons for Not Disclosing

Children often find it difficult to disclose their abusive experiences. In a study of 116 cases where child sexual abuse was confirmed by a perpetrator's subsequent guilty plea or conviction, or by highly consistent medical evidence, 72% of the victims denied the abuse when they were first questioned about it [Sorensen & Snow 1991]. Ihe literature suggests that the strongest inhibitors of disclosure are fear of the consequences, self-blame, lack of awareness, and difficulty in talking about the abuse.

Children's fear of the consequences of disclosure may be the strongest inhibitor of disclosure. In Roberts and Taylor's [1993] study, several latency-age girls expressed fears of retribution from male offenders or angry responses from their nonoffending mothers. For some children, the fear extends beyond their own safety to a fear of betraying or harming their families [Everson et al. 1989] (e.g., the fear of police involvement that might lead to the offender being jailed [Roberts & Taylor 1993]). Evidence suggests that a child's relationship with the perpetrator and the latter's skill in manipulation are much more influential in whether the child discloses than is the child's exposure to educational prevention programs [London Family Court Clinic 1995]. …

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