It’s every parent’s nightmare. Knowing what to do if your child is abused… as well as what NOT to do… is crucial. Here are some tools to help you follow the right… and avoid the wrong… steps to protect your child.
Please note: If a child needs immediate medical attention, attend to those needs first. For any child that needs emergency care or assistance, call 911 immediately! If the child has disclosed sexual abuse or you suspect sexual abuse, ask to have a SART medical professional provide care if possible (see step 6 below).
Once the immediate needs for medical attention (if any) have been addressed, follow these 7-steps to help protect that child from further abuse and begin the healing process. Remember: by taking appropriate action, you demonstrate to the child that s/he is worthy of protection!
1) If you are unsure, but suspect your child is being abused, talk in a comfortable setting with him and ask if he is worried or if something is bothering him. Keep your questions open-ended… you can ask if something has happened to him but DO NOT ask him directly if he is being sexually abused. Allow him to offer that information to you, but do not berate or lead him to that conclusion. This becomes vitally important in the course of any subsequent investigations that may be conducted by law enforcement.
2) If your child confirms she is being abused, do two things:
- Take a deep breath and remain calm; and
- BELIEVE her! The truth will come out in the end, but this is an IMPORTANT POINT. Tremendous damage can be done to children when they disclose abuse to a trusted party and that person reacts with doubt, suspicion or defiance.
3) Collect some details from your child, but avoid having him share too many specifics with you — that should be explored later, ideally with a trained child forensic interviewer. Do, though, ask him to tell you:
- Who did it?
- What happened? (Again, gather general detail, but DO NOT have him delve into too many specifics.)
- Where did it happen?
- When did it happen?
4) Make sure the accused perpetrator has NO access to your child! If the accused perpetrator is in the same location as your child (e.g., at home, school, etc.), immediately remove her from the premises.
5) Immediately contact your local Child Protective Services Department or law enforcement. Hopefully, you live in an area with a Child Advocacy Center where your child can be interviewed about the alleged abuse in a safe, neutral, child-friendly environment. You can also contact the National Child Abuse Hotline and they will connect you with officials in your area.
6) Insist on a “wellness exam” by a Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) medical professional. These specially trained doctors and nurses conduct physical exams of children who are alleged victims of sexual or physical abuse in a non-threatening, child-friendly manner and environment. They are uniquely trained to conduct forensic examinations and determine the presence or absence of signs of abuse. I can’t emphasize this enough… please don’t take your child to his pediatrician unless she is SART certified. Work through your local Child Advocacy Center to connect with a SART professional.
7) Ensure your child has proper professional follow-up with a victims’ advocate or therapist. This is essential! Abuse can leave lifelong scars and impact your child’s emotional and psychological development. It’s imperative you ensure she has access to the professional support and counseling she needs for as long as she needs it.
Remember… your immediate and thoughtful response will make all the difference in the world to your child!