Identifying child sexual abuse especially in an institutional setting is the first and often most important step in protecting children and preventing its re-occurrence.
It is not sufficient just to educate children to recognise behaviours that constitute sexual abuse, and instruct them to tell someone if they are abused. Instead, adults also need to be attuned to signs of harm in children and equipped to identify signs of possible sexual abuse. Adults and the wider community need to better understand the dynamics of sexual abuse and how to recognise grooming tactics, and to notice emotional and behavioural changes in children.
Any change(s) in a child’s behaviour and/or emotions should not be overlooked. Children who experience sexual abuse may exhibit a range of physical, behavioural and emotional symptoms that could be indicators of trauma and abuse. There can be many reasons for a change in a child’s or young person’s behaviour or emotions. However, adults need to be aware of and alert to possible indicators, and keep child safety, including the possibility of sexual abuse, paramount.
The hidden quality of child sexual abuse means that disclosure by the survivor is often the only way another person and/or an organisation may become aware of it. Survivors told the Royal Commission (the RC) that they disclosed their abuse because they wanted the abuse to stop or wanted to prevent it happening to others. For others disclosures were made as they could no longer carry the burden of the secrecy of sexual abuse.
Usually disclosure is a process, and different people will disclose in different ways, at different times in their life. Many victims do not disclose child sexual abuse until many years after the abuse occurred, survivors who spoke with the RC during a private session took, on average, 24 years to tell someone about the abuse, men often took longer to disclose than women and some people never disclose.
How disclosure takes place is influenced by the age and developmental stage, disability, gender and cultural or linguistic background of the survivor. Other factors that impact on the disclosure of child sexual abuse are the vulnerability of a child and the inherent power imbalances and complex institutional environments that they are required to understand and overcome in order to disclose abuse.
Survivors told the RC of the multiple barriers to disclosure that they face and they are as follows:-
- Feelings of shame and embarrassment
- Survivors are less likely to disclose if they feel they won’t be believed, expect a negative response or believe that the disclosure will have negative consequences for them
- For men, one of the barriers to disclosure arise from the myth and the stigma that surrounds victims becoming perpetrators
- Attitudes to sexuality and gender can impact on a survivors’ decisions to disclose abuse
- 8% of those who met with the RC in private session did not know that the behaviour was abusive
- Survivors abused at a young age did not have the language and/or communication skills to disclose
The other great barrier to disclosure is the perpetrator’s behaviour and tactics, which can prevent abuse being identified and stop the child from disclosing. This is especially so where the abuse takes place in an institution, where the perpetrator is someone who is familiar to, and in a position of power and authority over, the child. This can inhibit the child from disclosing, both at the time of the abuse and in the years that follow. Perpetrators may also inhibit disclosure using overt tactics, such as threats to the child or their loved ones
Perpetrators can use grooming and other tactics to enable and facilitate the sexual abuse of children. They may groom to gain access to a victim, initiate and maintain sexual abuse of that victim, and conceal the sexual abuse from others who may identify it. They help to establish an emotional connection and build trust. They can involve a range of subtle, drawn out, calculated, controlling and premeditated behaviours and many of those who met with the RC in private session spoke of how this “grooming” contributed to silencing them and was a barrier to disclosure. Others told the RC that they did not disclose because they felt responsible for the abuse or thought it was their fault as that is what they had been told by the perpetrator.
Institutions can create barriers both to the identification and disclosure of child sexual abuse. The RC accepted that most institutions now have policies and procedures that describe and provide examples of inappropriate behaviour, outline how to identify and report suspicions, and specify record keeping and information sharing requirements help keep children safe. However, if these policies and procedures are routinely ignored, not implemented or regarded as unimportant within the culture of the institution, it will be more difficult for children to disclose and for others to identify child sexual abuse.
One third of those who spoke with the RC in private session said there was no one to tell, no clear or supportive pathway to disclose and often the perpetrator played a major role in the institution; sometimes they were also the person responsible for responding to complaints. Others found that institutions prioritised reputations over the care and safety of children.
Inappropriate or damaging responses by institutions can result in the sexual abuse continuing for the victim, as well as placing other children at risk. Survivors reported that these responses can not only compound the impacts of the abuse, but cause additional impacts and re-traumatisation.
The RC noted that the conditions that empower, encourage and support children to disclose include:-
- safe adults being available and accessible for children
- children being given opportunities to raise and discuss concerns
- children having access to sexual abuse prevention programs and information about sexual abuse
- young people being taught to support peers
- children being provided with appropriate supports to communicate abuse.
The RC also noted that there are different conditions that encourage and support adults to disclose and they include:-
- learning about child sexual abuse
- supportive responses
- access to support groups
- media coverage and publicity about child sexual abuse
- special telephone numbers that assist with reporting abuse to police
- awareness of redress schemes.
What is clear from the final report of the RC is that identifying abuse is the first step to prevention and very often disclosure is the only way to identify that the abuse is taking or had taken place. Given these findings, individuals or those in institutions who may receive a disclosure, or who may become aware of abuse, should know how to react and respond and should immediately take the necessary steps to ensure the safety of children. They should also be mindful that the reaction of the person to whom a disclosure is made may affect whether the survivor makes future disclosures and may also affect the severity of mental health and/or psychological symptoms experienced by the survivor. Appropriate training and support needs to be considered by any organisation where disclosure of abuse is a possibility. It should not be assumed that it will never happen or that an appropriate response will be provided.
Written by Sharon Moohan, partner and BLM