For Professionals

Disclosing sexual violence
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Disclosure and Secrets

Disclosure is an interesting word, which is often used in general terms. However, Disclosing something to someone isn’t simply sharing information. Rather, it is closely connected to secrecy because only secrets can be disclosed. Even when a child has told another questioner/interviwer about incidents of abuse, it is possible that there are some other details which they have not yet revealed.
The word ‘secret’ is vital in understanding the child’s position and how we can help them. Often children prefer staying silent and keeping what happened a secret. From their perspective, this way is safer and more stable in comparison to revealing the ‘horrible secret’. Revealing the secret and getting other people involved to them means dangerous and unforeseen consequences. When dealing with cases of violence, children can have a variety of reasons due to which they keep what happened a secret – the child may feel shame, guilt and fear that no one will believe them and that any outside involvement will make matters worse.

Adults should always take into account one simple fact when thinking about secrecy and intervening:

Knowledge/information = power!

Knowledge gives us the power to act and the power to bring about change. When you have knowledge, you can use it as necessary whereas those who know nothing are powerless to intervene or change anything. This is also how children feel: “if someone finds out about what happened, they will definitely intervene, the situation will change and I don’t know what dangers or complications may follow”. This is why children finds it hard to ‘reveal’ the secret that they’re a victim of sexual violence.

We, as adults, shouldn’t expect that children will talk about the violence that they endured with great enthusiasm through their own initiative. If a child does not want to talk about the abuse, then the adult must be understanding. When working with children who are victims of abuse, we are often so preoccupied with identifying the violence, that we forget the child, their feelings and their state of mind.

Generally, the truth isn’t revealed quickly and all at once when meeting the child. It’s more like a process, a long journey through time, which is connected to a stress induced psychological trauma, emotional and physical factors as well as the nature of the relationship between the child and the person they’re choosing to reveal the truth to.

It may be possible that before the child met you, they were questioned in a way which made them feel that they ought to keep the abuse a secret. In this case, it will be much hard for them to reveal their secret to you. This is why it is useful for any questioner to know who else the child has spoken to about their experience of abuse.

During the last 40 years, a number of studies have been carried out to find out how children reveal abuse. Many of the findings are conflicting, although one thing is apparent – in terms of revealing the truth, children face significant challenges and the process is often very long. For adults, it is often hard to understand why the child does not tell someone about the abuse straightaway and why they choose to keep it a secret instead, when their own safety and the safety of those close to them is threatened.

Secrecy and Plausibility

When trying to establish the truth about the abuse, professionals have a tough task ahead of them. The specific nature of abuse presents significant obstacles as it invokes shock and other strong emotions.

It’s quite common for sexual violence to be revealed many years after it occurs, or even after the death of the abuser. Such was the case with the BBC child programme presenter Jimmy Savile, whose crimes were exposed decades later after his death in 2011. By this time, the children who were sexually abused by Savile as children had become adults. 214 sexual offences were committed by Savile in total. Out of these, 34 were related to rape. Savile’s victims were mostly vulnerable children in shelters, underage children in prisons, children in faith schools and patients of hospitals for the impoverished. The administrators of these establishments did not believe the children, and took their stories as false and made-up. Even the cases which were taken to the police were not regarded seriously and no investigations were launched for the allegations because Savile was a well-known and respected figure. People loved him, and for many years he was in the public eye. He was a well-known philanthropist, who spent around 40 million pounds on charity and was even awarded a knighthood.

Overtime, more and more people came forward. People’s perceptions changed radically. Even those who knew about Savile’s activities but kept quiet were blamed. However, sexual violence against children is a complex matter and therefore, the public’s reaction shouldn’t be so simple either.

What do studies show?

In 1983, an American psychiatrist Roland C. Summit proposed and studied the Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome (CSAAS), which helps professionals working with children to understand their experience of sexual abuse in the family. There are five elements:

1. The Secret
2. Helplessness
3. Entrapment and accommodation
4. Delayed disclosure
5. Retraction

Children are often afraid to talk about their experience of sexual violence which keeps them from revealing the truth. According to Summit, children living in this predicament feel terrible. In order to survive physically, emotionally, and psychologically, and because they have no way to escape, children have to get accustomed to their situation and resort to any means of survival (drugs, violent behaviour, social regression). After some time, it becomes possible for them to work up the courage to disclose what happened, but their stories often appear unbelievable and inconsistent. After the reaction of the adult (which more often than not is not one that the child desires), the child retracts what they said. At this stage, many specialists give up.

These findings were further supported in 1991 by Sorren and Snow, especially on the method of disclosure. According to Sorren and Snow’s study, sexual abuse in the family is disclosed in a way that at first glance appears to be accidental.

In recent years, these two studies have been subjects of debate. We mustn’t forget that the Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome must not be used as a method of diagnosis. It is a significant aid that sometimes (not always) represents the dynamics of behaviour of child victims of chronic sexual abuse.

Later on, a study by London and others (2005) called some of Summit’s findings into question. In 1992, Summit himself wrote that the Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome is a theory based on statistics, and not a scientific instrument.

One thing which has never been doubted over the years is that children often choose to keep sexual abuse a secret rather than to disclose it. Many studies have been carried out on adults who were sexually abused as children, and the overall statistic shows that 60-70% chose to keep the abuse a secret and on average, the time before disclosure is 15 years. Only 10-18% of these disclosures ended up being reported.

What was most interesting to those carrying out the research was whether or not the child would deny or confirm the abuse when directly confronted. The results suggest that his rarely happens.

Those children who talk about their experience of sexual abuse through their own initiative are highly likely to do the same when questioned. It must be noted that the support of the parent (who is not abuser) has a significant effect on the child’s sincerity and courage.

The approach which should be used by interviewers, law enforcement and other professionals, is to never assume the truth of a statement and instead to carefully listen to the child and closely investigate the received information.

Conclusion

So, what should the investigators and questioners do? Should they believe everything blindly? Distrust can potentially cause great harm to a child, but blindly believing everything isn’t recommended either. It must also be taken into account that the abuser often puts the child in such circumstances which make it less likely for them to be believed if they decide to tell someone about the abuse. Questioners/interviewers should try to stay objective without damaging the trust that the child decided to place in them.

Incorrectly carried out questionings/interviewers with a low standard of objectivity strengthen institutional child abuse. It is important that those carrying out the investigation know the specific nature of child sexual violence and use the skills which they have mastered over the years, whilst sustaining the necessary level of sensitivity.

 

Ketevan Tavartkiladze
Psychologist at Public Health Foundation of Georgia (PHF)