Child sexual abuse—hearing the cry for help is not always a simple task

January 4, 2018 by Samuel Larner, The Conversation
Children need to be listened to when they reach out for help. Credit: Shutterstock/BrianAJackson

Child sexual abuse is on the rise in the UK with the NSPCC announcing a 31% increase in police referrals in 2017 compared to the previous year. Worryingly, this is just the tip of the iceberg as child sexual abuse is widely under-reported. My research has revealed that a major factor in this issue is the use of language and a safeguarding system which is sometimes deaf to a child's cry for help.

There are many reasons why a child will not tell anyone that they are being abused, including fear, shame and confusion. It is therefore important that adults are aware of behaviours that may be symptomatic of sexual abuse.

Greater awareness of potential indicators of sexual abuse is undoubtedly crucial for helping adults to recognise when there may be a problem. But as a linguist, I am particularly troubled by reports of children who attempted to disclose sexual abuse, but felt that they were never heard. That is, their attempts to seek help failed.

The disclosure stage (the point at which an allegation of sexual abuse is made) is crucial in determining what action is taken, if any at all. The recipient must firstly acknowledge that a child has reported sexual abuse and then be willing to act.

There are several reasons why children's voices may be unheard. Sadly, cases where recipients have not acted appropriately, either through minimisation or cover-up are numerous. Second, since children often do not make a clear disclosure, the full extent of their abuse may not always be apparent. They may only partially report the abuse, they may minimise the extent of the abuse, and they may lack the vocabulary to convey the full extent of their abuse.

Linguistic skill

But another reason why disclosures go unheard may be linked to the linguistic skill of the adult the child confides to.

In data that I am currently analysing (online counselling sessions between victims of sexual abuse and ChildLine volunteers) some children talk explicitly about sexual abuse. Within the opening lines of one counselling session, an 11-year-old child stated bluntly that she had been raped.

By contrast, a 15-year-old revealed more cautiously over a conversation lasting one hour and ten minutes. First, she reported she had had sex. Later, she explained that she didn't consent. She then provided details about the level of force. Finally, one hour into the conversation, she asked for clarification over whether she had been raped.

Importantly, it was the counsellor that facilitated the disclosure and helped the child to articulate it. In this example, the process of reporting was very much a two-person interaction. The pressure shifted from the child being solely responsible for making the disclosure to the counsellor supporting and eliciting it.

From this perspective, it is understandable why some children report how they've tried to tell someone what has happened to them – but have not been heard. It is possible that the adults they spoke to were either not skilled in drawing out the information or following safeguarding advice and training were reluctant to do so for fear of contaminating the child's evidence.

Support versus evidence

The problem is that an allegation made in an anonymous counselling session is very different to a disclosure made to a teacher or social worker. In a ChildLine counselling session, the focus is on supporting the child. By contrast, teachers and social workers are duty bound to report disclosures and the statement that the child produces constitutes evidence, which may be used in subsequent criminal proceedings.

Guidance for social workers and teachers highlights the need to collect accurate and complete information from the child, reporting only the words that the child has used and without using leading questions.

This creates an apparent paradox since my research suggests some children rely on an adult to help construct their disclosure precisely so they can produce complete information. While the evidential approach is designed to collect uncontaminated evidence, it potentially fails those children who need adults' help to actually say the words.

In my data, a 12-year-old girl explicitly asked the counsellor to ask her questions because she found it easier than providing an unprompted narrative. Teachers are explicitly told that how they speak to the child can affect the evidence and questioning should be kept to the minimum. The child is expected to articulate their independently.

It seems, then, that there is a potential tension between the needs of the child in making a disclosure and the needs of trusted adults who are in a position to help the . For many children in my data, their concern was not with prosecuting their abuser. Many explicitly said they did not want this. What they often wanted was emotional support, reassurance that they did nothing wrong, and clarification about what had happened to them so that they could begin to make sense of it.

For as long as safeguarding policies place emphasis on the quality of evidence collected, rather than focusing on helping children to understand and verbalise how they've been abused, 's voices will continue to be unheard.

Explore further: Child abuse common in Vietnam

Related Stories

Child abuse common in Vietnam

December 11, 2017
Child abuse is a common problem in Vietnam. All forms of child abuse – emotional and physical – have a negative emotional effect on the child. In some cases, the child's physical health and memory are also affected. These ...

Women who sexually abuse children are just as harmful to their victims as male abusers

August 21, 2017
"That she might seduce a helpless child into sexplay is unthinkable, and even if she did so, what harm can be done without a penis?"

Not all sexually abused and exploited children are groomed

March 29, 2017
Not all children who are sexually exploited are groomed, and the increasing tendency to link exploitation with grooming means some cases are being missed, a Cardiff University academic argues in a new book.

Intergenerational transmission of abuse and neglect more complicated than previously believed

March 26, 2015
A study led by Cathy Spatz Widom, Distinguished Professor of Psychology at John Jay College, found that offspring of parents with histories of child abuse and neglect are themselves at risk for childhood neglect and sexual ...

Teaching children in schools about sexual abuse may help them report abuse

April 16, 2015
Children who are taught about preventing sexual abuse at school are more likely than others to tell an adult if they had, or were actually experiencing sexual abuse. This is according to the results of a new Cochrane review ...

Know the signs of child abuse

April 13, 2015
(HealthDay)—A report of child abuse is made every 10 seconds in the United States, and more than 1,600 children die each year from abuse or neglect, an expert says.

Recommended for you

Inflammation in the womb may explain why some babies are more prone to sepsis after birth

October 9, 2018
Each year 15 million infants are born preterm and face high risks of short- and long-term complications, including sepsis, severe inflammation of the gut, and neurodevelopmental disorders. A new report in the American Journal ...

Dummies not to blame for common speech disorder in kids

October 9, 2018
New University of Sydney research shows bottles, dummies, and thumb sucking in the early years of life do not cause or worsen phonological impairment, the most common type of speech disorder in children.

'Genes are not destiny' when it comes to weight

October 9, 2018
A healthy home environment could help offset children's genetic susceptibilities to obesity, according to new research led by UCL.

Old drug could have new use helping sick premature babies

October 8, 2018
Researchers from The University of Western Australia, King Edward Memorial Hospital and Curtin University are investigating whether an old drug could be used to help very sick premature babies.

Insufficient sleep associated with risky behavior in teens

October 1, 2018
Adolescents require 8-10 hours of sleep at night for optimal health, according to sleep experts, yet more than 70 percent of high school students get less than that. Previous studies have demonstrated that insufficient sleep ...

Checked off 'the talk' with your teen? Not so fast: Once isn't enough

October 1, 2018
Patting yourself on the back for gritting through "the talk" with your kid? Not so fast: new research from Brigham Young University family life professor Laura Padilla-Walker suggests that when it comes to your teens, one ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.