South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault & Family Violence

Evidence for disclosure difficulties: Field studies

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Lawson and Chaffin highlighted the difficulties that children, from three years through to adolescence, experienced in disclosing sexual abuse.(24) Over half the sample (57 per cent) who were diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease did not disclose their suspected abuse. In another study in which factors associated with the disclosure of sexual abuse were investigated, 156 children who had been referred to a program for sexually abused children were evaluated.(25) This study showed that while just over 50 per cent of children disclosed their abuse, almost 50 per cent did not do so. Rather, the abuse was suspected by others. Why were so many children unable or reluctant to disclose their abuse? Two major factors associated with children's disclosure difficulty emerged from Sauzier's study. The first involved the impact of the offender's methods for gaining the child's involvement in the abusive episode. Aggression was equally likely to lead to nondisclosure as to reporting the incident immediately, whereas both threats and manipulation had the effect of inhibiting immediate disclosure. Second, the relationship of the offender to the child had an impact on disclosure. Children were much less likely to disclose the abuse when the offender was their natural father, whereas they were much more likely to disclose the abuse immediately when the offender was a non-family member. The fact that so many children in this and other studies have been found to be abused by somebody they know suggests that disclosure will often be difficult and that many children will not voluntarily disclose their abuse.

Although it might be easier for children to disclose abuse involving a non-family rather than family member, other studies indicate that young children are also reluctant to disclose abuse by non-family members, for example, in day care centres.(26)

One of the most perplexing questions about daycare sexual abuse has been, "How could it go undetected for so long?" "Why don't the children involved tell?"(27)

In their study of the disclosure of sexual abuse involving children under seven in day care contexts, Burns et al showed that while 19 per cent of all cases were disclosed on the same day the abuse took place, 32 per cent of the children took more than six months to disclose the abuse.(28) The majority of the disclosures were made to parents or relatives (86 per cent) and the remaining reports were made to day care staff or other professionals. Many disclosures either happened spontaneously or were triggered by other events. For example, some children disclosed when they realised that they were about to return to the day care facility, or when they felt safe (for example, on vacation) and were away from the perpetrator.

Given that approximately "50% of the victims reported that they had been threatened" with harm to themselves or their families if they told, it is not surprising that many children were afraid and waited until they felt secure that [the perpetrator] could not retaliate.(29)

These field studies reveal that disclosure of sexual abuse is problematic. Children are embarrassed to talk about the abuse, blame themselves, and feel they have done something wrong. In addition the majority of victims have been sworn to secrecy or severely threatened by the perpetrator not to disclose. Consequently, children are reluctant to disclose abuse. As a result, it is not surprising that some interviewers resort to leading questions to facilitate the child's disclosure of an alleged abusive experience. Yet, courts regard such questioning as suggestive and grounds for dismissal of the case. To facilitate disclosure in the least traumatic manner without using suggestive interviewing techniques, it is necessary to understand the disclosure process so that children do not have to remain silent about abuse and keep it secret.


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