What to do if you suspect sexual abuse of your child

I want to state upfront that we, as a society, need to remember that it is not just girls who are victims of sexual abuse; boys are, too. Boys have just not opened up before, but increasingly, they are coming forward with their stories.

Photo by Kat J on Unsplash

The initial steps that you, the parent, take when you suspect abuse are of the utmost importance.

Your child may tell you outright that someone touched him or her inappropriately, or there may be a complaint of pain in private parts or the anus. There may be redness and swelling and, in extreme cases, tearing and bleeding. Infections and discharge may also be present.

Don’t jump to conclusions at the first report of discomfort. At some stages of development it is common for children to investigate their bodies and it is possible that some scratching or small injury may occur. Gentle conversation with the child should clarify what has happened.

However, if there is an emotional change in your child after visiting someone, or after receiving a visit from someone, take note. Depending on age, children who have experienced some sexual abuse may be unusually clingy, tearful or unsure of themselves. Alternatively, they may become withdrawn, grumpy and secretive. A little encouragement may get them to come forward with the story. Focus on not putting words in their mouths but rather ask open ended questions.

Older children and teenagers will react differently, perhaps with aggression, bouts of depression or even sexually inappropriate behaviour. They could start self harming or develop bulimia. These disorders may have a cause completely unrelated to molestation, so again, don’t make assumptions but do get psychological help for your child as a matter of urgency. 

If you suspect abuse, you will feel disbelief and shock, which may trigger a defence in the form of anger, fear or denial. These overwhelming emotions may result in actions you wouldn’t normally take, so it is very important to take a few deep breaths to calm yourself before reacting.

Give your child a safe, supportive space to tell you what happened. Don’t ask too many questions but make notes (not in front of the child) of the words that your child uses to describe the events. Try not to give your own interpretation of what has been said; listen closely so that you can recall exactly what your child says. You may well be the first person to whom the child discloses the truth and the accuracy of a first disclosure is crucial for the success of future interventions. You could later be accused of influencing the child or of giving inaccurate information, and it is for this reason that you need to record the conversation as accurately as possible.

In the event of obvious, recent molestation, do not wash the child but ask for an urgent doctor’s appointment so that a medical assessment can be performed and a J88 completed. This is a document in which a doctor or nurse records physical injuries for legal purposes. This is often the only objective information available in a legal case and it is a form that the courts take very seriously. This J88 is usually done by a district surgeon but a general practitioner can also complete it. It may be less traumatic for children to be examined by and talk to a doctor they already know. The doctor also needs to do a short report and take detailed notes of what the child says in case he or she is called as a witness. This information must also be recorded on the J88 in clear, legible handwriting that the judge or magistrate will be able to read.

Your doctor or district surgeon should contact a social worker to proceed with an investigation. If you can afford it, a private social worker is the best option as the public servants are very busy and cannot always give the attention that is needed.

The social worker will want to lay a charge at the police station right after their first intervention. Yes, it has to be done, but first you need protection for your child. It is a good idea to contact us at this stage so that we can help you to get the necessary protection orders and orders to withhold contact from the perpetrator. The way the matter is handled from here on is crucial to a long-term successful outcome.

It is also important that you as a parent get support to deal with your shock and to enable you to be there for your child. Victims of sexual abuse have told me that having parents who didn’t believe them, or who took no action to protect them, was more traumatic than the event itself. The worst betrayal and trauma for these children was where the perpetrator was the parent’s partner, yet they still stayed together. 

I will make a webinar and an online course available on how to successfully institute protection orders and an application for protection of the child.