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Skills for Educators

All Skills for Educators

Guidelines for Handling Disclosures of Child Sexual Abuse

When educating young people about family life and sexuality, educators need to be sensitive to the fact that one or more youth in their group is or has been a victim of child sexual abuse. Youth who have been victims of sexual abuse will hear discussions about sexuality differently than other teens. For them, sex may not have been a pleasurable event, and negotiating the use of protection is almost always impossible.

Occasionally, open discussions of sexuality may lead to a youth making a disclosure about abuse to the educator or to the class. Because many of us are uncomfortable with the thought of a young person telling us that he or she has been abused, it's helpful to have some guidelines for handling this situation before it occurs. There are four critical elements to handling a disclosure effectively. They are:

Doing Your Homework

Handling the Disclosure in Class

Following Up after the Disclosure

Handling the Concern that a Student has Lied about Abuse

Doing Your Homework

You can do several things ahead of time to prepare yourself for a disclosure, including:

  1. Know what child sexual abuse is and how frequently it happens. (See Topic in Brief on sexual abuse for a general definition of child sexual abuse.)

  2. Know your state laws and school/agency policies about reporting child sexual abuse.

  3. Know who you need to consult in your school/agency if a youth makes a disclosure (e.g., school nurse, principal, or school counselor). Your district/agency policies may clearly define who that person needs to be.

  4. Know the local Child Protective Services' phone number so you can report the abuse, and keep the number in a place that's easily accessible.

  5. Familiarize yourself with the reporting form and time requirements so that you know the essential information you will need to make a report (e.g. youth's name, address, phone number, nature of the incident, etc.)

  6. If you have been a victim of child sexual abuse, you may want to think about how that experience might effect the way you might handle a disclosure. If you feel that it will bring up feelings that may reduce your capacity to deal effectively with the youth, it will be important to have identified someone to provide support to both you and the youth.


Handling the Disclosure in Class

The concern that a young person may disclose abuse during class is a common one. Keep in mind that usually when a youth discloses in front of the class, it's about an abuse that has already been reported and resolved. Being able to talk about it would typically indicate that some time has passed and some healing has occurred.

Even if the abuse appears to be a current problem, resume the lesson after acknowledging the comment and if possible, relating it to the lesson. Saying something like, "I'm really sorry that happened to you, and I would be happy to talk more with you about it after class if you like" affirms the youth and lets you move forward with the discussion.

After class, talk with the disclosing youth privately. Try to find out more about the abuse. Is the youth currently being abused? Is the abuse ongoing? Remember that the abuse does not have to be proven to report it. Most importantly:

  • Demonstrate that you believe what the student has shared.

  • Reassure him/her that you will assist in getting help.

  • Emphasize that the problem is not the fault of the youth.

  • Affirm the youth for telling you.

  • Don't promise to keep it a secret; instead explain why you have to report it and to whom.

  • Promise that you will tell only those people you are required to tell and no one else.

If a youth feels comfortable enough to share with the class or group about the abuse, he/she will rarely break down or become disruptive during the lesson. However, if a youth does express feelings in a way that seems disruptive or distressful to the rest of the group, you should seek out the additional help you identified when you did your "homework."


Following Up after the Disclosure

It's important to make sure a youth gets support after the disclosure. Some important tips to remember are:

  1. You are not the youth's therapist. After sensitively handling the initial disclosure, involve professionals such as school social workers, private therapists or agency counselors. Trust their expertise and cooperate in every way possible.

  2. Provide as normal and supportive an environment as you can in the classroom or group. In other words, interact with the youth as you normally would while communicating your empathy and support when it's appropriate. The school or youth group may be the only safe place for the victim, particularly in the case of incest.

  3. Be ready to listen, but don't pry. Recognize and reinforce the youth's sense of self worth with praise, and create opportunities for success both socially and academically.

  4. You need not avoid touching the youth, but ask for permission first. It's important for the young person to know that not all touch is bad and, in this case, you are expressing warmth and support.

  5. Recognize and honor the fact that the youth trusted you enough to tell you. This is a tremendous step for him or her on the path to protection and healing. Many children never tell.

  6. Take care of yourself. You may have strong feelings of empathy or sympathy for the youth, or you may feel a lot of anger for the abuser, or it may bring up feelings about uncomfortable experiences from your past. Therefore, it's important to get support for yourself. Without compromising the confidentiality of the youth or the situation, you may need to talk to someone about the feelings the disclosure elicited for you. Take the time to seek out someone who can listen and support you. If necessary, call a rape relief agency in your area. They have been trained to provide the kind of support you may be looking for.


Handling the Concern that a Student has Lied about Abuse

Our society still holds many myths about child sexual abuse, one of which is that youth often lie about it. If you have this concern or others around you voice their doubts about a disclosure, remember:

  1. Few young people lie about sexual abuse. Sexual assault is embarrassing to talk about, and kids are apt to fear being blamed or doubted. If a young person needs attention or wants to get back at someone, he/she usually finds easier ways to do it.

  2. Misrepresentation is more likely to take the form of not telling parts of the story, downplaying or distancing the situation (i.e., "It only happened once." "It happened to this friend of mine.")

If, on rare occasions, a youth does lie about sexual abuse, ask more questions about what is going on in his/her life. This young person needs special help and attention and spending time talking with him/her may help you better understand what he/she needs.