When child sexual abuse is suspected
When you suspect a child has been abused, you are legally required to report your suspicion to child protective services or the police. Click here for provincial and regional reporting information.
When children disclose
If you interact with children, you may find yourself in a situation where a child tells you that he or she was sexually abused. How you respond to this disclosure can make a significant difference in that child’s life. You do not need to be an expert in child psychology or have all of the answers to respond appropriately.
What to do
- Use good listening skills.
- Believe the child. It is very rare for children to lie about child sexual abuse. In terms of false positives for child sexual abuse, evidence suggests that the occurrence of intentionally fabricated child sexual abuse allegations is extremely low, and thus disclosures should be taken seriously and at face value.
- Remain as calm as possible. It is expected that you will feel a range of emotions (sadness, confusion, anger and betrayal are common). Try to keep these emotions to yourself when speaking with the child and save them to share with a supportive adult.
- Allow for silence. Sometimes words are not necessary for a child to feel believed, cared for, or protected. Avoid filling space with idle chatter, even if this is difficult for you.
- Avoid promising things that you cannot guarantee, such as, “I’ll make sure you never have to see that person again.” Work hard to reassure the child in ways that you can follow through on.
- Be honest about your legal obligation to report abuse. Even if the child asks you to keep the abuse secret, private or confidential, you must report the abuse. It is best to be honest with the child that you are required to do this.
- Avoid asking too many questions or you may silence the child. Ask yourself, “Do I need to know the answer to this question, or am I asking out of curiosity?” If you need to know the answer to determine how immediate the risk is for the child, then you can ask him or her the question.
- Determine if the child is in immediate danger and take steps to protect the child from further abuse.
- Report the abuse to child protective services and police.
What to say
- Say, “I believe you.”, or “I believe that this happened to you.”
- Tell the child that the abuse is not his or her fault. Most children blame themselves for the sexual abuse. Say, “None of this is your fault.”, or “It isn’t your fault that his happened.” Hearing this from you can make a big difference for the child’s future healing.
- Tell the child you are glad they told you about the abuse.
- If emotions like anger slip out, talk to the child about them. This way the child does not feel responsible for them. “I am feeling really angry at Auntie for doing these things to you. I am not angry at you.”
- Be honest with the child. If you are not sure what is going to happen, say that. If you do not know what to do, let him or her know that. You can say, “I’m not sure what is going to happen, but I’m going to keep helping you as much as I can.” By telling you about the sexual abuse, the child is demonstrating his or her high level of trust in you. Respect this trust by being open.
- As soon as you can, make a written record of what the child said to you and any observations you made. This will prove very helpful when reporting the details and for any subsequent investigation.
Should I make a report?
When you suspect a child has been abused, you are legally required to report your suspicion to child protective services or the police. Click here for provincial and regional reporting information and resources.
Click here to download a PDF reference guide.
Making a report of suspected child sexual abuse
When making a report:
- Write down everything that you are concerned about before you call to report. Refer to these notes while you report. Include things the child said, as well as any concerning signs you have noticed. Date and sign your notes.
- Call your local child protective services office. If you need help finding the number click here.
- If the child is in immediate danger, call your local emergency police dispatch.
- Do not hesitate to report because you do not have a lot of information. Even a small amount of information about a child can be helpful or can make a difference in the investigation process.
- Continue reporting each time you have new information. Child services or police may decide not to investigate initially because they don’t have enough information. By sharing more information about the child, what the child has told you or what concerning signs you’ve noted, you can help authorities make the decision to investigate at a later time. Furthermore, you never know how much information child services and/or police already have on this child. What might feel like a small amount of information may add to an ongoing file or investigation of which you were not aware.
- Talk to your own support network, and share your worries and fears throughout the reporting process. Also, lean on your support network to discuss any disappointments and successes that may come out of reporting.