7-Step Response to Child Abuse Disclosure

The 7-Steps & Commonly Asked Questions About Reporting Suspected Child Abuse

By SUE BOLDE, Executive Director

Have you ever taken a moment to consider, “What would I do if a child told me he/she was being abused?” Well, there are helpful ways to respond if a child discloses abuse to you as well as things to avoid. Follow these 7-steps to help protect that child from further abuse and begin the healing process

1) If you are unsure, but suspect a child is being abused, talk with that child in a comfortable setting.  Do not directly ask the child if s/he is being abused, but rather inquire if s/he is worried, if something is bothering the child or if s/he feels unsafe in some way. Keep your questions open-ended… you can ask if something has happened but DO NOT ask the child directly if s/he is being abused. Allow the child to offer that information to you, but do not berate or lead the child to that conclusion. This becomes vitally important in the course of any subsequent investigations that may be conducted by law enforcement.

2) If a child confirms s/he is being abused, do 2 things:

  1. Take a deep breath and remain calm; and
  2. BELIEVE the child! The truth will come out in the end, but this is an IMPORTANT POINT. Tremendous damage can be done to children when they disclose abuse to a trusted party and that person reacts with doubt, suspicion or defiance. This often becomes difficult because most abusers are KNOWN to the child or to the child’s family… only about 10% of sexual predators are strangers.

3) Collect some details from the child, but avoid having him/her share too many specifics with you — that should be explored later, ideally with a trained child forensic interviewer. Do, though, ask the child to tell you:

  1. Who did it?
  2. What happened? (Again, gather general detail, but DO NOT have the child share with you too many specifics. The reason for this is in the event the case goes to trial, you may be called as a witness.)
  3. Where did it happen?
  4. When did it happen?
  5. NOTE: The younger the child, the more difficult it may be to pinpoint some of these details but do the best you can without further traumatizing the child.

4) Make sure the accused perpetrator has NO access to the child! If the accused perpetrator is in the same location as the child (e.g., at home, school, etc.), immediately remove the child from the premises.

5) Immediately contact your local Child Protective Services Department or law enforcement. Ideally, the child would be interviewed about the alleged abuse in a safe, neutral, child-friendly environment, such as the Traverse Bay Children’s Advocacy Center. Here in Northern Michigan, you can make a report any time, day or night, by calling 1-855-444-3911. You will reach the Centralized Intake Line operated by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS). A staff member will assist you in making a report.

6) Insist on a “wellness medical exam” for the child. Specially trained doctors and nurses conduct physical exams of children who are alleged victims of sexual or physical abuse in a non-threatening, child-friendly manner and environment. They are uniquely trained to conduct forensic examinations and determine the presence or absence of signs of abuse. These professionals should meet one of three standards:

a.  Child Abuse Pediatrics Sub-board eligibility or certification;

b.  Physicians without board certification or board eligibility in the field of Child Abuse Pediatrics, Advanced Practice Nurses, and Physician Assistants should have a minimum of 16 hours of formal didactic training in the medical evaluation of child sexual abuse; or

c.  SANEs (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners) without advanced practitioner training should have a minimum of 40-hours of coursework specific to the CRITERIA – Essential Components National Children’s Alliance • Standards for Accredited Members • 2017 Edition | 315 medical evaluation of child sexual abuse followed by a competency based clinical preceptorship. This means a preceptorship with an experienced provider in a clinical setting where the SANE can demonstrate competency in performing exams.

Work through your local Child Advocacy Center or law enforcement to connect with a specially trained medical professional who meets these standards.

7) Ensure the child has the proper professional follow-up with a victim advocate or therapist. This is essential! Abuse can leave lifelong scars and impact the child’s emotional and psychological development. It’s imperative to ensure s/he has access to the professional support and counseling for as long as the child needs it. At TBCAC, we think this is so important that we offer on-site counseling and therapy services to child victims who visit the Center, as well as to their non-offending family members, at NO COST to them.

Commonly Asked Questions About Reporting Suspected Child Abuse

While it can rattle even the strongest person to the core, responding responsibly when a child discloses abuse is crucial. Common types of reports made to MDHHS include:

  • A caller reports that a child disclosed that they were sexually abused by a family member or acquaintance.
  • A caller reports that there is suspicious behavior on the part of a neighbor where children go to play or spend time.
  • A caller reports that they’ve discovered child pornography on a computer or smartphone. (THIS IS A CRIME and indicates that the person in possession of the images is a predator.)

People put in the position of making a report often have similar questions or reservations, which can include:

Q: “Do I need proof before I call?”

A: No. Most child sexual abuse is not witnessed, and no one expects you to be the investigator. Ask only open-ended questions if and when a child discloses to you such as, “What happened next?” and “Can you tell me more?” without getting into too much detail.

Q: “Can I report my suspicions about someone or about an organization where abuse may be occurring?”

A: Yes. Adults often experience a “gut feeling” that perhaps things are not safe or appropriate when abuse is occurring. It is important to trust that instinct and think about the behavior that caused those feelings in the first place when reporting.

Q: “What happens after I make a report?”

A: Every report is unique and when a report is made, the investigating party determines next steps. In the Grand Traverse Region, child protection and law enforcement have the option of using the Traverse Bay Children’s Advocacy Center to assist in the investigation and to provide follow-up services.

Q: “Can I make an anonymous report?”

A: Yes. You may give your name or you don’t have to… The identity of a reporting person is confidential under the law. The alleged perpetrator could possibly infer from the information in the report who made the complaint, however, MDHHS will NOT disclose the identity of a reporting person. The important thing is that when you make the report, whether you choose to remain anonymous or not, you are playing an important role in protecting a child.

The Michigan Child Protection Law mandates that persons who interact with children professionally in Michigan report suspected or possible child sexual abuse to MDHHS. So, if you work in schools, childcare settings, hospitals and healthcare, social work, counseling, law enforcement or with faith-based organizations and you suspect the abuse or neglect of a child or minor with which you have interacted, or have come to learn of an incident through your work, you are mandated to report.

While others who do not directly work with children are not mandated by law to report suspected abuse, both the child in question and possibly other children may need help. I hope that as caring, responsible citizens, each of us would be compelled by virtue of basic humanity to make a report.

You can do it! ♥

Be there for the child, regardless of who the alleged perpetrator is, and absolutely 100% of the time, report alleged or suspected abuse following the steps above. Your action (or inaction) will reinforce with that child whether or not s/he is worthy of protection.

For more information about reporting suspected child abuse, visit our Team Zero website.


About Sue ♥

Traverse Bay Children’s Advocacy Center Executive Director Sue Bolde has a BA in psychology from the University of California Santa Barbara and an MA in art therapy from the University of Illinois. Her professional career includes clinical work with children and teens at the University of Chicago, graduate-level instruction with students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and certification as a Montessori teacher and yoga instructor. She is currently a teacher in training with Google’s Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute as well as a Michigan ACE Initiative trainer.

About Traverse Bay Children’s Advocacy Center ♥

The nationally accredited Traverse Bay Children’s Advocacy Center brings help, hope, and healing to child victims of sexual abuse, physical abuse, and violence. Our mission is to protect children by supporting multidisciplinary investigations into alleged cases of child abuse by conducting child forensic interviews in an environment that is child-sensitive, supportive and safe. We help heal child victims and their families through our in-house therapeutic services and offer prevention education throughout the region via our Team Zero program. As the Grand Traverse regional response center for the investigation of child abuse, we collaborate with multidisciplinary teams in six counties – Antrim, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, Leelanau, and Wexford – in addition to the Sovereign Nation of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. More than 1,400 children have been referred to the Traverse Bay Children’s Advocacy Center since our founding in 2010.