Fostering Healthy Relationships: What Do You Do if You Suspect Abuse?
If someone is involved in a relationship that is not good for them, one of the most important strategies for a healthy future is to talk to someone who they trust. Establishing a go-to person ahead of time, a person with whom they feel comfortable disclosing painful and personal information, is the first step in recovering from the trauma.
But, what if you are that trusted adult? If someone shares information about an abusive relationship with you, are you prepared to hear it? I regularly teach classes about healthy relationships and I am often on the receiving end of many disclosures. Sometimes appalling situations are relayed in such a matter-of-fact manner that it leaves me wondering, ‘Did he just say what I think he said?” In some cases, the event may have happened many years ago, but an opportunity never came up where the survivor felt comfortable revealing it until the topic was broached.
If someone discloses abuse to you, they are trusting you with very sensitive information. It may not feel like a compliment, but they are giving you a gift of precious personal information. Often, a child may drop hints and wait to observe your reaction to see if you follow up on it. It will take courage to ask them to elaborate, but avoiding the topic is closing the door on their ability to seek help. Do your best not to express shock or disbelief. Sadly, perpetrators of child abuse are very savvy at manipulating their targets. Coercion and secrecy are often the hallmarks of abuse. Telling someone that “some secrets are not meant to be secrets” gives people permission to seek help.
The first thing to do is thank the child for sharing their history with you. When hearing their story, try to validate their feelings without minimizing them. Saying things like, “that must have been very hard for you” or “that put you in an impossible situation” can be very comforting. Many perpetrators target people with disabilities and subsequently coerce them into thinking that
the abuse is somehow their fault. If someone discloses abuse, it’s very important to let them know that it is not their fault and that they did not deserve maltreatment. Hearing, “It’s not your fault” is a huge relief to someone who has been carrying the weight of this trauma. Talking to well-meaning adults may be helpful, but a trained counselor might be needed to follow up. Just as you would not trust a neighbor to extract a tooth, sometimes it’s necessary to consult with a professional. Most areas have skilled domestic violence or child abuse consultants available, but if the child does not communicate in typical ways, they may need someone with them to help tell their story.
Childhood social relationships can be challenging and for parents of kids with disabilities, hearing about the repeated incidents where kids have been bullied, excluded, ostracized, or exploited can feel like death by a thousand cuts. It’s important that children feel safe to talk to someone so that they can learn to navigate social situations and as a reminder that everyone deserves kindness and respect. Having these difficult conversations in a nurturing environment can not only help with day-to-day social challenges, but also better prepare kids if they ever find themselves in a relationship in which a crime has occurred.
Sometimes an Unhealthy Relationship is an Illegal Relationship
It can be hard for a child to know when a crime is occurring, but we know that kids with disabilities are more likely to experience sexual abuse than typically developing kids, and how important it is for them to get the support that they need for a healthy future. For that reason, we need to know what steps to take if we ever have to file a report.
Remember, many sexual touches may not hurt or leave a bruise, but may leave the child feeling very uncomfortable or shameful. Therefore, try to refrain from asking a child if someone has “hurt” them. Unless you are a trained forensic interviewer, it’s best not to ask the child too many questions regarding the details of what happened. Repeating the story can be retraumatizing for the survivor. Unintended reactions to elements of the story may encourage the victim to adjust the details which will pollute the evidence prior to telling a trained investigator. I encourage adults to trust their gut if they have a suspicion that something isn’t right with a child.
Every state has mandated reporters who are required to report suspected child abuse to the proper authority. Although each locality may differ, to protect privacy, people who report information to Child Protective Services do not receive follow-up communication with information about the outcome. Often, it may seem like nothing has happened, but a caseworker will investigate the situation to determine if there is enough information to take action. It’s important to contact child protective services even if you have no physical proof of abuse occurring. If they receive more than one call from several watchful adults, it may bring more attention to a case that could otherwise not stand out. If you are a mandated reporter, you should tell the child that it’s your job to be sure that they receive help, and that you are going to share the information with someone who will help them, but that they will remain safe. You should also ask them what they think would be helpful to happen next. Child Protective Services only relocates children from their homes as a last resort if all other service interventions have failed.
On television crime dramas, forensic evidence is gathered quickly and criminals are put behind bars with lightning speed. In real life, although forensic nurses are very skilled in trauma-informed medical intervention, forensic investigations are lengthy and can involve swabbing for fluid samples in addition to collecting tissue and hair samples. It can be intrusive for the child especially if they are tactile defensive or has difficulty remaining still. They may need the support of a trusted care provider to help them through the process.
Knowing about an abusive experience from a child who has experienced it first-hand can be very alarming. At times, the weight of their story can interfere with your personal or professional life. This is called secondary trauma. Do not underestimate the toll on your own mental health, and be good to yourself by getting enough sleep and exercise, choosing healthy foods, and seeking professional help from a counselor if necessary.
We know kids with disabilities are at higher risk of experiencing abuse, but providing help can minimize the trauma and help them to move forward with healthy, positive relationships. As adults, we need to have the courage to protect kids as much as we possibly can and assist them with getting the help that they need so that they can have trusting positive relationships in their future.
Molly Dellinger-Wray, MS Ed. and Parthy Dinora Ph.D are part of The Partnership for People with Disabilities at Virginia Commonwealth University, a University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities. Together with the VCU School of Social Work, Molly and Parthy developed an evidence-based curriculum to teach adults with intellectual disabilities about healthy relationships called LEAP: Leadership for Empowerment and Abuse Prevention. They are both moms of successful children who benefitted from special education services.