My Child Just Disclosed Sexual Abuse, Now What?

What To Do and Expect Legally If Your Child Discloses Sexual Abuse

One of the most heartbreaking conversations one can imagine happens when a child discloses sexual abuse to a parent.  Depending upon the age of the child and the circumstances, the disclosure can take many forms.

For example, younger children may struggle to find the words to describe the abuse. Interfamilial abuse may involve cues and non-verbal acts which are a quiet cry for help.  As a parent, there are many ways you can support your child through this difficult time.

However, you may wonder what must you do legally after child’s disclosure of sexual abuse and what might come next?

There are both federal and state laws that cover mandatory reporting of sexual abuse that often apply to parents.  But after the difficult process of making the report, the journey for a parent has just begun.  An abused child will generally be required to give statements to law enforcement and child protection agencies.  After these interviews are completed, law enforcement will assess whether a criminal case can be brought against the perpetrator.

Furthermore, child protection agencies will ensure that the child is in a safe environment.  Finally, parents will have to consider whether pursuing a civil case might be in the best interest of their child.

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Mandated Reporting

young child disclosing sexual abuse to her motherAs it pertains to the observation of potential sexual abuse of a child, mandatory reporting laws generally cover the who, what, when and how to report. Because state laws can vary on this issue, the following is designed to be a broad overview of issues commonly seen in different state laws.

The violation of mandatory reporting laws can result in criminal charges, disqualification of professional licenses, and other civil fines and penalties. Most notably, the failure of a parent to report suspect abuse of their own child may result in investigation by child protection agencies and the loss of custodial or legal rights to the child.

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Who must report

The biggest discrepancies between mandatory reporting laws are often who is required to report suspected abuse.  Some states are very specific in the identification of persons obligated to report.  We frequently see teachers, clergy, health care providers on this list.  However, the recent trend in mandatory reporting is to get away from specific professions or groups of persons and more broadly require all person involved in the care and supervision of children to report abuse.  Obviously, parents who have any custodial rights of their children fall into this category of reporters, and thus should disclose the suspected abuse to the appropriate authorities.

What to report

While other resources might address in more detail neglect and other forms of physical abuse, this article specifically addresses sexual abuse and a parent’s obligation to disclose it.  In every state, contact with a child’s genital, reproductive, or private area for no legitimate purpose generally constitutes sexual abuse.  The term “legitimate” is often inserted in laws because it allows contact for things such as bathing by care takers and touching by health care professionals in the context of their job if done according to medical standards.

However, touching of other “non-private” areas of a child might also be considered some degree of a sexual assault.  For example, many states consider touching of any part of a child’s body, if done for the purpose of sexual arousal or gratification, to be a sexual offense.  These laws cover what is generally known as “grooming.”  Grooming frequently involves non-physical contact but is done for the purpose of eliciting sexual arousal and is often a criminal offense.

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When to report

child disclosing sexual abuse to her mother

Obviously, the obligation to report sexual abuse does not attach to those who are completely unaware of the abuse.  However, the reporting obligation is generally triggered when the person reasonably believes or suspects that abuse occurred or could be occurring.

Even if you discover abuse that may have occurred several years ago, the obligation to report often continues, and for good reason.  While the abuse of the child making the disclosure may have ended, the perpetrator may continue to abuse until he or she is brought to justice.

Generally, the report of suspected abuse should be made as soon as one can reasonably do so.  If you temporarily don’t have the ability to make the report for one reason or another, you should not fear being prosecuted during that time.  However, once you can make the report, it should be made.

How to report

Most states have a dedicated number for a child protection service or agency that must be notified in the event of suspected abuse.  The child protection service will generally notify law enforcement, however, that is not always the case so you should call the law enforcement agency who has jurisdiction over the area where the suspected abuse occurred.  Many believe they should report to law enforcement where the victim lives.  While that is better than not reporting, its likely you will be told to call the police department that has jurisdiction over the area where the crime occurred.

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Investigation following the report

child disclosing sexual abuse to a parent

You should expect to be contacted by a person from law enforcement and likely a child protection agency.  The police are likely to reach out and ask for assistance in the investigation of the sexual abuse of your child. This can be incredibly overwhelming and emotional. Ask for a victim advocate for you and your child to walk you through the steps you are about to take, you are legally entitled to this service. The next step often begins with a visit to the local hospital, child advocacy center or health care center where a medical professional, often a S.A.N.E. (sexual assault nurse examiner) or doctor will examine your child for physical signs of sexual abuse. The examiner may take DNA swabs from your child. This can be emotionally hard for you both and having that advocate walk you through what is happening will help to ease some of this discomfort.

The next step in the process is often a forensic evaluation by a child forensic interviewer.  The interviewer is often a social worker who is trained in questioning children in a non-directed way to get them to disclose information related to the abuse.  The course of these evaluations can vary widely based upon the age of the child.  For example, young children might be provided drawings and asked to point to areas of the body where they were touched.  Older children on the other hand might be asked more direct questions.  Many municipalities have child advocacy centers that are staffed with designated professionals who perform these evaluations. Again, having your victim advocate with you is helpful to navigate you and your child through this process.

Assuming the child appropriately disclosed abuse in the forensic interview, law enforcement will generally progress with their investigation.  The police might ask for articles of clothing or other evidence that might contain the DNA of your child or the perpetrator.  If there were written or digital communications between your child and the perpetrator, police will often ask for documents, electronics, and passwords to social media accounts.  Even if electronic communications have been erased, they might live on the hardware of the device and thus could be restored.

Investigators will also begin to question third parties who might have relevant information to prove your child’s allegation of abuse.  We all know that a leopard doesn’t change its spots.  Almost all abusers go on to abuse multiple victims.  Therefore, the police will likely begin to search for other victims.  This is good because there is strength in numbers.  While offenders are likely to press forward with a case where there is only one person alleging abuse, they are unlikely to go to trial if there are multiple victims in line to testify against them.   This can create time delays that can be incredibly frustrating for any parent and child.

In our experience, prosecutors are sometimes reluctant to bring cases where there is only one victim based solely on a disclosure by a child.  Where there is no DNA or other supporting evidence, one of the best ways to catch the perpetrator is to perform a “sting” type investigation.  That often involves a recorded phone call, a monitored text message, or a video recording which seeks to obtain an admission from the perpetrator.  Parents should not attempt to this on their own, but rather should suggest the idea to law enforcement.

We are often contacted by families who are frustrated by the lack of diligence by law enforcement.  We do our best to help clients interact with the law enforcement and gather evidence and information that will assist the prosecution.  In fact, in one instance a client’s criminal case was dismissed by the court due to an issue related to improper evidence that was presented by the Allegheny County District Attorney’s office.  We did our own digging in the case and found evidence that was overlooked by the D.A.’s office, supplied it to the client, and it ultimately led to the perpetrator pleading guilty.

Interactions with the perpetrator following the report

It is important that you limit any contact the perpetrator might have with your child during the investigation.  Law enforcement will often assign a victim advocate to your child’s case.  Victim advocates can coordinate resources for you to ensure your family is receiving all available support and is up to speed on the course of relevant investigations.  You may need to seek a protective order which is a court mandate that the perpetrator stay away from your child.  Under most circumstances, public and private employers of schools, day cares, camps, and other youth servicing organizations will place the alleged perpetrator on administrative leave.  That means that perpetrator should be removed from their place of work, generally with pay, until such time as his or her guilt or innocence becomes known.

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The criminal case

The Difference Between a Criminal Case and a Civil Case in child abuse cases (1)Law enforcement officers will review all the information compiled during the course of the investigation.  Often in conjunction with a prosecutor, they will determine if they believe there is sufficient evidence to charge the perpetrator with a crime.  Some states require law enforcement to execute what is called an affidavit of probable cause, which outlines the facts of the case and the alleged crimes that were committed.  After the presentation of this affidavit to a judge, an arrest warrant will generally be issued that allows the police to pick up the alleged perpetrator and place them in custody.  The perpetrator will then be taken to an arraignment, where bail might be set as well as a date for a preliminary hearing.  While you may wish to hire your own attorney by this point, for several reasons, it is generally best that they sit on the sideline and not interfere with the prosecutor’s case.

At the preliminary hearing, a determination will be made if there is probable cause to believe the crime was committed.  This is a very low burden of proof, and it is generally met if there is any evidence of the crime that is credible, even if it is hearsay.  In most cases this hearing will be waived by the defendant and child victims very rarely must testify at this time.  However, if they do, a victim advocate or someone from the prosecutor’s office is generally there to prepare you for the hearing.

Assuming the judge finds probable cause, the case will then progress for many months and possibly years through the criminal court system.  As a parent, obviously your hope is that the perpetrator will eventually plead guilty, and thus your child never has to testify.  The determination of whether the case will end in a plea, or a trial, is mostly dictated by the strength of the evidence.  There are many different types of pleas.  We often encourage victims not to agree to no contest pleas.  While no-contest pleas generally result in the same criminal punishment as guilty pleas, they are treated much differently in civil matters.

After a plea is entered, there is generally a sentencing hearing.  At the sentencing hearing, the judge may wish to hear from you or your child about the impact of the abuse and may consider this when sentencing the abuser.  Often a victim advocate will ask you to prepare a victim impact statement that you or someone else can submit to the court for consideration.  We are available to assist you with the preparation of the victim impact statement.

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The civil case

The civil caseThe purpose of the criminal justice system is to hold the perpetrator accountable for his or actions. The criminal justice system is necessary to protect the safety of the community by isolating individuals who are unsafe.  However, the criminal system is quite limited in what it can do for the victim.  This is evident by the fact that criminal prosecutions are generally brought by the state, not the victim.  While the criminal justice system can provide the victim with restitution, it is generally considered woefully inadequate to make a meaningful impact on the life of the victim.  Restitution does not take into consideration the long-term impacts of childhood sexual abuse and trauma which are estimated to be as high as $282,734 and that does not take into consideration pain and suffering.

Criminal cases do not always produce justice. We often see far too many juries come back with not-guilty verdicts in criminal cases due to many reasons, rape culture, the CSI effect, disbelieve in family member’s ability to abuse children, their own misguided perceptions etc. In sexual abuse cases there often lacks evidence, many juries think that what they see on TV crime shows is what they will see in a local case and that is simply not true. Rarely are their witnesses to sexual abuse, there is only physical evidence or DNA in less than 5% of all reported cases, this is due in part to delayed disclosures which is a norm in these cases, and finally the impact of rape culture still permeates jury’s minds. Juries have a hard time believing that “trusted” members of their communities could commit such harm or that family members would abuse children

The purpose of a civil justice system is to provide the victim with the resources he or she needs throughout their life.  This might include money for medical services, therapy, education, or other conveniences throughout their life.  The civil justice system also serves the additional purpose of holding institutions and organizations accountable.  While a business, for example, cannot be put in jail, they can be publicly identified and held financially responsible if they fail to reasonably supervise children and this allowed them to be sexually abused.  The civil justice system can offer more information for the victim and their family that the criminal case will not and cannot publicly disclose. Victims and families find justice in the details, in the access to information and exposure of that information. The civil justice system allows for depositions of the perpetrator and access to records that would never be admissible in a criminal court case.

Hearing a child disclose sexual abuse is scary and emotionally taxing, being empowered with information and having support through the options you and your family have available to you is vitally important. We are here to give you that support and more as you consider whether a civil case in your situation is right for you and your family. Please call today for a free consultation and we can walk you through every option you.

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