Children who may have been abused or neglected are particularly vulnerable. It is critical that, in responding to their needs, we take every caution to avoid upsetting or traumatizing them any further.
If the child is in immediate danger, call police first.
When talking to the child, be sensitive to his or her needs and follow the general guidelines below. Your primary role is to support the child, gather basic information and report it to a child welfare worker as quickly as possible.
Here is a very simple scenerio to illustrate the steps listed below. Click on the forward or back arrows to navigate through the slides.
Stay calm and listen. An abused or neglected child needs to know that you are calm and available to help. If you react with shock, outrage or fear, you might inhibit the child and make him or her feel more anxious or ashamed. A calm response supports the child to tell you what has happened. It also provides some reassurance that what the child is experiencing can be talked about and worked through together.
Go slowly. It is normal to feel inadequate or unsure about what to do or say when a child tells you about abuse or neglect. Do not let this discomfort rush you into asking questions. Remember to proceed slowly. Gentle questions, such as “Can you tell me more about what happened?” are helpful.
Be supportive. Reassure the child that he or she has not done anything wrong. Children need support and reassurance when discussing abuse or neglect. It is helpful to let children know that:
- they are not in trouble with you, the child welfare worker or the police (if they are involved)
- they are safe with you
- you are glad that they have chosen to tell you about this
- they have done the right thing in telling you about this
- you are sorry that they have been hurt or that this has happened to them
- you will do everything you can to make sure they get the help they need
- you know others who can be trusted to help solve this problem
Get only the essential facts. Once you have enough information and reason to believe that abuse or neglect has occurred, stop gathering facts and be supportive. The child may be interviewed in depth by a child welfare worker and, if there is a criminal investigation, by the police; therefore, to avoid the stress of multiple interviews, limit your discussion to finding out generally what took place. If you need more information, be sure to ask how, when, who and what questions. Avoid using why questions. They can suggest indirectly that the child may have done something wrong and increase the child’s reluctance to discuss the matter.
Tell the child what will happen next. Children who disclose their abuse feel anxious and vulnerable about what people think of them and what will happen next.
Tell them only what you know (e.g., that they are not in trouble, and that you will help) and avoid making promises. For example, do not promise that the alleged perpetrator won’t get into trouble. Provide only reassurance that is realistic and achievable. Discuss with the child what you think will happen next and who will be involved.
Make notes. As soon as possible after the child’s disclosure, write down as much as you can of what the child told you. This will help ensure accuracy when reporting to the appropriate authority. (Direct disclosures may be admissible in court, so accuracy is important.)