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Child sexual abuse

How young children disclose sexual abuse

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During the very late 20th century, there were two common theories that described how children disclose sexual abuse. In the 1980s and early 1990s, beliefs of child psychiatrists, child psychologists, social workers, police interviewers etc. were in a state of flux. Over time, they have gravitated away from the traditional belief towards a "rapid disclosure" model.

Traditional belief - children disclose gradually:

Many therapists believed that children usually pass through a sequence of stages while disclosing sexual abuse that they have experienced. Perhaps the most common model was that proposed in 1983 by Dr. Rolland Summitt and called the Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome. 1 The stages are: secrecy, helplessness, entrapment, disclosure and retraction. Others use a different sequence: denial, reluctance, gradual disclosure, recantation and reaffirmation. This theory assumes that it is very difficult for children to discuss having been sexually abused. Thus, the therapist or interviewer must ask direct, leading questions, and ask them repeatedly until the child discloses abuse. Special methods, like fantasy play, guided imagery, the use of anatomically cirect dolls and other props, etc. help the child disclose. When children finally do reveal details of the abuse, they must be believed because children do not create false disclosures. Dr. Summitt wrote:

"It has become a maxim among child sexual abuse intervention counselors and investigators that children never fabricate the kinds of explicit sexual manipulations they divulge in complaints or interrogations." (Quoted in Ref. 7, P. 385)

One reason was the belief that children who have not been abused lack the sexual experience to create such stories.

Some older academic studies supported this syndrome. One involved 116 child victims of sexual abuse. 2 Most children had first mentioned the abuse by accident. The study found that even after admitting to abuse, 75% of the children later denied it. 22% later recanted. They found that most children disclosed abuse slowly, over many sessions with a therapist or other professional. They determined that a child has to be repeatedly interviewed and coaxed to disclose. The child has to be repeatedly questioned about abuse until they finally overcome their reluctance to talk about the molestation and disclose.

More recent findings: children disclose rapidly:

A study in the 1990s analyzed 234 children whose sexual abuse had been validated by external, physical evidence or adult confessions. 3 Denial occurred in only 6% of the cases; recantation happened in only 4%. Half of the recanters seemed to have done so after having been exposed to pressure from a caregiver. In their sample, 72% of the children did not initially disclose to a child abuse investigator; rather they told a family member, friend or teacher. Also, they did not find gradual disclosure of abuse during extended visits to a therapist or other professional to be common. Instead, the child disclosed full details about the entire event at one time.

Other Aspects of Disclosure:

One study said that over 40% of children told of their abuse within 48 hours. 4 A contrasting study found that only 24% disclosed within a week of the event and that 39% never disclosed on their own. 5

Some therapists believe that children are reluctant to disclose because they have been threatened. A variety of studies have shown that this rarely happens.

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Lack of consensus among experts, and the consequences:

By the late 1980s, researchers and clinicians disagreed, both about the processes by which children disclose abuse, and about the reliability of their eventual statements. Two extreme positions are described by Ceci and Bruck in 1989:

"An emotional battle is being waged today in our nation's courtrooms, universities and living rooms.  This battle revolves around the credibility of children's testimony, particularly in sexual abuse cases. To listen to one side, you would think that everything that a child tells a social worker or therapist must be believed, no matter how bizarre the allegations, no matter how suggestive or coercive the techniques used to elicit them..."

"The other side would have us believe that...we should always greet their disclosures of abuse with a large dose of skepticism. Child witnesses are depicted by this side as helpless sponges who soak up the interviewer's suggestions and regurgitate them in court." 5

Little consensus existed among child psychiatrists and other professionals. This is tragic, because of the vital necessity of separating true from false allegations:
bullet If false allegations are made, then the child may have been victimized by implanted memories of abuse that never happened. One or more innocent adults might find themselves in jail. This has happened in dozens of cases involving allegations that many dozens of adults abusing many hundreds of children. Often these cases involve day care centers and are multi-victim, multi-offender (MVMO) events. While most adults who have been convicted in the 1980's and early 1990's had their cases reviewed and were released from jail, there are still untold numbers of children who are suffering from false memories implanted during interviews and therapy. Some of these have probably grown up to become severely dysfunctional adults. One group are the hundreds of children who were involved with the suspected abuse at the McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, CA, during the early 1980's. They are now in their early 30s; many are having serious emotional difficulties. It would appear that false memories of abuse that never happened may be just as damaging to a child as accurate memories of real abuse.

bullet If true allegations are disclosed, but the interview techniques are faulty, then the child's testimony may be challenged and found to be worthless in court. A perpetrator may avoid prosecution and escape a long sentence in penitentiary.

Unfortunately, it was only in the 1990s that research studies in this topic were given the priority that they deserved.

Possibility of false allegations:

Some studies in the United States and New Zealand have indicated that children will innocently give false statements about abuse in response to direct and/or repeated questioning by the interviewer. An interviewer/therapist who adopts the "gradual disclosure" model might be led to uncover false allegations by the child:

Denial Abuse probably happened, but is denied by child. Child does not feel comfortable talking about the abuse. Abuse may or may not have happened. Child doesn't feel comfortable talking about it.
Reluctance After repeated, direct questioning, the child becomes more comfortable with the therapist. She/he discloses a few details of the abuse After repeated, direct questioning, the child realizes that they are not satisfying the adult's expectation. They accommodate themselves to the interviewer and tell a small fib.
Gradual Disclosure Direct questions, repeated questions, rewards, suggestive therapy methods, even threats lead the child to gradually disclose more details of the abuse The child makes up more and more details of the imaginary abuse in order to satisfy the adult's incessant questioning.
Recantation Under pressure from the perpetrator, the child accommodates to the adults and denies that the abuse took place. The child is in a state of denial Realizing that telling fibs is getting them and others into trouble, the child tells the truth: that the abuse never happened.
Reaffirmation After more pressure by the interviewer, the child once more tells the truth about the abuse, and confirms their earlier disclosures were accurate. Continuing interviews plants false memories of the abuse in the child's mind so that they feel like actual memories of abuse, even though it never happened.
Court Testimony The child testifies accurately about the abuse. The child does not lie about the molestation. The child testified accurately about the details of her/his false memories. The child does not lie about his/her memories.

Thus, a therapist who believes in the importance of direct and repeated questioning of children might well see the gradual disclosure model play itself out, even in cases where no abuse actually happened. In some cases, the child's disclosure may be a natural result of suggestive, direct and repeated interview techniques.

Somewhat belatedly, most child psychologists and psychiatrists became aware in the late 1990s of the importance of proper questioning of children. If modern protocols are carefully followed, then the chances of a young child disclosing events that never happened is minimized. Unfortunately, many professionals were trained many years ago when little was known about the ease of implanting memories. A few still use repeated, suggestive questions, and come up with child testimony that is quite unreliable. It might be accurate. It might be based on false memories. No one can tell. Even as late as 2004, direct and repeated questioning of three children in Lewis Island off the coast of Scotland led to false accusations of ritualistic sexual abuse against a group of eight adults. More details of this case.

Related topics at this site:

bullet How children disclose ritual sexual abuse and Multi-Victim/Multi-Offender (MVMO) abuse
bullet Description of three dozen MVMO cases
bullet The magic tunnels under McMartin


The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. R.C. Summitt, "The child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome", Child Abuse & Neglect, Vol 7, # 2, P. 177-193.
  2. T Sorensen & B. Snow, "How children tell: the process of disclosure of child sexual abuse", Child Welfare, 70, 3-15
  3. April Bradley and James M Wood, "How to Children Tell? The Disclosure process in Child Sexual Abuse", Child Abuse and Neglect Vol. 20 No 9 P. 879-880
  4. G.S. Goodman, E.P. Taub et al, "Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 57(5, Serial No. 229), (1992)
  5. M. Sauzier, "Disclosure of child sexual abuse: For better or for worse", Treatment of Victims of Sexual Abuse, 12, P. 455-469 (1989)
  6. S.J. Ceci & M. Bruck, "Jeopardy in the Courtroom: A Scientific Analysis of Children's Testimony," American Psychological Association, Washington, DC, (1995), Page 1
  7. M. Pendergrast, "Victims of Memory," Upper Access, Hinesburg, VT (1996), Pages 361 to 387.

Copyright 1998 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update and review: 2010-DEC-27
Author: B.A. Robinson

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