Child sexual abuse
How young children disclose sexual abuse
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:
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.
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:
Little consensus existed among child psychiatrists and other professionals. This is tragic, because of the vital necessity of separating true from false allegations:
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:
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.
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