How Children Report Sexual Abuse

Investigating child sexual abuse is a complex matter, made more difficult by the way children report the alleged abuse. Despite being a victim of trauma, sometimes children delay disclosing the abuse or deny it altogether. Contemporary literature on how children report sexual abuse to others discusses the implications for forensic interviewers.

Inconclusive Psychological Findings

London et al. (2007)[1] concludes that there is sufficient data to support the notion that children delay disclosing abuse, but that nevertheless, denial and recantation are not common occurrences.

Many behaviors in children that might be a result of abuse, such as bedwetting, anxiety and sexual play, are not conclusive to establish abuse because they are also frequent in non-abused children.

Establishing that abuse actually occurred is made difficult by the absence of physical evidence in many types of sexual abuse, such as with fondling, for example. As such, the child's statement is often the only evidence for evaluating allegations of abuse. But this has very often raised concerns because it is believed a majority of child sexual abuse victims fail to disclose the abuse in interviews.

Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome

Delayed disclosure and denial or recantation of actual abuse may be the result of certain psychological factors such as embarrassment, shame or allegiance to the perpetrator. Ronald Summit discussed these factors at length in a paper in 1983. Even though his theory had a remarkable influence on forensic interviewing practices, psychologists believe that there is relatively little scientific examination of the theory.

Studies have shown that adults with childhood histories of abuse, including victims of intrafamilial abuse, mostly reported that they delayed disclosure or failed to disclose childhood abuse altogether. Fergusson, Lynskey, & Horwoord, 1996, showed that the frequency of childhood sexual abuse disclosure ranged from 31 to 45%. If true, this suggests that between 55 and 69% of adults failed to disclose sexual abuse during childhood.

Data indicates that a fair number of cases of childhood sexual abuse go unreported. When it comes to delayed disclosures, it is estimated that many children talk about the abuse within a month, but others wait for up to a year to mention the abuse. Smith et al. (2000) found that 34% of women who were victims of rape during childhood disclosed the abuse in the first six months, while 48% of them waited five years or more to disclose the abuse.

Of course, all of this data assumes that the abusive event actually occurred, and that the women were telling the truth or remembering the truth correctly.

Disclosure Versus Non-Disclosure Patterns

Studies have shown patterns that occur in children who disclose sexual abuse versus those who don't. The main characteristics are related to:

  • Relationship to the perpetrator — Summit, 1983, argued that children who are abused by a family member tend to delay disclosure or fail to disclose the abuse altogether because of loyalty to the perpetrator, feelings of guilt, fear of not being believed, and worry about not being believed. Existent studies, while consistent with the hypothesis, find that the association between the delay in disclosing and the relationship with the perpetrator is not significant.
  • Severity of abuse — the results of studies that examine the severity of abuse and the delay or failure to disclose are inconsistent. Most researchers have found that there is no significant relationship between the severity of the abuse and disclosure.
  • Threats — because researchers often fail to define the notion of "threats" to participants in studies, there is currently insufficient evidence to determine whether the use of threats affects disclosure patterns.
Studies of Disclosure Patterns

Studies involving children who were interviewed by the authorities show that there is a certain degree of inconclusiveness related to the diagnosis of sexual abuse. Coercive interviewing or pressure from a parent may result in children falsely claiming to have been abused.

The rates of recantation range from 4% to 27%, according to London et al. (2007), with the recantation rate being relatively low. Multiple factors affect disclosure rates, with the following being the most important:

  • Cultural differences — studies have indicated that the rate of disclosure is lower among Latina and African American girls. Data is scarce, though, and the matter requires further research.
  • Developmental differences — the age of the child has a significant impact on disclosure rates. The explanation is that younger children may lack the cognitive or linguistic abilities to recognize abuse as abuse or understand the purpose of a forensic interview. Children may also fail to disclose abuse not only due to psychological factors but also because they may not remember what happened exactly.
  • Relationship to the perpetrator — several studies indicate that longer delays and lower disclosure rates are more common when the child has a close relationship with the perpetrator. Low disclosure rates are also common when the perpetrator is a biological parent or a parent figure.

Methodological difficulties make it challenging to determine an overall pattern for disclosures, but studies have concluded that many children are not willing to disclose sexual abuse. London et al. (2007) argue that children undergoing forensic interviews are likely to provide details, and most of them will not recant. Data suggest that children often delay the disclosure of abuse, but overall, among cases where abuse has been confirmed, denial and recantation are not common occurrences.

  1. London K, Bruck M, Wright DB, Ceci SJ. Review of the contemporary literature on how children report sexual abuse to others: findings, methodological issues, and implications for forensic interviewers. Memory. 2008;16(1):29‐47.</li>