The First Steps You Should Take When Child Abuse Is Suspected With A Child Under Your Supervision
How To Conduct An Interview With A Child That May Have Been Physically Or Sexually Abused And When To Call Law Enforcement
You are a teacher, a daycare worker, a babysitter, or any other person who has contact with children. One day, you observe a child engaged in highly abnormal sexual play; for example, putting a doll’s head close to the child’s genital area, or “humping” another child. You know from your experience working with children that this is not normal. Perhaps a child infer that they may have been physically or sexually abused. What should you do?
First, keep calm. Do not display exaggerated facial expressions. This may cause the child to shut down. Children often “test the waters” when they disclose abuse. If the adults around them are calm, the child is more likely to tell about what happened. If the adults around the child react emotionally or forcefully, or blame the child, the child may clam up. You may never find out what happened, and if the child is being abused, you may unwittingly allow the abuse to continue.
Next, find out some basic information. You need only enough information to determine whether you have a “reasonable suspicion” that abuse or neglect occurred. If you work with children you probably are a mandated reporter. If you have “reasonable suspicion” you will need to notify the proper authority. How do you get to this determination? We advocate a simple interview, sometimes called a “Minimal Facts” interview. In Wisconsin, the Department of Justice helped develop an interview technique called “Safe, Simple, Smart” interviewing.
The principles are the same. The goal is to get very basic information. The interview is a scaled-down version of what is known as a Forensic Interview. A Forensic Interview is a thorough interview by law enforcement, or Child Protective Services, or a combination through a Multi-Disciplinary team. This type of interview usually takes place at a Child Advocacy Center, and best practice is that it is recorded. Keep in mind that you are not doing a Forensic Interview.
A Minimal Facts interview consists of a few basic steps in dealing with suspected child abuse:
- Rapport building
- Finding out basic information
- Closing the interview
The interview is very minimal and may only take a few minutes. It is best to talk in a private area and not rush. Give the child as much as they need to disclose at their own pace, in their own manner. The main point is you want to get from the child enough information to know if you should report, but not so much that you contaminate the law enforcement and/or CPS interview. Listen carefully. Convey sensitivity, dignity, and respect.
Building rapport is a short conversation with the child, especially if you do not already know them well. This is just to get them adjusted to you and talking. You also want to find out how the child talks. You should introduce yourself casually: “Hi, my name is Mary. I’m a child care teacher. Do you know what child care teachers do?” In rapport building, ask open-ended questions that the child can answer, such as, “Tell me about lunch today.” This gives the child practice talking and you can get to know how the child shares information.
Do not make any corrections. Even if the child says they had ice cream and you know they did not, if you correct the child, you are using this as a teaching moment, not a discovery moment. Just keep that information in the back of your mind. If the child says something puzzling, like they had ice cream when you know they didn’t, just say, “Oh, tell me more about the ice cream.” You may find that they are talking about a different day, or they are calling something ice cream that isn’t, or something else.
If the child is disclosing and just spontaneously wants to keep talking, let the child talk. Try not to interrupt or stop a disclosing child, as this may be the last time they say anything. Once the child is comfortable with you, you go into the Disclosure or Discovery phase.
Research has shown that you get the best results when you ask open-ended questions. Examples are:
- Tell me about the game you were playing just now.”
- If a child has disclosed abuse, such as their parent hitting them, say: “Tell me about your parent hitting.” However, only mention something this specific if the child has disclosed it. Otherwise, you are asking a leading question – putting information into the question that you are assuming but the child has not told you.
The only follow-up questions you should be asking at this point is, “Tell me more.” This isn’t really a question, but a statement that opens the conversation. Throughout this process, do not attempt to teach or judge. Do not try to teach the child the names of body parts, or good touch/bad touch. If you want to know where on the body the person has touched or hurt the child, just ask the child. If you suspect the genital area, you can ask, “What does that part do?” Most children have names for what the genital parts do, such as “it pees” or “it poops.”
Once you have enough information to give you “reasonable suspicion” of abuse or neglect, you need to close the interview.
- Thank the child for telling you this information. Let them know that they did the right thing by sharing and that you are taking their words very seriously.
- If the child engages in self-blaming assure them that whatever may have happened is not their fault.
- Let the child know that you need to tell some other people so they can help the child. Do not ever promise to keep this a secret.
- Ask the child if there is something else they want to ask. If you can answer their question, fine. If not, let the child know that you need to check further. Do not guess.
- Be sure that immediately after disclosure the child is, in fact, as safe as possible.
Your next step is to document what the child has told you by writing down every detail you remember. Use the child’s words. Do not summarize. You should even go so far as to write, “I asked…”, “The child said….” Use quotes if you can. Your detailed notes may help with the case later. A note that says, “Child said they were hit” without details is not particularly helpful. All notes should include pertinent dates, times, locations, names, and the relevant context.
Now, make the call to CPS or law enforcement! Don’t procrastinate, especially if you are a mandated reporter. Keep in mind that CPS usually has a slower response time than law enforcement. For instance, if the child has disclosed that mom’s boyfriend has been sexually abusive, and the child is ten minutes from being picked up by mom, and you don’t know whether boyfriend is in the house, it is reasonable to call the police.
Final Steps When Dealing With Suspected Child Abuse
Finally, do not tell the parent or guardian what the child has disclosed unless you are certain that they are not the alleged perpetrator, or that they will tip off the perpetrator. Allow the authorities to disclose this information when the time is right.
Every organization whose staff works with children should have a Minimal Fact interview protocol in place, along with mandatory periodic training. Solid information is our best line of defense against child abuse. We must do everything we can to improve our collection capabilities and thereby protect every child.
Lori S. Kornblum is an adjunct faculty member at Marquette University Law School, focusing in child abuse and the law, and an instructor at Milwaukee Area Technical College (Paralegal Department) and has a private practice in Mequon, WI. She worked in the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office for 22 years, focusing on child abuse and neglect. She has trained lawyers, law enforcement workers, social workers, and educators statewide on child abuse and neglect issues. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Daniel Pollack, M.S.S.A. (M.S.W.), Esq., is a professor at the School of Social Work, Yeshiva University, New York City. He has been retained as an expert witness in more than 25 states regarding child abuse, foster care, and adoption issues. He was recently appointed to Game Over: Commission to Protect Youth Athletes, an independent commission created to examine the institutional responses to sexual grooming and abuse by former USA Gymnastics physician Larry Nassar. Dan has been a frequent guest contributor to the Ohio Family Law Blog since 2009, Contact: email@example.com .
[This article was reposted with permission. Kornblum, L. & Pollack, D. (2019). When a child discloses abuse. Exchange, 248, 25-26.]
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Guest Contributors Lori S. Kornblum and Daniel Pollack
::::: Lori S. Kornblum is an adjunct faculty member at Marquette University Law School, focusing in child abuse and the law, and an instructor at Milwaukee Area Technical College (Paralegal Department) and has a private practice in Mequon, WI. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org ::::: Daniel Pollack, MSW, Esq. is professor at Yeshiva University's School of Social Work and a frequent expert witness in child welfare lawsuits. Contact: Email: email@example.com Ph: 212-960-0836.