Towards Resolution: Mapping disclosure of and responses to child sexual abuse
Bartkowiak-Theron, I and Curtin, M and Davison, WR and Young, I, Towards Resolution: Mapping disclosure of and responses to child sexual abuse, School of Community Health, CharlesSturt University, Australia (2012) [Contract Report]
Copyright 2012 School of Community Health, Charles Sturt University; School of Government, Tasmania Institute of Law Enforcement Studies, University of Tasmania
This project stemmed from the findings of four separate reports released in 2008/9 looking at child sexual abuse, child protection, and policing. All reports, building on an extensive national and international body of literature, focused on the need to develop evidence-based strategies and policies to address child abuse and child sexual abuse, and to improve child protection. All four reports confirmed that a major issue was the high incidence of under-reporting of child sexual abuse. It was recognised that this under-reporting hindered responses and had negative implications for policy development. Understanding the disclosure process, what triggers disclosure, and what influences immediate reactions from the recipient of the disclosure, may help with further understanding the various factors at stake from the perspective of the survivor, and the perspective of the recipient of disclosure.
Our research project focused on understanding the experience of, and immediate reactions and responses to, disclosures of child sexual abuse, determining the factors that impacted on this experience from the perspectives of those exposed to child sexual abuse, and those who have been disclosed to, the confidantes, who may be family and friends, generalist services, and/or specialist agencies. As most research into child sexual abuse has been conducted in metropolitan and/or overseas areas, we decided to focus our research specifically on a border region of NSW and Victoria, to contribute to the development of effective flexible services for and responses to, people living in regional and rural areas who have been sexually abused as children.
The research question:
What are the factors that impact on disclosure of, and reactions and responses to, incidents of child sexual abuse in a regional area of Australia, and what is the nature of that impact?
This research explored the factors involved in disclosure of, and reactions and responses to, child sexual abuse, from the multiple perspectives of four groups of participants: survivors, confidantes, specialist service providers, and generalist services. Individual interviews were used to explore the factors that impacted on disclosure of, and reactions and responses to, incidents of child sexual abuse. These interviews were digitally (audio) recorded and conducted either face- to-face or by telephone. Data was analysed using iterative analysis in which transcripts were read and re-read many times and narrative passages selected and sorted into „categories of meaning‟ (semantic clustering). NVIVO 8 was used to assist with data management.
Five stages of disclosure were identified. Survivors may move through all the stages, be stuck at a particular stage, and/or progress to a stage and then go back to an earlier stage. In addition, disclosures may take years to occur, if they occur at all. Stage 1 of the disclosure process was the pre-disclosure context in which survivors were naïve and unsure about whether they had been abused. The ability of the child to define what was happening as abuse was often impacted by blurred attitudes and feelings at the time of the abuse, often negative, bordering on shame, fear and the prospect of not being understood. These feelings were occasionally mixed with a hope that talking about the abusive relationship might bring feelings of empowerment, or of finally communicating with a non-offending person. Stage 2, the build-up towards a disclosure, was shaped by a variety of „tests‟ and strategies children and adults design to gauge potential reactions to their stories. Survivors had an expectation of hope that by disclosing some action would take place that allowed the confidante to take charge of the matter or provide advice and support. Stage 3, triggers and motivations for disclosure, focused on the various triggers that may lead to a disclosure. These triggers were categorised as situational, emotional, educational/awareness, and behavioural. Stage 4, was the actual disclosure. Seven types of disclosure were identified: voluntary and purposeful telling, accidental telling, elicited telling, behavioural telling, purposeful withholding, triggered telling,and physiological telling. Among the narratives collected in this research, confidantes who received disclosures were categorised into the following groups: parent, friend, partner, counsellor, sibling, school staff, other trusted person, grandparent, aunt or uncle, carer, and/or other children. Non-offending parents were the most common people a survivor turned to, for the purpose of disclosing, followed by close friends, counsellors, partners and siblings.
The four stages identified above are followed by a fifth stage in which there are either constructive or negative reactions from confidantes. These reactions may or may not lead to a response, including further disclosures and reporting. The reaction to a disclosure was defined as the way confidantes responded (their behavior and actions) in the moments that followed disclosure. The reaction was considered to be either supportive or unsupportive, and was likely to impact strongly on survivors, confirming their positive and/or negative expectations about the consequences of having disclosed. A most important element of the reaction was the strong gate-keeping role that it played in the overall response process. The way a confidante immediately reacted to a disclosure was likely to be a definitive first step in paving the way towards what was done, or not done, with the information in the development of a response. The response to a disclosure was defined as a more formal, considered set of actions that may or may not have been discussed between the survivor and confidante. A response usually would involve some thought and planning, and was undertaken after the reaction by the confidante to address the perceived problem and issues. Once the initial disclosure was made, and initial reaction confirmed, the survivor (whether or not guided by the confidante) appeared to be faced with three options: silence, informal action, and/or formal action. Reporting, a formal action, was often not the choice of the survivors due to their perception of the process and how this might hurt others, create more exposure, and generate anxiety and guilt. It was felt by some that reporting could also lead to dsicrepancy between the expected outcome and an actual outcome.
Participants in the research identified what they believed needed to be done to improve the system for supporting survivors of child sexual abuse and dealing with the perpetrators. Many suggestions for improvement centred on decreasing the red-tape that prevented some survivors from receiving the support they needed orprevented some cases proceeding to court. In addition, a number of participants indicated that there was still a degree of uncertainty about how to act or who to reach out to. The suggestions about improving the current system to facilitate disclosure and the implementation of appropriate support were clustered into the following categories: improved education and community awareness campaigns (this included education about the issue of child sexual abuse, education about services available, education about processes, and education about strategies to protect children); better coordination of, and access to, services; and working towards the perpetrator acknowledging that the child sexual abuse had occurred and had had a significant impact on the survivor.
Conclusion and Recommendations
This research contributes to the discussions on the disclosure of child sexual abuse and how best to facilitate early disclosure. Our research clarifies the disclosure process, identifying five stages, and proposes a seventh type of disclosure (physiological telling) in addition to the six types previously put forward by other researchers. To aid the disclosure process, our participants indicated that there needed to be better education of the community about child sexual abuse, including its nature, how to react and respond appropriately to a disclosure, and how to facilitate disclosures. In addition, there was a perceived need for education about the services available to support survivors and the processes that occur once a disclosure is formally reported.
There is a need for more research into effective responses, including reporting processes, following disclosure. This research should address desired outcomes from various perspectives (counseling; support for survivors, their families and confidantes; and judiciary). There is a need to develop a range of response options and to provide an evidence base for each option. With a view to identifying improvements on existing responses and building new processes empowering those affected, an exploration of the application of international models of best practice to an Australian context is required. We suggest that this should focus on models that involve the community as there appears to be good evidence to support these approaches. It is possible that the implementation of different models may lead to higher disclosure rates and facilitate better long term outcomes for survivors. We suggest that understanding the disclosure process can inform the services and systems that are in place, so that more survivors become willing to disclose and receive the support they require for their mental health and well-being.
Towards Resolution Recommendations Recommendation 1: As early disclosure of child sexual abuse is considered essential for the health and well-being of survivors, better education of the community and of specialist and generalist agency staff members of the disclosure process, particularly of the testing stage and the triggers of disclosure, is required to create the opportunities and safe environments required for disclosure. Recommendation 2: As supportive reactions following the disclosure of child sexual abuse can lead to better health and well-being outcomes, and the opportunity to explore appropriate response options, better education of the community, and of specialist and generalist agency staff members, on how to react is required. Guidelines about how to react, as suggested by Hunter (2011) and the Department of Human Services (2009), should be widely disseminated and referred to in discussions of effective strategies for facilitating disclosure of child sexual abuse and the support of survivors. Recommendation 3: In addition to educating children and the community on the prevention of child sexual abuse, more education needs to focus on creating safe environments for children and adults to disclose incidents of child sexual abuse, and creating awareness of how to supportively react and respond to disclosure of child sexual abuse. Greater awareness of the services available is essential, along with clearer explanations of the reporting process, so that survivors and confidantes are more informed of their options. Recommendation 4: Survivors of child sexual abuse require support to assist with coping with living with having been sexually abused, even if they choose not to report the abuse. It was identified that there was a need to provide counselling, rehabilitation programs, education, information, and community support services for all affected by child sexual abuse (survivors, families, perpetrators, and others).Recommendation 5: With a view to identifying improvements on existing responses and building new processes empowering those affected, and contributing to the resolution of trauma on all sides, an exploration of the application of international models of best practice to an Australian context is required. This should focus on models that involve the community as there appears to be good evidence to support these approaches.