Child sexual abuse is a “silent crime” because child victims often have no visible signs of injury and may have difficulty disclosing what happened. Oklahoma law defines sexual abuse as any exploitation, activity, or propositioning of the child by an adult for the purpose of sexual stimulation. This may include rape, incest, lewd acts or proposals, prostitution, obscene photography, or exposure to pornography.
Disclosure occurs when a child tells someone that he or she has been sexually abused. Disclosure may come weeks, months, or even years after the abuse occurred, as children often feel afraid, or embarrassed to come forward. Because of the trauma associated with child sexual abuse, a child’s disclosure may come in bits and pieces and seem inconsistent. If a child discloses sexual abuse to you, consider responding in the following ways:
• Believe what the child is telling you.
• Reassure them they are doing the right thing by disclosing the abuse.
• Provide a private place to talk and listen attentively without distraction.
• Remind the child they are not to blame, and that the abuse is not their fault.
• Do not criticize them or ask follow up questions that indicate you doubt their story.
• Stay calm and try not to express shock. Children will look to you for steadiness and reassurance during their disclosure.
• Use the child’s vocabulary for their body parts.
• Be careful not to suggest you want a specific answer to any follow up questions you ask.
• Tell the child you need to report it and what will happen after your report is made.
• Evaluate whether further action must be taken for the child’s immediate safety.
Sometimes children do not disclose abuse, and it is up to caretakers to notice and report any suspected abuse. Therefore, it is important to be aware of the signs that sexual abuse may be happening. Behavioral signs of abuse include trouble sleeping, struggling to maintain hygiene, and regressive habits like thumb sucking. Children may also avoid physical contact or seem threatened or afraid by contact. Language changes like using adult terminology or content or signs of physical injury are also good indications abuse is occurring.
Any person who reasonably believes a child under 18 is a victim of abuse or neglect has a duty to promptly report it to DHS. Reports to DHS may be made by telephone, in writing, or in person. First-hand knowledge of the abuse is not required to trigger this duty to report, and failure to report abuse may result in criminal charges. Reports should include the name, age, gender, and location of the child, as well as the name and address of the child’s parents or guardians and a description of the suspected abuse. DHS workers and law enforcement will then investigate the allegations.
After sexual abuse of a child is discovered, children may be afraid, embarrassed, and may have significant emotional trauma. As a result, caregivers should be intentional in helping a child recover. Caregivers should first re-establish the child’s feelings of safety. Sexual abuse may make children feel unsafe in their surroundings and distrustful of adults. Make a plan so the abuse perpetrator has no unsupervised contact with the child or has no interactions with the child at all. Protect the child’s privacy and don’t share his or her story of abuse with people who don’t need to know. It may also be beneficial to seek professional counseling for the child and for other family members who are adversely affected by the abuse.
Perpetrators are often trusted adults in the community who know how to manipulate situations so they can continue abusing children. It is important to report perpetrators of child sexual abuse to the proper authorities.
If you believe a child is being abused, call the Statewide 24-hour Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline at 1-800-522-3511.
If you have questions about your legal rights, contact Koller Trial Law.
This post authored by Rachel Gessouroun and Laurie Koller.