Best Practices

Considering parent-child relationship factors in delayed disclosure of child sexual abuse

New research suggests that parent-child relationship factors influence child victims' decisions about whether and when to disclose sexual abuse, even when the parent is not the offender.

By Sarah M. Tashjian, JD, Deborah Goldfarb, JD, and Gail S. Goodman

The discovery of child sexual abuse (CSA) often requires disclosure by the young victims due to frequent absence of physical evidence and the clandestine nature of sexual acts. There are many worries for CSA victims that can silence them, often resulting in nondisclosure or delayed disclosure. Past research and national surveys indicate CSA disclosure rates may be as low as 16 percent to 25 percent (National Children's Advocacy Center, 2014), and fewer than 25 percent of child victims are thought to disclose immediately following CSA assaults (McElvaney, 2015). Delayed disclosure can diminish successful prosecution, impede therapeutic intervention, and expose other children to harm. Psychological science has thus dedicated significant resources to identifying factors that relate to delayed disclosure. The bulk of present research focuses on victim-related factors, such as age, gender, abuse type, and victim-perpetrator relationship status. However, these efforts often overlook the broader familial relationships that may contribute to delayed disclosure of CSA. Non-offending parents play an important role in the disclosure process both as recipients of disclosure and as intermediaries regulating access to intervention from authorities (e.g., Reitsema & Grietens, 2015). As such, child protective services caseworkers are typically instructed to interview families as a collective unit and develop a safety plan and assessment with the non-offending parent and child victim both present (DePanfilis & Salus, 2003). Although this practice may be appropriate for children who have secure and trusting relationships with their non-offending parents, it does not account for potential adverse consequences (e.g., retributive punishment) for children whose parents may react negatively to disclosure.

An important consistency across different models of CSA disclosure is that children's expectations of reactions by disclosure recipients factor centrally in their decisions whether or not to disclose (e.g., Goodman-Brown, Edelstein, Goodman, Jones, & Gordon, 2003). Low levels of familial support have been linked to lower disclosure rates, delayed disclosure, and wavering after disclosure (Lawson & Chaffin, 1992). These models of support generally focus on post-disclosure assessments of the recipient's acceptance that the abuse occurred. This relatively low bar for support leaves a potential concern of many victims unaddressed, specifically child victims may worry whether disclosing to someone with whom they had prior negative experiences will result in adverse reactions to the disclosure. CSA victims are often exposed to other forms of maltreatment including emotional and physical abuse (Turner, Finkelhor, & Ormrod, 2010). Although this abuse may often occur at the hands of the CSA perpetrator, circumstances vary. In some cases, in addition to the violence experienced at the hands of the CSA perpetrator, children may experience physical and/or emotional abuse by their parents, the same parents to whom the child is most likely to make a disclosure of CSA. Children maltreated by their parents, compared to non-maltreated children, form more negative expectations of their caretakers (Stronach, Toth, Oshri, Manly, & Cicchetti, 2011). Of importance, these expectations may adversely affect speed of disclosure for non-parental abuse.

In a recent study, we considered the relationship between children and their parental figures as a potential factor in delayed disclosure of CSA when the parent was not the CSA perpetrator (Tashjian, Goldfarb, Goodman, Quas, & Edelstein, 2016). Reports of emotional and physical abuse by a parental figure significantly predicted longer delays in CSA disclosure perpetrated by someone other than a parental figure, above and beyond victim demographic, abuse-related, and victim-perpetrator relationship status. Our results are resonant with the polyvictimization literature, which indicates that individuals experiencing multiple victimizations are the ones who manifest the most extreme traumatic responses (Finkelhor et al., 2011). Future research assessing factors related to delayed disclosure should continue to investigate the role of parenting, as well as characteristics of the child and the target victimization (in our case, emotional and physical abuse by non-offending parents was an important consideration for sexual abuse disclosure). Additionally, we urge child welfare professionals to be cognizant of the parent-child relationship when evaluating CSA disclosure, even when the parent is not the CSA offender. Given the central role parents play in the disclosure process, accounting for the complexity of parent-child relationships provides important context to disclosure delays.

Of course, the parent-child relationship is not the only force influencing victims' decisions about whether and when to disclose. Although mixed results have emerged in research when considering child victims' age as well as their gender, the scientific literature generally points to older children and boys being more likely to delay or avoid disclosure compared with younger children and girls (e.g., Widom & Morris, 1997). Children sexually abused by a family member are also less quick to disclose than those abused by an extrafamilial perpetrator. The latter finding in particular may stem from a psychological mechanism similar to the one driving our results that emotional and physical abuse by a non-perpetrator parental figure related to more delayed CSA disclosure. When a parent is the CSA perpetrator, child victims are concerned about being punished, appearing disloyal, and disrupting the family structure as a result of their disclosures of sexual abuse (Malloy et al., 2011). Similarly, children who experience emotional or physical maltreatment by their parents (when the parents are not the CSA perpetrators) may have expectations that their parental figures cannot be trusted to react supportively or intervene to stop the non-parental CSA.

A major advancement in the field of child advocacy is a recognition that not all victims eventually disclose and that those who do disclose most often do not do so immediately. Although efforts focus on limiting delayed disclosure, a nuanced understanding of the circumstances under which children are likely to delay disclosure helps child welfare professionals better tailor services to the needs and expectations of children. Refining and enhancing our understanding of child victims' expectations throughout the disclosure process will have significant implications for improving disclosure rates and disclosure experiences for children who suffer sexual abuse.


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