The Sandusky trial gripped the nation as tales of anguish, fear, and confusion were heard from the young men who accused the former Penn State assistant coach of sexual abuse. “Why didn’t they tell someone?” or “Why did they continue to go back?” were questions heard again and again. Both inquiries speak to a common myth regarding how children react to and disclose sexual abuse. Many people believe that children tell someone, usually an adult, immediately or soon after being molested. Instead, what research shows is that most children victimized by sexual violence seldom tell adults about the abuse and many incidents are never reported to the authorities.
Victims delay reporting sexual abuse for numerous reasons:
- Offenders often threaten or intimidate their victims
- Victims often fear that they will not be believed
- Victims love the offender and don’t want him/her to get into trouble
- Victims may feel ashamed, embarrassed or at fault
- Victims do not feel the opportunity to disclose was ever appropriate
- Children may not understand the wrongfulness of the conduct, especially when abused by a trusted adult.
In many cases, a combination of factors will influence the child’s decision not to report the exploitation.
In a forensic interview where there is delayed disclosure, two of the most important questions to ask the child are “How come you couldn’t tell someone before?” and “How come you are able to tell someone now?” These questions permit children to share why they may not have disclosed immediately and what circumstances converged that enabled them to finally speak out.
The interviewer should anticipate areas of the child’s disclosure that may be difficult for lay persons to understand, and obtain clarification DURING the interview. Anticipating the issues court personnel may have regarding disclosure are essential in deciding what questions need to be asked in the interview to clarify the child’s reasons for delaying disclosure. Answers to these questions must be viewed from the child’s developmental, cognitive, and socio-emotional perspective. Put yourself in their shoes, if you are a child or adolescent from a disadvantaged family and then are granted access to unimaginable opportunities, what would you endure? If you’re a child and you’ve been threatened, how do you know the threats won’t come true? The reasons for staying silent are many and they are all valid in the eyes of a child.