What should I do if I know a child was abused but I don’t want to tear apart the family by reporting?
Dear Stop It Now!,
I suspect that a child was abused by her father; however I believe that the abuse is now over. The child is still living with the father. I am the only one who has connected all the dots, so I am the only one who can act. If I report the abuse, the family will be ripped apart and I feel this will only make things worse for the child. I am also concerned that the father may commit suicide if the abuse becomes known. I want to do what will cause the least damage to the child, and what will help the child and the father heal. My two options are to make it public and risk the family falling apart or discuss what happened with the father only - still keeping it a secret - and help set up private counseling for him and the child? Which do I do?
Dear Concerned Bystander,
If you are aware that a child is or has been sexually abused, a report should be made to the proper authorities but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t strategies about how to do this that will help guide everyone concerned to the best possible outcome in an extremely difficult situation. Regardless of how confusing and fragile this situation is, the sexual abuse of a child is illegal and harms a child in many ways.
Research shows us that when a child’s sexual abuse is not acknowledged and adults do not step forward to address the abuse, the child’s emotional damage can be worse. Conversely, when a child’s sexual abuse is acknowledged and adults respond, the child can begin her path to recovery quicker.
Additionally, keeping “it a secret” only contributes to child sexual abuse; it never prevents or heals it. Also, while you feel that the abuse is no longer occurring, there is no way to know that with certainty as child sexual abuse indeed flourishes in secrecy.
The most important consideration is of course the well-being and safety of the child. Please read when a child tells about sexual abuse from our Online Help Center. The links on this page will help you understand what the child needs and address some additional common concerns. I also want to direct you to our FAQ, What should I do if I know a child has been abused?
If you decide to talk with the father, please read our Guidebooks, “Let’s Talk”. Please only have this conversation if you feel safe, and preferably with another person. Your conversation doesn’t have to be accusatory; rather can be offers of support to get help.
There is help available to him and his family. Treatment for him would be very specialized and I would invite him to look at our website, starting with our FAQ, What is sex offender treatment? You may want to be prepared with local emergency numbers should you become concerned that he is in eminent danger of hurting himself. You can contact your local emergency room, 911 or The National Suicide Prevention Hotline.
Our information, also from our Online Help Center on filing reports will help you prepare to report. The family is absolutely going to need assistance and support from the outside to help them and by filing, these resources can be made available to them. To file, contact either Childhelp, the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD or visit The Child Welfare Information Gateway to find your state’s reporting information.
Stepping up to help a child who has been abused is indeed a very courageous and complicated action. Your mixed feelings about how to handle this are common to many in your position. I do want to emphasize that you are neither responsible for breaking up the family or for any depression or suicide attempts – the child sexual abuse is responsible.
Stop It Now!
Last edited on: August 1st, 2012