- Our Beliefs in Practice
- Our Commitments to Callers
- Goals and Key Steps
- Key Strategies for Helpline Responses
- Safety Planning
- Healthy Sexuality Education
- The Welcome and Conversation Tips
- Counseling Skills for Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Calls
- Cultural Considerations
- Fundamental Communication Skills
- Responding to Barriers with Action
- Yellow Light Inquiries: Concerns with No Disclosure
- Yellow Light Inquiries: Bystanders - Concern About Behaviors: Suspect Abuse and/or Has "Gut Feeling", but with No Disclosure of Abuse
- Yellow Light Inquiries: Bystander - Concerns About a Sex Offender in the Community
- Yellow Light Inquiries: Adult Concerns About Their Own Feelings and Thoughts - No Disclosure of Abuse
- Red Light Inquiries: There is Evidence of Abuse
- Red Light Inquiries: Concern About a Child Who Has Been Abused; Through Disclosure or other Evidence
- Red Light Inquiries: Bystanders - Concerns About an Adult or Child Who Has Abused; Through Disclosure or other Evidence
- Red Light Inquiries: Survivors - An Adult Survivor of Child Sexual Abuse or Another Adult with Concerns About an Adult Survivor
- Red Light Inquiries: Adults Who Have Abused Children; Including Watching CSAM
- Why Does Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Work Pose Such Increased Risk to the Helpline Staff?
- Vicarious Trauma
Stop It Now!'s Helpline applies the organization's mission, philosophy, mission, experience and empirical in an effective and practical approach to provide support, information and guidance to individuals seeking information about child sexual abuse. In every contact, Helpline staff seek to balance accountability with understanding. Sensible information in the form of education is provided, and relevant resources are identified to encourage all adults to act responsibly and preventively.
With guidance from professional staff, adults are able to learn about sexual abuse and how to develop a safety plan for their children and families. They are able to find language for an effective conversation when they have concerns. They are able to identify specialized treatment options for themselves or someone they care about. They can also learn how to report those concerns to authorities, when appropriate. Adults with concerns about themselves can find out that help is available, and where to get that help. Individuals with any type of child sexual abuse (CSA) question or concern are provided with information, tools and support to makes choices to prevent and respond to the sexual abuse of children.
- Awareness and Education
- Planning and Prevention
- Responding and Protecting
- Support and Treatment
Hope and empowerment are vital to any Helpline contact. Stop It Now! views child sexual abuse as a preventable social problem. Adults are reminded that their actions can make a difference either in stopping a child from being harmed further, or in preventing abuse from happening at all. This is relayed in every response to every Helpline call.
Individuals in all stages of concern contact the Helpline about child sexual abuse. They call with personal knowledge and/or experience about a situation of sexual abuse or have observed possible warning signs of child sexual abuse in adults, teens or children. Concerns about sexualized behaviors in an adult or child, and with warning signs that he or she is at risk to sexually abuse a child are raised. Callers with concerns about their own sexual feelings, interests and behaviors towards children reach out for help. Though we typically serve adult callers, when youth do call, we offer age-appropriate resources and strategies to address their concerns.
All callers are offered:
- Confidentiality - This is the foundation of the Helpline’s ability to provide a forum for an open, honest discussion. Callers repeatedly note that it is the ability to speak freely, anonymously and without fear of judgment that allows them to fully confront and sort through their concerns. Many callers to the Helpline would not make the initial call for help and information if confidentiality was not offered.
- Education - Information about healthy and unhealthy sexual behaviors in children, the importance of speaking up and taking actions, tools on how to have difficult conversations, and appropriate resources to support all child protection efforts.
- Safety Planning and Assessment tools – Includes developing safety plans to protect children and adults at risk, understanding the reporting process, and seeking help for everyone involved. Information on warning signs of sexual abuse of a child as well as the warning signs that an adult is at risk to sexually abuse a child is provided.
With every contact, there is a call to accountability and responsibility. Helpline counselors emphasize the importance of action, strengthening the commitment to child protection. Adults are asked to identify the action steps they can take to keep children safe. By framing responses with language such as, “many people find it helpful to…” and “Let’s look at the choices you have for responding…”, callers to the Helpline are encouraged and nurtured to speak up, take actions and help prevent abuse.
“Stop It Now! was founded on the belief that adults are in the best position to keep children safe from sexual abuse. By adults, we mean parents, survivors, family members, law enforcement, and professionals of all types. We also believe that people who might sexually abuse a child have an important role to play in prevention,” from the Stop It Now philosophy.
Respect - Every caller is treated with respect and compassion. We do not use labels or make personal judgments, regardless of whether a person has experienced abuse or has sexually harmed a child.
Elimination of shame and isolation – Every caller is given a safe place to speak freely about uncomfortable and difficult feelings, especially shame. We support callers and help them move past challenging emotions, so they are confident in taking next steps to help children and themselves live safe and healthy lives.
Empowerment - Every caller receives customized guidance and support that equips them to prevent child sexual abuse and protect children. Every adult is encouraged to act compassionately and to always hold themselves and each other accountable for their actions.
Emphasis on action - Every caller is asked to identify the action steps they are willing to take to keep children safe.
The Stop It Now! Helpline is committed to the following values and practices:
A Helpline, not a crisis line
Unlike crisis lines that are focused mainly on emergency situations that call for immediate action, the Stop It Now! Helpline offers callers guidance and information to help prevent a situation from becoming a crisis. The Helpline meets people where they are, helping them to identify and overcome the barriers that currently prevent them from taking protective actions. Often people call when they are facing questions, doubts, or uncertainties, giving Helpline staff the opportunity to offer guidance, information, and resources that may lead to the prevention of a crisis. When the call is a crisis, appropriate resources are identified, and the caller is supported in contacting immediate crisis response resources.
Anyone can call
The Stop It Now! Helpline is unique in that it serves all adults – those worried about another adult, adolescent, or child, and those worried about their own thoughts or behaviors. Grandparents, mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, siblings, cousins, adult sons and daughters, friends and acquaintances have all called the Stop It Now! Helpline. Many people who have contacted the helpline state that they have never discussed their concerns with anyone else.
Expertise and knowledge
Since its inception the Stop It Now! Helpline has been the only resource of its kind in the country. While there are other hotlines and crisis lines devoted to the issues of child abuse in all forms, and to sexual assault that addresses violence towards both adults and children, Stop It Now! offers the only helpline dedicated solely to the problem of child sexual abuse. While updated knowledge and understanding of all related violence prevention issues is crucial to the effectiveness of the Helpline, the dedication to a single issue, rather than to multiple issues, has enhanced the depth and breadth of Stop It Now!’s expertise.
The Helpline is committed to providing a private place where callers can freely and openly discuss their concerns, express emotions, and explore their options. Speaking in confidence with someone with the expertise to answer questions and help explore possible actions is exactly what many people need to prepare themselves to take protective steps.
Confidentiality is maintained as long as callers keep their anonymity. If a caller chooses to provide Stop It Now! with identifying information about specific people involved in a particular child abuse situation, Stop It Now! will address the call according to standards of mandated reporting guidelines.
Compassion and a nonjudgmental response
Helpline staff treat all callers with respect and compassion and understand that by responding in nonjudgmental ways they make it more possible for callers to work through complex situations and reach difficult decisions.
Choosing words with sensitivity and awareness
The Helpline uses language that is accurate and avoids dehumanizing or inflammatory labels. While focusing on the facts and reality of a situation, Helpline staff conveys hope and an understanding that a caller may be facing complex and conflicting emotions and demands.
Providing guidance, support and resources - not therapy
The Helpline helps callers recognize situations that call for action. Helpline counselors are not therapists but can refer callers to organizations that can help them locate mental health counseling professionals. Helpline counselors provide information to answer callers’ questions; offer guidance and support in facing and overcoming barriers; and identify resources and referrals where callers can go to learn more or get help from professionals.
Emphasis on Action
Helpline Associates discuss with callers steps they can take to address their personal situations, and encourage callers to take action - whether the action is filing a report, finding a specialized therapist, having a conversation, creating a safety plan, or learning more about prevention and everyday actions adults can take to help keep children safe. Options for response are explored, and callers are asked to identify what steps they feel they can take to prevent the sexual abuse of a child.
Stop It Now! believes that with intervention, accountability, and the support of loved ones and professionals, people who have been impacted by child sexual abuse - although forever changed - have the chance to go on to lead productive and rewarding lives, and that many have done just that. Helpline staff let callers know that many people, like themselves, have spoken up and taken action that led to the prevention of abuse. For some of these people, picking up the phone to call the Helpline is their first step towards protecting a child.
A key concept of child sexual abuse prevention is the recognition that adults need to be accountable and responsible for children’s sexual wellbeing. While we can provide children with education and guidance to empower them to recognize risky situations and to ask for help, it is not possible to depend exclusively on children to protect themselves.
While children often know the signs that they are in a risky or suspicious situation or relationship well before a non-offending adult may notice, they may not identify the situation as sexual abuse. Expecting children to “tell” when they are at risk is unrealistic for many reasons. The obstacles and reasons why youth don’t just “simply” tell when they’re at-risk and/or being abused are best understood under these categories:
Children have relationships with the adult who is abusive or at risk
This is the most important framework to understand when working with children. Children seek to protect the adults in their lives, even when those adults may not be protecting them and even harming them. Children need to feel that they are not betraying the caregiving adults who are also the person abusing them. Children who feel that adults whom they both love and who abuse them are going to be treated fairly and respectfully are more willing to talk about their experience and needs.
Children lack experience and understanding of child sex abuse
- Feel shame
- Feel guilt
- Feel that what is happening is “normal”
Lack of opportunity
- No one asked them if they are safe
- Warning signs are not responded to
Children have been or feel threatened
- by adult who is abusive, or by adult at risk to abuse
- by fear of retribution
- by fear of disrupting family
For more information see our FAQ, “Why don’t children tell if they have been abused.”
Stop It Now!’s objective for every caller is that they feel prepared and empowered to act to keep children safe from sexual abuse. This is a process of development for many callers, so this objective is broken down into obtainable goals. Key steps for the helpline call taker are practiced.
What Are Our Goals for Helpline Callers?
- Caller is better prepared (equipped) to cope with or respond to their specific issue.
- Caller feels they have “been heard” or have a voice.
- Caller feels “hope.”
- Caller is calm and/or grounded.
- Caller has been able to identify a support system outside of Helpline.
- Caller feels safe – emotionally and physically.
- Caller has been given appropriate resources – where necessary.
- Caller understands the choices available for response and action.
- Caller has a definitive action plan or steps to follow after the call has been terminated.
- Welcome caller with empathic and active listening
- Explain confidentiality
- Define caller’s need and situation (assessment)
- Identify possible responses, action steps and resources
- Check in/Listen for barriers and resistance
- Respond to barriers and resistance
- Identify first steps and supports
- Invite caller to contact again
Provide information about choices available without pressure and judgment.
When faced with decisions about how to respond to concerns regarding the sexual abuse of a child, it is important to know and understand the response choices available. Stop It Now! describes the different action steps that are appropriate and explores the caller’s ability and resources to choose and follow up on an action. The need for a response that addresses immediate safety is emphasized, but the Helpline counselor refrains from “telling” the caller what to do. Rather, by providing education about the available response choices and what outcomes each choice may generate the caller is given the tools and information to make informed choices.
Move caller to next step
Helpline staff begin where callers are in order to help them take a next step. Although a situation described may be one that is reportable, many people are not ready to take that step. The helpline serves as a place where callers can take the time to think things through, explore conflicted feelings, and learn about options to prepare themselves to take actions - including reporting. Taking a step to report themselves or a loved one is often far too huge. Helpline staff need to meet the caller where he or she is and build from there. Identifying possible action steps can help the caller feel like there is something he or she can do, even if it is in small steps. Callers are asked what action step they are able to take.
Focus on positive aspects of responding
Many callers focus on the negative aspects of coming forward and reporting suspected abuse, or in talking with a family member about child sexual abuse. The more positive aspects of taking action are highlighted. Callers may not be able to see the long term picture; Helpline staff help them see that the scary step of reporting can lead to overall healthier, safer and stronger families.
Dispel myths about people who abuse
Many callers call with preconceived notions of sexual abuse and myths about those who abuse, even those who have abused themselves. It is important to dispel these myths, which often operate as barriers to people taking action. A child or adult at risk to abuse might call and say that asking for help is impossible because that would mean admitting that he or she is a monster. Helpline staff emphasize that “monsters” don’t reach out for help. It is important to identify the strengths of each caller, avoid judgment (even if self-imposed by the caller), offer facts, and reinforce the steps that the caller is taking to keep children safe. At the same time, it is important to hold the caller accountable for abusive behavior and not allow the caller to minimize the abuse.
Focus on protective actions
Many callers want a “quick fix” for their problem. It is important to inform and prepare them for the realities often associated with addressing the sexual abuse of children. Helpline staff can let callers know that these situations can take time to sort through, but families like their own do go on to lead normal and healthy lives. Identifying and emphasizing the need to keep children safe is the priority. Helping callers define their role in this ultimate objective is the focus of moving towards actions that are protective, preventive, and conscious.
Confidentiality and Reporting Considerations
Helpline staff understand the importance and immense value in offering a confidential resource for child sexual abuse concerns. Maintaining a confidential resource for people to reach out to and talk about concerns related to the sexual abuse of children is a strategic and evidence-based prevention tool. In settings and environments where there are not sex offender registries and where mandated reporting is not as strictly structured, there is evidence to suggest that more people with concerns come forward. This sets the stage for every caller that allows for more honesty and reflection. By greatly reducing the fear that something bad will happen if any child sexual abuse concern is raised, people are more willing to think through their concerns, possible action steps, and to even identify an action step for follow through.
Informing every caller about how the line operates and the confidential nature of each call is crucial. Stop It Now! is not a reporting hotline. The Helpline’s role in reporting consists of:
- Education and information about the reporting process and what to expect
- Encouraging callers to look at concerning situations using the Warning Signs
- Help identify when a situation indicates that reporting is appropriate and even urgent
- Support and guidance to address the barriers that may get in the way of reporting
Helpline associates are not legally mandated reporters; however, the Helpline operates according to standards of mandated reporting guidelines. Callers are advised about the value of maintaining that confidentiality by being told that they do not need to share identifying information about themselves and their situation in order to access Helpline services. And they are also told about the limits of that confidentiality.
Callers who describe a crisis situation are encouraged to immediately notify the authorities about the nature of the crisis. Child welfare reporting hotlines are identified, as well as 24 hour hotlines that are designed to respond to crises. Stop It Now! Helpline call takers offer support but clearly state that the caller is in need of assistance that is not provided by the Helpline and if necessary, discusses the immediate benefits of contacting dedicated crisis responders. See more under reporting.
Stop It Now! encourages all parents and caring adults to be familiar with what can be done in the home and the community to keep kids safe. These resources below are of use on many different types of calls. Often, people call with questions about what they can do before something occurs. This is when stressing the importance of adults taking responsibility for looking out for children and teens is critical and talking about this with curious and caring callers is a key aspect of the Stop It Now! model. Belief that child sexual abuse can be prevented is embedded in the invitation to think and act preventatively.
Resources for parents:
Safety Planning is for all adults. Resources for adults contacting Stop It Now! about their own safe behaviors can be found here.
Healthy Sexuality is also a key component of many of Stop It Now!s responses to questions about protecting children from sexual abuse. Protective features for providing healthy sexuality information for children include:
- A precedent is set in the home that there is permission to talk about this issue.
- Children know they have a safe adult to turn to when they (or friends) have questions about sexuality.
- Children may be more likely to tell you about at-risk behavior of others.
- Children who understand their bodies and their sexual feelings may feel more confident about this part of them and may be less likely to be confused or manipulated regarding inappropriate sexual touch.
Callers who raise concerns about the impact of sexuality oriented conversations are reminded that:
- It is okay to feel uncomfortable at first – it gets easier.
- Information about sexuality does not equal permission.
- Actions speak louder than words- model safe/healthy relationships and be aware of what kinds of relationships children witness.
- Adults shouldn’t wait for children to ask questions. Learn what children are naturally curious about at their age and set aside times to teach.
- If children don’t learn it from their parents and trusted caregivers, they will find their answers in some other way.
- For children with sexual behavior concerns –to fully heal, they need accurate information and must learn about how to express their sexuality in positive ways.
- Age-Appropriate and Concerning Sexual Behaviors in Children
- Understanding Sexual Behavior in Kids
- Children’s' Sexuality Development and Behaviors
We believe from the initial point of engagement, presenting a caller with a warm, professional, and clear orientation begins to model prevention and can lead to desired outcomes. The following are shared models of language to open conversations.
Helpline Phone Language and Sample Scripts
From the first engagement with a Helpline user, Staff define the helpline service itself.
Answering the phone (suggested script):
"Hello, you have reached the Stop It Now! Helpline. My name is ________. Thank you for calling, how can I help you? I’d like to confirm that you have reached a helpline for adults with questions about child sexual abuse and prevention. We are a confidential helpline, and are not a legal, investigative or treatment service. As we are confidential, we do not need any identifying information such as last names, addresses, etc. Because we don’t have caller ID on this line, if we do by chance get disconnected, please just call right back. Does this sound like you’re in the right place?”
(wait for answer)
*(if caller begins to share details of their story before this information is relayed, the Helpline counselor may need to interrupt in order to make sure confidentiality is explained)
Upon response: "I’d be happy to talk over this with you but before we continue, I’d like to confirm that you have reached a helpline for adults with questions about child sexual abuse and prevention. We are a confidential helpline, and are not a legal, investigative or treatment service. As we are confidential, we do not need any identifying information such as last names, addresses, etc. Because we don’t have caller ID on this line, if we do by chance get disconnected, please just call right back.
If a staff in training/supervisor is listening:
"And, as we are in the process of training activities if you don’t mind, there will be someone listening in the background; they are on mute. Is that ok?"
(Wait for response – If they do mind, "Thank you/no problem", and observation does not progress)
Continuing, "We are a national program, but we do ask what state you are calling from?"
"And can you tell me how you found our program?"
"Great, thank you – now how can I help you?"
Chat Language (automatically populates upon chat acceptance):
The standard dialogue that everyone entering our chat portal is presented:
"You have reached a confidential helpline with the purpose of providing you support, and responding to your questions and concerns about child sexual abuse. We are not a legal, investigative or treatment program.
At the end of your chat, the counselor will not log out immediately so that you can copy and save your chat and resources. Once you close your chat window, you will no longer have access to the chat so please copy and paste anything you want to save for later.
You can also request a transcript of your chat session to be sent to your email. Your email address will not be saved after sending the transcript and will not be used for further communication.
We also want to make sure you are aware of our website at www.stopitnow.org. Additionally, you may want to contact our phone service at 1.888.PREVENT (773.8368).
Again, thank you for waiting and a Stop It Now! Helpline counselor will be right with you."
I hope that the information we have provided is helpful, and we hope to hear back from you about your questions. Take care.
Helpful Phrases and General Language Guidelines
Our Helpline staff have put together the following lists of helpful phrases to address confidentiality and extended “talkers”, and to provide general guidance when responding to callers.
Addressing Confidentiality/Overly Detail-related:
- "I need to interrupt you here as we are approaching the limit of my ability to maintain your confidentiality. I think I have the information I need to assist you."
- "You’ve done a great job laying out your concern. I don’t need any more information to begin helping you get the resources/support/etc. you need."
- "I don’t need the details of the incident. You’ve shared enough for me to begin talking about what’s available for support."
Addressing Extended Talking:
- "If you don’t mind, I want to interrupt you. You’ve done an excellent job sharing with me your concern and some of the specifics of the situation. I have a good idea of what is going on and what your need is, so let’s talk about next steps, resources and overall safety planning."
- "It seems it might be helpful for you to talk through some of this with a trained counselor/attorney/therapist/professional as there has been so much going on. We are not here in a treatment role for you and I want to make sure that you get the support and help you need."
- "At this point I’ve given you some resources and action steps to consider. What steps sound possible to you?"
Sample and Suggested Communication Strategies/Language
- "Don’t underestimate the positive impact of what you have already done."
- "You have taken some very appropriate steps to respond to your child’s safety concerns"
- "The traumatic impact of sex abuse is greatly reduced when a child has safe adults to tell about what happened, and that the child is believed and safety is immediately addressed."
- "This is a very complicated, difficult situation. I understand why you’re (frustrated, overwhelmed, confused, worried, etc.)."
- "Some steps you can consider…"
- "Some other considerations for you to think about…"
- "I would encourage you…" (used cautiously, generally related to recommending treatment and reporting)
- "These/Your children are lucky to have you looking out for them."
- "You don’t have to fix this all at once."
- "You don’t have to take responsibility for his/her/their response, and you don’t have to say it all at once."
- "It’s great that you called today to find out next steps."
- "Taking responsibility for protecting children is so important."
- "I’m sorry that you (your family, your child, etc.) have been affected by sex abuse."
- "When adults take responsible steps after a child discloses abuse, then the prognosis for that child’s healing is very high."
- "Children are very resilient and with support, treatment if appropriate – they often heal with very little difficulties."
- Keep focus on talking about what will create the most safety for children involved
- Balance accountability with compassion
- Reduce isolation – can share that you’ve spoken with other parents/adults about same issue, that others share the same concerns or difficulty, etc.
- Acknowledge importance of trusting gut/instincts
- Ask what’s been done so far? And validate these steps
- “How are you doing with this…are you receiving support?”
- Align with the presented feelings
Responding to Suicide Content
Pay attention to verbal/written cues:
- I don’t know if I can go on much longer.
- I don’t want to live
- I’ve tried to kill myself before
- I’d be better off dead
- Others would be better off if I was dead
- There’s no point in going on
- There’s no hope for me
Caller is expressing suicidal thoughts/intention:
- Ask directly, “Are you thinking of harming yourself?”
- Can ask, “Are you thinking of suicide”. If they respond “yes”: "I would like to try to help you stay safe."
- "Do you know how you would hurt yourself?"
- Gather quick assessment information: a plan increases risk. Combine with next question:
- Have you ever tried to harm yourself in the past?"
- You are gathering quick info here; again, previous attempts increase risk
- "What/Who helped you that last time you were struggling?"
- Begin to identify what supports/strengths are available.
- "Can I help you get help now?"
- Offer to contact the local ER/police/mental health crisis team.
- Try to gather information.
- If the caller is refusing to give identifying information, you are only responsible for letting this person know that you want to help, and will help if they allow it. You are not responsible for when the caller hangs up and what they do afterwards.
- Give them the phone number to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline #: (US)1.800.273.TALK (8255), and also remind them that they can walk into any hospital emergency room at any time for help.
- Contact supervisor for immediate debriefing
Additional Tips on Responding to a Caller Who is Suicidal:
- Take caller’s statement of intended self-harm seriously.
- Encourage the caller that help and support is available; that there are counselors and others that do understand (adults struggling with thoughts about children, survivors who are struggling, overwhelmed adults, etc.)
- Try to help the caller identify who is in support circle, and who can they contact for help.
While the Stop It Now! Helpline does not offer therapy, standard evidence-based counseling skills are necessary for accurate initial assessment of and response to:
- The already established presence of child sexual abuse or an at-risk situation
- Opportunities for child sex abuse prevention education
There are many effective counseling models. The Child Helpline International Counselling Practice Guide, Section 2 provides general necessary core competencies related to helpline counseling skills.
Stop It Now! defines the following skills as foundations to CSA helpline responding:
- Empathic Listening
- Rapport Building
- Cultural Considerations
- Basic Communication Skills
- Resource Knowledge
When a caller has needs related to child sexual abuse, the skill and intention of empathic listening is vital. How callers perceive they are treated and regarded will help enhance their sense of being able to get help and take action.
If Helpline staff are able to see every caller as a person deserving to live a healthy, harm-free life, several key outcomes are possible:
- Helpline staff will feel increased success in their role
- Helpline staff will have a greater sense of meaning in their role
- Caller will be more likely to better identify their needs
- Caller will more likely follow through on action plans
- There will be a higher commitment overall to child sex abuse prevention
Empathic listening is listening with acceptance, support, and respect for any caller. The key features of empathic listening are:
- Unconditional regard - Basic acceptance and support of a person regardless of what the person says or does.
- Non-judgmental - Avoid identification, sympathy, judgment. Listen through the caller’s experience, perception, feelings, etc; not through your own.
- Active listening - Stay present. Ask questions. Let them know that you are “paying attention.”
Empathic Listening with Adult Callers Concerned About Their Sexual Interest in Children
It may be challenging to listen to a caller who is either struggling with their own sexual feelings towards children or not doing everything they can to prevent child sexual abuse. Stop It Now! asks Helpline staff to listen to all callers with the understanding that they are asking for help. While not condoning in any way any actions that put children at risk, Stop It Now!’s objective is to assist callers in finding the help they need, take preventive-minded actions, and avoid judging them.
This does not mean that the Helpline counselor’s values need to be relinquished or diminished. This is the act of not judging the person but rather listening to the thoughts and behaviors and helping to respond to the need of help. This needs to be done and felt authentically. If a counselor feels unable to provide support and respect for any caller, the ability to provide the most beneficial child sexual abuse prevention guidance and help is compromised.
While the “relationship” over the phone is brief and, most often, a one-time occurrence a skilled Helpline counselor is able to build rapport with a caller. Using the aforementioned skills of empathic listening, combined with cultural awareness and overall effective communication skills a caller can feel that, “they are not alone”. Stop It Now!’s approach to prevention is hope and empowerment. When someone feels as though there is a possibility of change and that they can contribute to that, they may feel more connected to a community dedicated to preventing child sexual abuse. They are no longer “alone” in their concern.
An awareness of how the overall issues and concerns related to child sexual abuse and child sexual abuse prevention are affected by cultural beliefs and attitudes expands a counselor’s ability to respond in the most impactful and sensitive manner. As empathic listening helps “draw out” the caller to better communicate his or her concerns, culturally aware Helpline staff consider culture to better understand, and support callers describing their story and needs.
The impact of culture can be seen in:
- How the story is told
- Relationships with authority figures: parents, family, elders, social services, police, medical professionals, etc.
- Perception of empowerment/sense of control
- Role expectations
- Beliefs around spiritual and mental health issues
- Beliefs around community responsibility
- Beliefs around family responsibility
- Beliefs around individual responsibility
- Beliefs around appropriate treatment and intervention
Language and Tone
Understanding how important language and tone are on Helpline calls is crucial. Without the use of non-verbal cues and body language, the Helpline call taker benefits from practicing a style that is both confident and knowledgeable, while embracing and welcoming. Many people are talking about concerns with child sexual abuse for the first time. They are timid around language that includes body parts, sexual actions, etc. and need to feel as comfortable as possible in asking someone for help. Counselors need to be able to present difficult topics comfortably and authoritatively, without sounding embarrassed or shocked when sexually explicit language, extreme sexualized behaviors, etc. is referenced.
Helpline call takers use the caller’s own language whenever possible while paying attention to opportunities to introduce healthy and empowering language. The language is educational without being sounding like a lecture. Sensitive and supportive wording that is both hopeful and compassionate are the building blocks of any conversation.
Listening without agenda or bias
Listening skills are fundamental to practicing effective communication. In child sexual abuse calls, it is especially important to be aware of avoiding personal agendas and biases. Helpline associates need to be wary of the following challenges when listening with preconceived agendas. Indicators that personal agenda or biases may be in play include:
- Jumping to resources
- Jumping to rescue (advocacy)
- Judgment and criticism
- Personal triggers (countertransference) – emotional connectedness prevents compassionate objectivity
While it is recommended to use the same language when possible that the caller uses, call takers should avoid the use of derogatory labels. Words like monster, pervert, demon do not serve the purpose of education and prevention. It doesn’t describe the behavior that is concerning and puts up barriers for individuals who may otherwise be willing to intervene with adults at risk to abuse. When professionals use labels, it gives permission to others to use these labels. When negative terms are used to describe any individual, it is frequent that the labeled individual begins to view themselves as the “monster” described in the label, and hence may commit “monstrous” actions.
All situations need to be regarded as unique. Stereotypes support people to avoid working with others who are different, whether it is cultural, gender, mentally, educationally, etc. Avoiding stereotypes is another way to help callers be more specific in their concerns and helps build better safety plans by addressing the specifics of each caller’s unique situation.
Person First Language
Stemming from the idea that labels are unproductive, we engage in using person-first language. This means that instead of referring to someone as an “abuser”, we talk about the “adult who abused” or “adult at-risk”. Though it sounds like a small difference, the impact serves to humanize some of the people who call us for help - adults who are worried about their thoughts or behaviors towards children. Likewise, we also will refer to children and/or adults who have experienced abuse as such, as opposed to “victim”. The term, “survivor” is occasionally used, acknowledging the language most often used by people who have been sexually abused to refer to themselves.
Knowledgeable about what help and resources are available
While Helpline counselors do not need to be experts in child sexual abuse, it is important to understand what resources are available to help and support a caller. Child sexual abuse often taps into a sense of vulnerability, and it is essential that when providing guidance and referrals, Helpline Associates are thoughtful about the resources being chosen for referral. They do not just share the phone number but frequently will describe what to expect when contacting the resource.
When dealing with child sexual abuse concerns, adults and children may avoid taking further actions if there are too many barriers in their way. When someone is already fearful of talking about possible sexual abuse, he or she may shut down if they try to contact resources that are unavailable or not helpful. Helplines should make sure that their resources and referrals are current and available so as not to deter the caller from getting help. Up to date resource lists and referrals support callers in being effective in their actions.
Regardless of whether callers are 1.) seeking basic facts about child sexual abuse, 2.) looking to prevent the possible occurrence of abuse, or 3.) responding to evidence of abuse, they face many barriers to taking actions to address their situations. Understanding what gets in their way of preventing and responding to child sexual abuse informs the Helpline's decision on how to respond to the caller. It is most effective when the Helpline call taker starts where the caller is and honors that place. No one can be forced to move faster than they are able to, mentally or emotionally.
Four categories of the reasons people hesitate or completely resist talking about and acting on concerns of child sexual abuse have been identified: fear, beliefs, lack of information, and system response.
It is absolutely expected, normal and common for there to be barriers for individuals in taking actions to prevent child sexual abuse. Sometimes, people are not aware of what’s in their way until they have spoken with Stop It Now!. By naming the barriers, the barriers themselves become possible to negotiate and more easily addressed.
Responding to fear is often responding to a sense of powerlessness. The caller’s feelings are acknowledged and validated. By acknowledging the fear and putting a name on it, callers often find some comfort. Feeling the fear acknowledged begins to help the caller feel understood.
The primary need when fear is the barrier is to address safety concerns. Therefore, guiding and coaching the caller regarding their options for safety planning is the priority. Emphasizing the importance of protecting children helps provide callers with a foundation. This can help and support them into taking courageous actions. Some of the ways fear will come across include:
Shame and guilt
- How could I not have seen what was going on
- I should’ve done something sooner
- I shouldn’t go outside my family for help
- Non-sexual violence
- Increased child sexual abuse
- I won’t be able to continue to be a resource for the children if I report and the person who may be abusing no longer allows me near the children
- Difficult choices between employment (which means housing and food) and exposing child to vulnerable situation for childcare purposes; “do my children go without food or do they risk being sexually abused?”
- System taking children
- Custody/visitation changes
- Loss of relationships
- Financial Loss – resulting in loss of housing, job, other
- Children at risk of abusing or who have sexually harmed another child will be labeled
Callers often share beliefs that the sexual abuse of a child is impossible in their family and community. They may deny or minimize warnings signs, disclosures and even their own gut feelings. They may believe that they cannot do anything about child sexual abuse. The Helpline’s role with these callers is to provide education. By describing research based facts, warning signs and action steps, callers are given solid tools to make their own assessments and develop a plan of action.
Beliefs are influenced by stereotypes. They may prevent a concerned adult from taking action because of the difficulty in believing a “good” person can be sexually inappropriate.
Cultural attitudes and expectations
Beliefs are also influenced by cultural attitudes and expectations. Callers’ beliefs are listened to and are not challenged in the traditional manner; they are not judged. However, callers are challenged to find new ways, within their own cultural systems, to protect children.
- Every family or everyone has problems
- She must have asked for it
- It only happens when he’s drinking
- It’s not that bad
Lack of Information
Having accurate information about what warrants preventive responses and actions, as well as where to go for help, paves the way for callers to take action. Not knowing if they should be concerned, what to do, or where to go gets in the way of individuals taking action. Helpline counselors educate the caller, giving them tools to make informed decisions. The Helpline is in the position to educate others about the facts of child sexual abuse, while dispelling myths and erroneous beliefs that get in the way of preventive action. Facts and resources are provided to help caller take steps to protect children. Individuals begin to see their role in prevention when:
- Sexual development is described
- Warning signs are described
- Safety plans are defined
- Language and conversation tips are reviewed
- System processes are explained
- Resources are identified
The sexual abuse of a child cannot “stay in the family”. However, callers often describe the system designated for responsible child protection as ineffective and unfriendly; unable to keep children safe. Services and agencies that are charged with child protection responsibilities are often described by callers as:
- Not trustworthy
- Harsh and Reactive
Stop It Now! knows that callers are often calling with frustration regarding the child protection system, yet child sexual abuse behaviors need to be addressed within the system. Callers describe situations when:
- Child is not perceived as credible
- Protective adult is not perceived as credible
- Report doesn’t trigger full investigation
- System continues to place child in at-risk situations
Helpline staff support the caller in remaining hopeful and empowered. Stop It Now! identifies its limitation in areas of law and individual case advocacy and refers the caller to local agencies and programs that may be better able offer advocacy within the system
The Stop It Now! Helpline receives calls at all three levels of public health prevention: Green Light, Yellow Light, and Red Light.
- Green Light: Situation Described Is Not Abuse – Increase Adult Involvement
- Yellow Light: Concerns with No Disclosure – Family and Community Response
- Red Light: There is Evidence of Abuse – System Response
Each of these levels are determined and defined by the caller’s need and situation. These levels are not presented to the caller; they are to assist Helpline staff in determining what information, resources and action steps should be discussed with the caller. The Helpline staff use of the warning signs for assessment, knowledge of child sexual development, and empathic listening informs the determination of the caller’s level of need, and the caller’s barriers to responding.
These prevention level categories can be fluid and do not stand alone. These categories provide a format for communication and for determining response options. It is understood by the Helpline staff that the caller is sharing only a snapshot of the situation and the decision to “categorize” the call can only be based on the facts presented. Effective communication and assessment skills further influence the categorizing of the call.
Green and Yellow Light inquiries have been seen as primarily prevention opportunity inquiries, while red inquiries are considered intervention based. Yet, warning signs described in yellow light calls often point to a situation where the abuse of a child seems highly likely. Likewise, calls that start off with the caller’s concern about a child’s behavior may be perceived as a green level call once the described behaviors are identified as possibly normal sexual development behaviors. The action steps offered in red light calls may be equally important in yellow light calls. So, while response options are influenced by the call level, Helpline staff do not limit the information and resources to only “match” the identified call level.
Example Helpline Action Steps Callers May Take:
- Learn more about healthy sexual development in children
- Learn about and identify warning signs (in an adult at-risk, between adults and children, and/or in potential child victims)
- Share information on warning signs with an adult family member or friend, or others
- Develop a Family Safety Plan
- Learn more about specialized treatment/support for (everyone) – children who are behaving in worrisome ways, adults who are worried about other’s safety/involved in protective systems, for survivors and for adults/youth with sexual behavior problems
- Make a report to CPS or the police
- Prepare to talk to another adult about your concerns
- Keep a journal of all of these events
- Obtain a medical evaluation (also can be referred to as well child exam) of the child
- Obtain a psychological evaluation of the child
- Seek support for themselves – identify allies (talk to a friend, see a counselor, join a support group, read a self-help book, visit with the leaders of your faith community, confide in a family member)
Regardless of the level of the contact, Helpline staff open every call with an explanation of confidentiality, noting that identifying information, such as last names, street addresses, etc. are not necessary. This assists in creating a safe environment where the caller can fully express their concern.
Primary Objective: Increase Adult Involvement
Contacts that are identified as a Green Light contact are the basis of the prevention approach to child sexual abuse. By taking the opportunity to help a parent and other concerned adults increase their awareness of child sexual abuse and steps to prevent it, the risk of abuse of a child is decreased.
Callers and situations are typically identified as “green” when they are either:
- Concerned about children’s healthy and developmentally appropriate sexual behaviors and questioning whether they are normal – behavior related
- Exploring general ways to keep their children and families safe from abuse – non behavior related
Green Light Call Goals
The main goal of a Green Light Call is to increase adult involvement. This includes providing information and tools for the adult to feel like they can develop and maintain an environment of safety for children.
Helpline Staff take the opportunity with Green calls to:
- Educate about healthy sexual development for children
- Encourage conversations with BOTH adults and children about what is healthy and what is not
- Inform about warning signs for children and adults at risk
- Create family safety plans
When a caller contacts the Helpline asking for information on whether certain sexual behaviors that they are observing in their child may be related to sexual abuse, it is vital that the Helpline staff validate the caller’s question while providing accurate information.
Often the caller will have identified a possible warning sign and has taken action by contacting the Helpline for further information and help. This is frequently the place where the Helpline staff’s role in the assessment process is most key. This is where the question, “should I be worried that there is something wrong with my child” or “do you think my child is being abused” is most often asked. Helpline call takers take this opportunity to support and educate the caller as they plan for safety.
The Green Light caller presents typical and age-appropriate child sexual behaviors and Helpline staff reassure them that based on their description, the behavior is in the realm of expected sexual developmental behaviors. Formal assessments cannot be made. But, by using knowledge about child sexual development fundamentals partnered with warning sign awareness Helpline staff can coach the caller in planning for safety. The caller is encouraged to become familiar with the age-appropriate sexual development stages of youth as an action step.
In addition to the barriers previously discussed to taking action, just the action of calling for help and support is most likely very difficult for the caller. A variety of feelings – fear, confusion, embarrassment, parental inadequacy, guilt – may accompany the caller’s request for assistance (even when concerned about what turns out to be age and developmentally appropriate healthy sexual behaviors). The “not knowing” is a very uncomfortable position for most adults. When the unknown is regarding sexual behavior in children, the level of discomfort is greatly increased. Applauding the caller’s step in calling is important. As support and information is offered to the caller, the following tips may be helpful:
- Remind the parent that it is okay to feel uncomfortable thinking and talking about healthy sexuality development, as well as preventing child sexual abuse. It gets easier.
- Emphasize that information about sexuality does not equal permission.
- Reinforce the idea that, “actions speak louder than words”. Note the need for adults to model safe/healthy relationships and to be aware of what kinds of relationships children witness.
- Encourage parents not to wait until children ask questions. Parents should learn what children are naturally curious about at their age and set aside times to teach.
- Note that if children don’t learn about their bodies and sex from parents, they will find their answers in some other way.
Increasing adult involvement and engagement includes these preventive actions:
- Encouraging the caller to set family boundaries.
- Educating the caller on the facts of child sexual abuse and who abuses.
- Supporting the caller to find ways for their child to be able to identify what type of touch and situations make them uncomfortable, and on how to respond to this. This may include exploring with the caller how children can be taught that saying and listening to the word “no” is an important prevention tool.
- Identifying healthy communications to have with children about their bodies
- Providing information on what makes children vulnerable to being abused
- Emphasizing the need for attention to be paid to all the adults in children’s lives: noticing adults’ behaviors and demeanors when with children.
Describing the protective benefits of offering healthy sexuality information early and often helps parents take the steps necessary to become informed and to act:
- A precedent is set that the topic of sexuality can be talked about in the home and with trusted caretaking adults.
- Children know they have a safe adult to turn to when they (or friends) have questions about sexuality.
- Children know that they have permission to use anatomical and descriptive words and language and won’t get in trouble or embarrass the adult when asking questions.
- Children will be more protected if someone does approach them with a game that is unsafe; they may be more likely to tell caretaking adults about it.
- Children who understand their bodies and their sexual feelings may feel more confident about this part of themselves and may be less likely to be confused or manipulated regarding inappropriate sexual touch.
Green Light Action steps to encourage:
- Reading online materials
- Talking with another trusted adult about what they’ve learned
- Address family safety planning
- Prepare for healthy sexuality conversations with youth
- Design and implement family safety plan
- Green Sample Call: Advice Column - Why is my toddler touching himself in public?
Primary Objective: Family and Community Response
There are primarily three types of Yellow Light calls:
- Bystanders - Concern about a child’s behaviors: Suspect abuse and/or has “gut feeling” but with no disclosure of abuse
- Bystanders – Concern about a sexual offender in the community
- Adults with concerns about their own sexual interest in children
In all of these calls, there is no disclosure of a child who has been sexually abused. However, as noted, the warning signs described may indicate a situation that should receive immediate attention, as in a Red Light call.
Yellow Light Call Goals
Protective and responsive actions that adults can initiate with their family and in the community are the focus. These calls indicate the need for clear actions to be taken to protect children and address unsafe situations. The caller is guided in defining their con-cerns and is provided education regarding appropriate action steps. Resources in the community are identified. Helpline staff coach the caller through an action oriented decision making process and helping them prepare to act. Specific courses of action are rec-ommended while the caller is always asked what they feel they want to do and are able to do.
While each caller’s unique situation and needs are acknowledged, several basic approaches are used in most calls:
- The warning signs of child sexual abuse and of adults at risk to abuse are reviewed.
- ·rofessional supports for evaluation, treatment and reporting are identified and explained
- Safety planning
- Guidance and coaching is given on talking about child sexual abuse concerns with others, including with adults at-risk to abuse
Ways to maximize safety, while considering actions like reporting, counseling and formal assessments are described and sometimes emphasized. Awareness of the caller’s barriers to action helps shape the action steps described. Helpline staff support the caller as they review options, providing pertinent information.
Yellow Light Calls: Bystanders - Concern About Behaviors: Suspect Abuse and/or Has “Gut Feeling” , but with No Disclosure of Abuse
Callers call with “gut” reactions to certain individuals and situations. Helpline staff encourage callers to trust their intuition while at the same time help them identify the behaviors that they are seeing which prompt feelings of discomfort and concern. These gut feelings are important because typically, as a Helpline staff uses their assessment skills to get clarity on the caller’s concern, concrete warning signs may become clear. Stop It Now! suggests that the caller go with their gut feeling, identify the behaviors that are troubling, and then evaluate whether these behaviors are in fact concerning signs. It is important to not dismiss warning signs and Stop It Now! supports acting on concerns as opposed to waiting until there is “proof” (disclosure).
The relationship of the caller in this bystander role to the situation can vary:
- Worries about a child who may be being abused
- Worries about adults at risk for abusing
- Worries about child at risk for abusing
In many cases, these callers know BOTH the potential child at-risk for abuse, and the adult or youth at-risk to abuse.
Worries about a child who may be being abused
Callers who call with a case of suspected child sexual abuse may not know what common warning signs are or what appropriate responses may be. Typically, they will call about specific behaviors and situations they’ve observed or heard about and want to know if they should be concerned. Often, they know that something is a problem, but due to barriers in their life they have yet to respond. Calling the Helpline is their first step in confirming their fears, or at least in recognizing that further actions are necessary.
It is important to share with callers that individual warning signs do not always mean that a child has been abused. Callers are asked to look for patterns and repetitious signs. The presence of regular and ongoing signs could mean that the child is in distress, but not necessarily as a result of child sexual abuse. Regardless, children showing consistent warning signs should be referred to professional assessment and support.
Based on the warning signs that a caller presents, it may feel obvious that there is an abuse situation. However, because a phone call cannot capture all the details of the situation, Helpline staff will use language that validates the at-risk behaviors and need for action with language such as:
- “We can’t know for sure, but from what you’ve told me, it might be a good idea to (describe actions steps)”
- “People in similar situations to what you’ve described here have done (describe action steps)”
As a phone call may leave out vital details of the situation and Helpline staff are not licensed mental health professionals within this role, formal assessments cannot and are not made. However, information and support is provided to move the caller to take the actions that can provide the safest and healthiest environment, including recommendations for formal assessments.
As the caller is coached to think about safety, here are some assessment questions help explore their situation and resources:
- Are there other concerns about any of the individuals the child has contact with?
- What is the current supervision plan for the child?
- Are there other adults who share the caller’s concern or who the caller could/should talk with (i.e. parents)?
- Are there any professionals involved in the child’s life that can help think about assessment and safety?
Responding to warning signs that a child is being abused
Helpline staff speaks with callers about what can be done to respond to their concerns. Specific action steps are reviewed, and the information gathered from the above questions guides safety planning. Action steps can include but are not limited to:
- Preventing child from being unsupervised with any concerning adults – ever
- Keeping a journal of observations, concerns, and gut reactions
- Learning the warning signs in adults and children who may be at risk for sexually abusing a child and in children who may be being sexually abused
- Learning healthy sexual development in children versus warning sign behavior.
- Educating children on the difference between “appropriate touch/inappropriate touch”, proper names for his/her body parts
- Having a conversation with the child if there are concerns – learning when this is appropriate and reviewing helpful talking tips
- Getting a specialized assessment
- Talking with a counselor who specializes in child sexual abuse
- Find “allies” (other adults who share the caller’s concern)
- Sharing observations and addressing concerns with an adult or youth demonstrating at-risk behaviors
When callers raise concerns about talking with the concerned child, Helpline staff coach them to think about the discussion they want to have. Helpline associates also offer support and practice to prepare them for approaching conversations carefully. Callers may express frustration or confusion on why the youth has not told anyone about abuse in their lives. Education and discussion on why a child may not tell they’ve been abused can be enlightening and motivating. Practical communication tips with children are described:
- Slow and gentle questions
- Patience, as children may need time to talk about what is happening and can get distracted
- Letting children know that they are loved and believed
- Letting children know that they want to make sure they are safe and that adults should protect them
- Being aware of adult’s own fearful or angry feelings as they may influence the child
Many callers are grandparents, aunts, uncles, older siblings, step parents and other involved and caring adults in the life of a child who is showing warning signs of abuse. They wonder how to approach the guardian adult with their concerns and observations, often anxious about the reaction. Frequently, the caller cites other relationship issues with the primary caregiver in the child’s life that further impedes communication.
Stop It Now! emphasizes to the caller the importance of talking about their concerns but offers empathic understanding regarding the difficulty of initiating these conversations. Safety concerns are explored. Callers are encouraged to not give up in sharing their concerns and are referred to Let’s Talk on the Stop It Now! website.
It is key to ask the caller what he or she thinks they can do to help protect a child. In this way, Helpline staff pay attention to cultural, family and other influences that impact a caller. The barriers are often named, as well as the strengths and capabilities of each caller. Encouraging the caller to identify the steps they can take increases the likelihood that an attainable action plan will be developed.
Another response explained to callers is the option of reporting the suspected abuse. This is often a scary and intimidating idea for many callers, especially those that suspect they also know the youth or adult involved. Often callers do know both the child suspected of being abused and the adult or youth who may be doing the abusing.
Talking with callers about the option and need for involving child protection systems is often delicate. The barriers to response are clear as callers identify their concerns about reporting suspicions or disclosed child sexual abuse. Provide support and information to these barriers. The following website pages support these conversations:
- What if I Am Not Sure?
- When to File and Who to Call
- The Mandated Reporter's Decision to File
- I'm Afraid about What Could Happen if I File a Report
- How Might a Report Impact the Child, the Person who has Offended and the Whole Family?
Preparing the caller to report can help them feel empowered and less fearful. These brief descriptions can help ready the caller for this step:
- Calls can be made anonymously to local child protection authorities to ask whether the situation is reportable.
- The person taking the report will need as much detail as possible, so that the situation can be addressed quickly and competently.
- People reporting should expect to be asked details such as: name, address, phone number, relationship to child/offender, reason for suspecting abuse (specifics of what was seen or heard), and names of others that might know about the abuse.
Helpline staff offer practical reasons why reporting is important:
- If someone does not step in, the child may be or continued to be harmed mentally and physically.
- It is up to adults to protect children; the caller can play an important role in stopping this abuse.
- The child might be afraid and confused, therefore should not be expected to come forward on his/her own to report warning signs, uncomfortable gut feelings or actual abuse
- Assure the caller that by making a report they are not causing problems if an abuse situation is already happening. And if there is no abuse currently happening, they are prioritizing protecting children.
- The adult or youth who is at risk to abuse or is already abusing may be able to get help
Worries about an adult at risk for abusing
Callers may call with concerns about an adult they know. Again, it may just be their “gut” feeling that this adult is a risk to others, or they have observed specific warning signs in the adult.
Helpline staff use these questions to help the caller clarify their concerns about an adult at-risk to abuse:
- Can caller describe some of the situations with this adult where his or her “gut” alarm went off?
- Can caller describe some specific behaviors from this adult that felt uncomfortable?
- Is there a history with this adult of unsafe interactions with a child?
- Is there anyone else who shares the caller’s feeling about the identified adult at risk?
- Has the caller talked with the individual about their observations?
The warning signs of an adult that may be at risk to harm a child are reviewed with the caller. Often the caller will make a connection between their “gut responses” to particular behaviors described in the warning signs. They had not been able to name the concerning behavior before but are now able. The importance of boundaries is described, and Helpline staff provide further education on how children can be in unsafe situations when there are questionable boundaries.
The caller is reminded that any child in an unsafe situation needs to have adult intervention. Safety planning tips are then reviewed with the caller, stressing that children should never be left alone with an adult who could be at risk of harming a child.
Talking to adults at risk to abuse
Stop It Now! encourages conversations with adults who are at risk to abuse, when safe to do so. Callers are asked whether it feels possible to have a conversation with the concerning adult in order to speak about their concerns and observations. The fear and discomfort associated around having this potential conversation comes up, is acknowledged, and addressed.
Helpline staff educates callers about the role of secrecy in child sexual abuse and are reminded that staying quiet feeds an environment of secrecy, which is dangerous when children are involved. The idea of conversation is reinforced by educating callers about the effectiveness of talking about concerns and observations with adults at risk. Sharing research-based information about behaviors of adults who have abused is helpful. For example, incarcerated adults who have abused a child have identified these two contributing factors in their offenses:
- The role that secrecy played
- Their experience that no one “called them” on their unhealthy behaviors/attitudes towards children prior to the actual abuse
Warning signs in adults at risk to abuse require intervention. Helpline staff emphasize that these signs cannot be ignored if children are to be kept safe. Callers are encouraged to review Behaviors to watch out for when adults are with children and Signs that an adult may be at risk to harm a child. Initiating conversation with an adult who is at-risk to abuse can be a powerful prevention tool. Callers are prepared for talking about their concerns. Fundamentals for a successful conversation are reviewed:
- Approaching the conversation in a non-accusatory way.
- Specific naming of concerning behaviors and observations
- Clearly stating that the safety of the child is the priority
- Clearly stating which behaviors towards children are unacceptable and won’t be tolerated
- Approaching the person with a balance of accountability and support
- Raising treatment as an effective way to get support and help for concerning behaviors
- Explain that treatment will allow them to get a professional opinion and learn to control these behaviors
- Expressing compassion when genuinely felt
Role-playing this conversation, as well as referring callers to the guidebook, Let’s Talk, helps prepare them for this conversation. The caller is coached to think about how this conversation might go and to identify their concerns and fears. These concerns and fears are then discussed and addressed. Compassionate communication tips are offered to support the conversation, to help ease the worry, and to increase safety.
Concerns about children’s own sexual behaviors are frequently raised. As imagined, these types of calls are multilayered and involved. Parents and adults are asked to broaden their thinking to a bigger circle of prevention and protection. They are given information and support to help them understand their role and the steps they can take to help all children who are at risk to offend. Situations regarding a child at risk to abuse include:
- Caller’s own child
- A child close to the caller, but for whom the caller is not a guardian
- A child in the community
- Two or more children engaged in sexualized activity
Caller’s Own Child
Parents call because their child was abused or there is a concern that abuse has happened. Warning signs of sexual abuse in a child have been observed, however as the caller describes his or her concerns, warning signs that the child is at risk to abuse others are recognized.
Being sensitive to the parent’s wide-ranging feelings is crucial in helping a parent see their role in preventing possible further abuse. The well-being of their own child is naturally the caller’s priority. Helpline call takers connect the need to keep the child safe from abusing any children to the child’s overall safety for themselves. This helps the caller understand the importance of their role in supervision and safety planning. By supervising a child at risk to abuse, other children cannot be harmed and the child at risk is safe as well. The importance of constant supervision in highlighted.
The option of treatment is outlined to the caller, emphasizing the effectiveness of sexual behavior specific therapy for children with therapists experienced in working with children with sexual problem behaviors. Children and Youth Struggling with Unsafe or Harmful Sexual Behaviors in the Resource Guides offers callers a clear explanation of what to expect from therapy.
Typically, when a caller is concerned about a child who may be at risk for sexually abusing another child there are often extenuating circumstances. Initially, treatment resources are sought. However, safety planning considerations need to be stressed as well. Other children may need to be protected from the child initially identified as the one who is being harmed.
Caller Knows Child, Not a Guardian
When callers call about another person’s child, the first step is to find out whether the caller has talked with the child’s parents and identify what may be the barriers to that conversation. Helping a caller prepare for this conversation is similar to preparing a caller to speak with the parent of child who is showing signs of being abused.
It is recommended that the caller focus on the safety of child and be able to describe their observations, while avoiding accusations or judgments. It is helpful for callers if they can identify other adults who share their concerns, and who may also be able to speak to the parents about their observations. Safety concerns are always addressed. Even though the caller may not be in a supervisory role with the child, prevention and safety plan tips are reviewed. The caller is encouraged to step in if they directly observe an at-risk situation.
Child in the Community
When a child lets their parent know of concerning sexual behaviors of other children in the community, parents want to know how to respond. There is a lot of hesitance in approaching parents who are mostly unknown to the caller with concerns about their children. Additionally, callers are anxious about the impact on their own children and may not be thinking about the safety of the child reported to be engaging inappropriately.
Callers are presented with options and support regarding how to talk to the parent, as well as planning for safety with their own children. Identifying other adults in the community who may be able to approach the parents of the child with concerning behaviors can help support the caller’s ultimate decisions and actions.
Two or More Children Engaged in Sexualized Activity
When the caller is asking about observed sexual play between children or about sexual activity that was reported by a child, it is important to review the Definition of Child Abuse, while exploring age and developmental differences between the children. Helpline staff will discuss healthy sexuality development as compared with warning sign behavior in children.
Also, in this case, Helpline staff suggest that the caller talk to any other adults who know the children and who share in the care-taking. The caller may want to share the information on healthy sexual development and warning sign behavior with these adults in the child’s life.
Safety planning is a priority. Supervision is a large part of safety planning, especially when two or more children are engaging in worrisome activities. The caller is encouraged to think about how supervision is set up and what can be done to ensure that children are not left alone together. When addressing concerns about children at risk to abuse, help-line call takers focus on the safety of helping an at-risk youth not offend and to get help if necessary, as opposed to only focusing on the safety of other children. These calls provide the opportunity to:
- Remind adults that they need to be a voice for children’s safety.
- Encourage adults to guide and support children learning about healthy behaviors. Children do not always know what healthy behavior is; with guidance they learn but the guidance has to be provided.
- Share healthy sex development information
A child who is at risk for abusing should be seen by a professional. Talking about what to experience from the social services and/or mental health system can be helpful for a caller. It can empower and prepare them to ask for the services to help them help the child at risk.
Helpline staff talks about reporting as a resource for getting help, and as a step that will help prevent any potential and further harm. The importance of getting help so that children can be supported early is emphasized, highlighting the evidence that the younger children are when help is offered for sexually problematic behavior, the higher the likelihood of ending these behaviors.
Stop It Now!’s philosophy of sharing hope and empowerment is stressed in these calls. Children who are at risk to abuse can be helped and supported. It is often this attitude that will successfully help callers take a step towards protection.
Yellow Light Action Steps To Encourage For The Bystander Concerned About Abuse:
- Reading online materials – tip sheets and OHC pages
- Warning Signs
- Helping a child manage unsafe sexual behavior
- Let’s Talk
- Signs that an adult may be at risk to harm a child
- Talking with an adult who may be at risk to abuse
- Helping an adult stay safe from offending
- Everyday Actions to Keep Kids Safe
- Create Your Family Safety Plan
- Referrals to:
- Sexual Behavior Problem specialist referral sources
- Online sexual behavior expert sites
- Local reporting numbers
- Implement family safety plan
- Talk to other adults about observations and concerns
- Seek out specialized assessment and/or therapy
- Talk with person with at-risk behaviors
When callers contact the Helpline with concerns about a registered sex offender living in their neighborhood or who is involved somehow in their community, they are seeking a way to feel safe. Media and stereotypes have likely influenced them and a sense of helplessness and fear may be prevalent. Helpline staff provide them with information and steps to both dispel myths and address safety concerns. Their concerns are heard and met with guidance and choices for responding, rationally.
Tools and talking points to support this caller:
Dispel Myths: Helpline call takers share evidence based facts regarding registered sex offender reintegration into the community. Helpline users often present the stereotyped profile of a sexual offender, and how this isn’t helpful - it just makes us afraid. In re-sponse, helpline staff avoid labels like “monster” and “pervert”, as these terms create a barrier for adults to respond directly to their concerns. Again, these terms increase fear which in turn makes it difficult to cultivate environments of hope and empowerment. When someone is identified as a “monster”, it is difficult to perceive or approach them as a partner in preventing children from being abused. When treated like a “monster”, individuals who are isolated and condemned will act like a “monster”.
Helpline staff define and describe contributing factors in understanding what risk this person in their community poses. The following facts are useful in helping callers reframe and correct any misinformation they may have:
- The recidivism rate for those convicted of child sexual offenses is low
- People previously convicted of sexual offenses are often motivated to succeed
- Counseling has proven to be effective for many
- There are much higher incidences of child sexual abuse where the offender knew and/or was related to the child – stranger abductions and sexual abuse are rare
- Having a stable lifestyle significantly decreases the risk that someone will re-offend. The increased stress of unemployment and not having a place to live can lead to a greater risk of re-offense. Safety can be influenced by the level of support and “normalcy” offered to those who have previously offended
- People with prior sex offense convictions are often supervised by a parole or probation officer, and generally have restrictions that limit their contact with children
- Different levels of people who have been convicted of child sex offenses are all required to register on the same registry. For example, a 19 year old may be registered as a child sex offender for engaging in sexual activity with a 16 year old who identified as his girlfriend if that state’s age of consent laws defines 16 year old as under the age of consent. Likewise, a someone who is a registered sex offender could also have sexually assaulted a young child. Both of these types of individuals are registered sex offenders in their state, but may actually be perceived as ultimately posing different risks
Giving callers information about registered sex offender management and how to obtain further information offers callers another action choice. Call takers let callers know that they can seek out more detailed information about this person’s crime and treatment. The Center for Sex Offender (www.csom.org) can also help callers learn more. Additionally, community notification meetings as a resource for finding out more information is reviewed.
Some callers may be interested in knowing where they can find out more about the someone in their neighborhood who is on the registry. Individuals can contact probation/parole officers and local police to request more information. Questions that callers may want to ask these professionals are reviewed:
- What is the nature of the individual’s offense?
- What kind of treatment has the individual received?
- What are the conditions of parole/probation?
- What are the restrictions of the individuals released?
Safety Planning in their Family and Community –
Warning signs are reviewed, emphasizing their role in prevention. Stop It Now! emphasizes speaking up whenever there are warning signs of an adult’s at-risk behavior. Safety planning is a concrete action that callers forget about; they want to know what to do with the “scary” person but forget what they can do to create a safer environment for the children in their lives and communities. By focusing on what an individual can do, a sense of hope and empowerment can be developed.
The caller is also encouraged to review:
- FAQs on the Sex Offender Registry
- Concerned about Sex Offenders in the Neighborhood
- Michael’s Story of Neighborhood Action
Yellow Light Action Steps To Encourage For The Bystander Concerned About Sex Offender In The Community:
- Reading online materials – tip sheets and OHC pages
- Warning Signs
- Let’s Talk
- Preparing for Complex Conversations
- Behaviors to watch out for when adults are with children
- Signs that an adult may be at risk to harm a child
- Talking with an adult who may be at risk to abuse
- Helping an adult stay safe from offending
- Everyday Safety Steps
- Create Your Family Safety Plan
- Referrals to:
- Probation/Parole Officer
- Implement Family Safety Plan
- Plan for a conversation with the individual
Primary Objective: Family and Community Response
These callers have not reported the abuse of a child but identify behaviors that are warning signs of an adult at-risk to harm a child. Helpline staff stress to a caller who is calling with worries about themselves the value and importance of getting professional help. The Fifteen Questions About Your Behavior Only You Can Answer from the Online Help Center is reviewed with the caller. Unlike the caller who has abused a child, there may not be reporting considerations. However, the caller is strongly encouraged to take immediate action steps to keep children safe by offering:
- Positive reinforcement for calling for help
- Normalizing feelings of guilt, fear and sadness; others with similar worries express feeling the same
- Expression of hope and confidence that help is available and possible
- Non-judgmental assistance
- Referrals and resources for treatment, safety, and support
Callers are asked if there is a child currently at-risk for sexual abuse. At all times, the key mission of preventing the sexual abuse of children and continuing to maintain a focus on safety planning is stressed.
Helpline staff will ask this caller what they can do to ensure any child involved is safe. Stop It Now! emphasizes the responsibility adults can take to protect children’s safety. The caller who is worried about his or her own feelings can be helped to understand the responsibility that they need to take to keep children safe. This often provides the opportunity to define the next action step for the caller.
Even while referring the caller to professional treatment, the caller and the Helpline staff may develop an interim safety plan that includes the following:
- Focus on spending time with fellow adults, advisable to limit time with children overall
- Any time with children must be supervised
- No child sexual abuse material/child sexual exploitation material (CSAM or CSEM, known commonly as ‘child pornography’)– Note: if caller is engaged in watching CSAM, this becomes a red light call as the caller is engaging in child sexual abuse.
- Engage in healthy and personally fulfilling activities
- Commitment to call for treatment referrals
- Consider confiding in a trusted family member or friend for support
- Explore Stop It Now! website on information for adults concerned with their own behaviors
How Treatment Works
How treatment works is described and callers are referred to information on the tip sheet, Adults Who Have Sexually Offended or Feel At-Risk Need Very Specialized Help. Stress the positive aspects to getting treatment immediately, as well as the negative aspects to not stepping forward. Positive aspects to coming forward include:
- Understanding and controlling sexual thoughts, feelings, and fantasies towards a child through treatment with specialized counselors.
- Learning and developing ways to ensure that sexual thoughts, feelings and fantasies towards children are not acted on.
- Living healthier and safer lives. Feeling feel better about themselves after benefitting from treatment.
- Learning more about self and personal values.
- Protecting children from harm.
- Preventing a crime.
- Preventing potential legal problems.
It is important to be sensitive to survivor issues. The caller themselves may have been abused. While tempting to support the survivor in the caller, it is more urgent to identify the safety of any children at risk as the priority.
Yellow Light Action Steps To Encourage the Adult Concerned About Themselves:
- Reading online materials – tip sheets and OHC pages
- Fifteen Questions About Your Behavior Only You Can Answer
- How Can I Find Confidential Help?
- Adults Who Have Sexually Offended or Feel At-Risk Need Very Specialized Help
- Warning Signs That You May Need Help With Troubling Online Activity
- Referrals to:
Yellow Light Sample Calls: Advice Columns
- Am I overreacting to the attention my friend pays to my daughter?
- My daughter says her coach is creepy, how do I address this?
- Grandfather’s behaviors are concerning.
- Is it normal for teen son to take stepsister’s underwear?
- Help me with my sexual thoughts about my step-daughter.
- What should I do if a sex offender lives in my apartment complex?
Primary Objective: System Response
In a Red Light call, there is already an established case of the sexual abuse of a child. A child or adult has made a disclosure or there has been a professional determination that a child has been sexually abused. There may or may not be any system involvement at the time the caller contacts Helpline for services.
The caller with evidence of child sexual abuse may be making their first call for help: the sexual abuse of a child has just been realized and has not yet been reported to the child protection and legal authorities.
Callers who are aware of an adult or youth who has abused are also identified as Red Light Calls. Often the caller is aware of both the child abused and the person who abused.
Generally, Red Light Callers are:
- Bystanders – concerns about a child who has been abused; known through disclosure or assessment
- Bystanders – concerns about an adult or child who has abused; known through disclosure or other evidence
- Survivors - An adult survivor of child sexual abuse or another adult with concerns about an adult survivor
- Adults who have abused children, includes watching CSAM
Red Light Call Goals
Immediate safety concerns are the priority for these calls. This includes exploring options for system involvement, as well as treatment and healing resources.
While Stop It Now! is not a crisis line, protocols to respond to crises are defined. Callers are directed to appropriate authorities and helplines that do offer crisis responses. While these calls are primarily “intervention” focused, which is not Stop It Now!’s primary specialty or focus, the objective of preventing further abuse is understood. By helping callers identify supports and resources, they are more prepared to act safely on behalf of the children they are trying to protect.
Red Light Calls: Bystanders - Concern About a Child Who Has Been Abused; Through Disclosure or other Evidence
Protective adults concerned about a child who has been abused seek out assistance throughout the stages of need while they help the child:
- At disclosure
- Through healing and recovering
- Through system involvement – “downstream” calls
Callers sometimes question whether the child is telling the truth about the abuse. Inform the caller that children can only talk about what they have been exposed to. While children certainly can play “pretend”, they pretend with concepts that are familiar to them. If a child is talking about sexual abuse, they are familiar with sexual behaviors or experiences in some fashion. Additionally, it is highly unlikely that a child would deliberately make false accusations or misinterpret appropriate adult-child contact as sexual abuse. Helpline staff emphasize to parents that children rarely lie about sexual abuse, and while a story of sexual abuse appears to change or evolve over time, this is a common pattern of disclosure for children. The caller is informed how important it is to believe the child, and to respond accordingly.
When a child tells about sexual abuse, the adult hearing the child’s story most likely feels devastated and overwhelmed. The range of reactions may include:
- The wish that it would just stop.
- Rage towards the person who has abused the child.
- Disappointment in oneself for not seeing it sooner.
- Anger towards the child for not telling sooner.
- Denial that it could have ever happened.
- Doubting the child.
- Strong feelings of being betrayed by the person who has abused.
- Sense of loss
- Shame that this has happened
- Fear of authorities and system involvement
The caller is provided with the tools to role model for the child how to be safe and how to act in a protective manner. The initial response to a child reporting child sexual abuse is crucial; this is highlighted with the caller. At that moment, the child can begin a healthy recovery but needs to know that the adults in his or her life will respond protectively. The connection between a child’s disclosure of abuse the response and reaction of protective adults is described. A child disclosing sexual abuse needs protective adults to:
- Stay Steady
- Re-establish Safety
- Believe what they say
- Free Them of Self-Blame
- Save their rage and share appropriately with other adults
- Get Help
Following disclosure, protective adults can:
- Learn more about warning signs, benefits of treatment, recovery and how the system works
- Keep a journal
- Establish a safety plan with adequate supervision – suggest the caller works with other trusted adults and implement immediately.
- Talk to the person who has offended – this is only to be done if considered safe to do so and legally appropriate. Recommend the caller read – “Let’s Talk”
- File reports to authorities
- Seek counseling
Establishing safety for the child is identified as the first necessary response. Helpline staff work with the caller to identify what can be done to guarantee the child’s safety. If the caller has not yet notified others that abuse has taken place, the Helpline serves a role in describing the reporting process and what to expect.
As the caller considers the reporting option, barriers that are raised are identified and addressed. Many callers are reluctant to report for a variety of reasons. Helpline staff focus on the need for safety and help the caller understand that support and help can be obtained through reporting.
Treatment and Healing
Assessment and counseling options are presented to callers when there is evidence that a child has been abused. Treatment may not be necessary for all children but any child showing any distress should be considered for counseling. Sometimes children are not ready to talk to a therapist but may be ready in the future. The caller’s reluctance in seeking treatment for the child is addressed if relevant. Helpline staff further recommend that the caregiving adult can benefit from speaking with a therapist to help decide the need for further treatment for the child. Benefits of counseling for the abused child include:
- Children will have more of a chance of getting help and healing, leading safe and healthy lives.
- Professionals with expertise in trauma, child and adolescent development and child sexual abuse can help a child to express their feelings, accept that the abuse was not their fault and help them to heal.
- Helping children with their own sexual behavior problems, if evident. One of the best ways to ensure that the child will not abuse others is to get them specialized treatment.
- Family support is also offered.
Callers may not always understand the child’s experience. Helping the caller begin to approach an Understanding of what a Child is Going Through can support them to take action. We inform and remind callers that:
- That the child may have wanted to tell about the abuse but felt trapped
- A child breaking the silence may be terrified (though they may not show that) about what’s going to happen next.
- A child may feel responsible rather than comforted by a promise of punishment or threats of violence against the person who abused them.
- The child may still care about or feel protective of the person who sexually abused them.
- A child may think they won’t be believed or that they are somehow responsible for the abuse and will be punished for it
- The child may only be sharing part of the story, yet it is not advised to pressure the child for more information.
- A child may be confused or ashamed by having experienced positive physical pleasure, arousal, or emotional intimacy from the abuse.
- A child may feel that they permitted the abuse and should have been able to stop it, feels guilt and shame.
- There are no situations where children are able to give informed consent to a sexual interaction with a more powerful child or adult.
- Children may take back what they say or “recant” their disclosure out of fear or confusion.
- Secrets are never protective when involving abuse. It is important for children to know that adults do not keep secrets when someone is being harmed.
The Helpline speaks to many callers who have reported the sexual abuse of a child and have many concerns about how the system (child protection agencies, courts, police, etc.) is responding. Stop It Now! call takers inform callers that we are not a legal or individual case advocacy program. Callers’ frustrations and fears are respected and validated, while the call taker also identifies what resources may be available to support the caller and the child who has been abused.
Arlaine Rockey’s extensive article, Protecting Your Child from Sexual Abuse in Custody Cases is often referenced. Adults are supported to act responsibly and calmly, even when very concerned about a child’s safety.
The caller is always appreciated for the efforts they’ve made to protect children, and they are reminded that while they may be involved in a very difficult situation, their continued efforts to protect a particular child will help the child know that there are adults who care about their safety.
Red Light Action Steps To Encourage The Bystander Concerned About A Child Who Has Been Abused:
- Reading online materials – tip sheets and OHC pages
- Outside Resource:
- Referrals to:
Red Light Calls: Bystanders - Concerns About an Adult or Child Who Has Abused; Through Disclosure or other Evidence
The caller who calls with information about an adult or another youth who is abusing children may be feeling a lot of fear. If they have a close relationship with the person who abused them, their fear and confusion intensify. Call takers coach the caller to take protective steps while offering support and understanding, and no judgment. The caller is supported and helped to respond responsibly and effectively.
The Importance of Reporting
The importance of reporting to child protection authorities is stressed; callers are helped to see reporting as a responsible step in protecting children and not a disastrous step to tear apart their families. The reporting process is explained to callers in detail. Supportive statements to encourage reporting:
- The child who was abused may disclose first, making things more complicated regarding how the family is involved and how the person who abused is treated.
- There is an increased risk of further mental and physical harm to the child if reporting is not done.
- Reporting may be the only way to help the person who abused get the help they need.
- The importance of specialized treatment for the person who abused
May adults and youth who are abusing children do respond to specialized treatment, and sometimes treatment only becomes an option after a report is made to the authorities.
Explain what treatment offers to the person who is abusing:
- They will be able to recognize sexual thoughts and feelings towards a child
- They will learn to control abusive behaviors and develop a safety plan in order to remain safe and non-abusive
- They can focus on the improvement of social skills and empathy with an emphasis on maintaining healthy, respectful, and compatible relationships.
- A counselor with expertise in treating youth with sexual behavior problems can help the child learn appropriate behaviors and help the child to control sexually harmful behaviors early in life before patterns form.
- Explain that a counselor may be mandated to report to the authorities. Questions regarding mandated reporting should be asked of counseling resources.
Be clear with the caller that someone who is sexually abusing a child cannot change without specialized treatment, even if they want to.
The caller may want to talk directly to the person who is abusing. This should only be done when safety is assured. Callers are directed to “Let’s Talk” for support and direction and the caller who wants to have this conversation is coached to:
- Express concerns with a balance of accountability and support as long as they are willing to seek help and stop the abuse.
- Urge the person who abused to seek specialized treatment.
- Let the person who abused know that treatment is available and can work.
- Let the person who abused know that by coming forward and asking for help they may have a better legal position. If the person who abused comes forward and seeks help, the courts may be more lenient when sentencing. The child may report first, legally making things worse for the adult who sexually abused.
Special considerations for youth with sexually harmful behaviors
It is important to emphasize that a youth wither sexually harmful behaviors is affected by their own actions as much as the child who is being treated in this sexually unsafe and inappropriate way. Getting help for a youth with sexually harmful behaviors is vital. Reporting the youth to Child Protective Services and/or the court may help the family get the services they need.
Youth who are not offered treatment for their sexual problem behaviors risk increased legal and criminal difficulties as they age. There is effective treatment available for kids with sexual problem behaviors. When child protective authorities are involved, typically there is a treatment plan developed that identifies adults responsible for helping the child or teen.
Reading Online Materials:
- Why a Child May Sexually Harm Another Child
- When Children Sexually Harm Other Children
- Safety and Help for Children and Teens Who Have Engaged in Harmful Behaviors
- What Are the Consequences for Minors? Could my Child be Arrested?
Safety planning for these children should include the following:
- Close supervision.
- If playing with other children, should be in common areas where adults are able to observe at all times.
- Do not allow children with sexual behavior problems to ever be in a room with the door closed with other children.
- Do not give child a role of authority over younger or more vulnerable children
- Avoid having any sexually explicit materials in the home
- Adults should use appropriate modesty in the child’s presence. There should be no nudity, partial nudity, or explicit displays of sexual behavior by either parent or other adults in front of the child. It is, however, appropriate for adults to show normal affection to each other and the children
- The child should not be permitted to sleep or bathe with the parent
- Adults should communicate clear rules and expectations about privacy and appropriate sexual behavior to the child. All family members should know and observe these rules.
When a caller contacts the Helpline with concerns about an adult viewing child sexual abuse material they often mistake this as a warning sign, and not evidence of child abuse. Helpline staff inform the caller that the viewing of CSAM is itself a crime. Additionally, callers are reminded that there is a child who is being abused in the filming.
Overall, as technology increases, so does the number of ways children become vulnerable to abuse. The ways these technologies are used in this fashion:
- Looking at photographs and video images on the internet of children naked, in sexual poses and/or being sexually abused
- Taking photographs, videos and DVDs of children naked, in sexual poses or being sexually abused.
- Distributing these images via the internet
- Communicating and forming a “friendship” with children online with the intent of arranging to meet them in the “real world” to sexually abuse them
- Encouraging children to hold sexual conversations in which they are instructed to engage in, and talk about, sexual behavior – this is sometimes referred to as cybersex.
Callers who call with descriptions of behavior described before are provided the information for them to make decisions about how to respond. It is clearly stated that viewing and distributing CSEM is a crime. How to report these behaviors is reviewed with the caller, along with the resources available to take these reports.
Red Light Action Steps To Encourage For The Bystander Concerned About An Adult or Child Who Has Abused:
- Reading online materials – tip sheets and OHC pages
- Resources for People Who Are At-Risk to Abuse or Who Have Abused
- For Parents and Caregivers
- What is Child Protective Services?
- Legal Issues
- Is Viewing Child Pornography Child Sexual Abuse
- Facing the Practical Difficulties of Speaking Up
- Referrals to:
Red Light Calls: Survivors – An Adult Survivor of Child Sexual Abuse or Another Adult with Concerns About an Adult Survivor
While Stop It Now!’s mission and service is to prevent child sexual abuse, calls from survivors are frequent. Adults may just be acknowledging their sexual abuse as a child or they are actively involved in a healing process. Friends and family members of survivors are also frequent callers.
Often, the survivor or the friend/family member is seeking information on how to prevent child sexual abuse of others. These can be treated like green light calls in some aspects, providing information and resources to help individuals understand tools in prevention.
Red Light Action Steps To Encourage For The Bystander Concerned About An Adult or Child Who Has Abused:
- Reading online materials – tip sheets and OHC pages
- Survivors Lead The Way On Prevention
- How People Use The Internet To Sexually Exploit Children And Teens
- Talking With an Adult Who Has Already Abused
- Talking With a Child or Teen Who Has Engaged in Sexually Harmful Behavior
- Seek out specialized treatment
- Find online support
- Referrals to:
While these can be the most difficult calls a Helpline associate may take, the approach taken can support this caller in immediately stopping his or her behavior and getting help. Immediate safety for any child at risk is the priority, while encouraging the caller to get help. As with all other calls, confidentiality is explained. However, if the caller indicates that a child is currently being abused then Helpline staff will prioritize steps to support the caller in turning themselves in and to protect the child. Appropriate action in these instances includes following reporting protocols if identifying information is shared by the caller.
Callers need to know that they are going to get support and help. Call takers let the callers know that others call with similar concerns and acknowledges that it takes courage to make the first call.
The availability and effectiveness of treatment is emphasized, again highlighting that there is help. Any fears and concerns that get in the way of getting help are explored.
Let them know that help is available to develop a safety plan so that things don’t get worse and that they can feel in control
Ask if there is a child currently at risk.
Ask if they have any specific questions.
We inform this type of caller that they are committing a crime and they need to stop and seek help. Let the caller know that help is available and it does work.
The Role of Specialized Treatment
The caller should know that even if they want to stop, specialized treatment is needed. Explain what specialized treatment offers:
- Help to recognize sexual thoughts, feelings, and fantasies toward a child.
- Will to recognize the “triggers” that motivate him/her to act on these fantasies and develop ways of controlling the abusive behaviors.
- Relapse Prevention: once the “triggers” for abusing behaviors are identified, develop and practice coping responses for those risk factors.
- Treatment works to enhance social skills.
- Emphasis is placed on maintaining healthy, respectful and compatible relationships.
Callers should be informed that treatment providers and counselors are mandated to report to the authorities. Discuss positive aspects to coming forward and making their own report, as well as the negative aspects to not coming forward. Positive aspects include:
- Help and healing for person who abused, and for the child.
- A better legal position; if caller who has abused comes forward and seeks help, the courts may be more lenient when sentencing.
- Ending further mental and physical abuse to the child.
It is vital to plan for safety with this caller. Ask the caller what they can do to immediately ensure that no further abuse takes place until outside help is secured. Even if caller is willing to follow through on calling treatment providers, steps to ensure children will be safe should be identified. Steps to suggest:
- Let another adult know what is going on.
- Avoid being around the child or any children alone.
- Avoid places where children are likely to be.
- Reorganize his or her schedule so they are not around children who are a trigger.
- Evaluating residence and locating a temporary residence if appropriate.
- Avoid any substance use or abuse
- Avoid the internet if illegal images are too tempting – unplug if necessary.
- Stay active and productive. Engage adult friends and supports.
- Do something each day that is positive and enhances self-esteem and worth.
It is important to reiterate recommendations and ask caller what their next step will be. If there are any barriers help the caller work through them. Make referrals for treatment. Close these calls with reinforcement – acknowledge the courage again that it took and stress that it can get better with help.
Note regarding adjudicated offenders:
When an offender has re-entered the community and calls for support, the following resources and suggestions are offered:
- Engage (or reengage) with treatment provider
- Use established network of support
- Call a support person – avoid isolation
- Contact probation/parole office for re-entry assistance
- Report self if feeling out of control
- Admit self to emergency services of local hospital
- Call prison sex offender treatment program if available
Action Steps to Encourage:
- Reading online materials:
- Help for People Concerned About Their Own Thoughts and Behaviors
- Advantages of Coming Forward if You Have Abused Someone
- How Can I Find Confidential Help?
- Adults Who Have Sexually Offended or Feel At-Risk Need Very Specialized Help
- Warning Signs That You May Need Help With Troubling Online Activity
- Child Sexual Abuse Material: Getting Help To Stop
- Referrals to:
- For Adults Concerned About Their Own Thoughts and Behaviors
- Youth Struggling with Unsafe and Harmful Sexual Behaviors
- Reporting contacts (The Child Welfare Gateway)
- Legal resources
Red Light Sample Calls: Advice Columns
- What do I say to a child who talks about being abused?
- Son-in-law’s behaviors are concerning.
- Concerned during diaper changes.
- Survivor watches child sexual abuse material.
Counselors who respond to child sex abuse calls have a professional obligation to be aware of the personal toll these calls can have on them. Research has shown when a professional working with highly traumatizing material is able to acknowledge the impact the work has on them and practice self-care strategies, they are most effective and maintain high levels of motivation for the work. Professional missteps as indicated by poor judgment or boundary violations signal the negative impact of this traumatizing material.
Calls with child sex abuse concerns are probably the most difficult type of call to which a helpline associate responds. While helpline staff are exposed to traumatic material frequently, the feelings that anything related to child sexual abuse brings up for a person are often especially unpleasant and uncomfortable. The Stop It Now!’s helpline counselor’s experience is unique in its emotionally charged content:
- Isolated exposure to the “headlines” of a concern, which are usually the worst aspects of the situation. As helpline staff only have access to a single perspective on any given situation, the ability to really know what is going or to better understand a seemingly unlikely, desperate, or tragic situation involving an injustice is limited
- Downstream calls (situations already involving child protection agencies and possibly legal systems) often reflect the child protection and legal systems at their worst
- Multiple examples of child abuse – not just sexual abuse
- The outcomes of extremely at-risk and unsafe situations are almost never known, and the usefulness of the call is rarely identified
- Callers express many feelings of hopelessness, fear, anger, grief and pain
Any professional who helps people in need is at risk for being traumatized themselves. The helpline staff who responds to concerns of child sexual abuse is without a doubt in the highest risk category for experiencing one or all of the following:
- Secondary Trauma
- Compassion Trauma
- Vicarious Trauma
Expressions like “burnout” and “compassion fatigue” (http://www.compassionfatigue.org) are used to understand the exhaustive impact on the helping professional when they see and hear pain and problems everyday of their work. Sometimes feeling that, “my heart hurts” is shared when talking about the impact of hearing yet another horrifying account of abuse. Burnout and Compassion Fatigue differ in that burnout is defined as “long term exhaustion and diminished interest” while Compassion Fatigue and Secondary Trauma describes the experience of feeling many of the same feelings of the individuals experiencing trauma.
Any professional is affected by this material. When you care for and about others who are experiencing traumatic events in their lives it will affect you in some way. Vicarious trauma is best described as the shift in a “helper’s” world perspective that is permanent based on their ongoing exposure to traumatic material. This means that how the world is perceived in terms of safety and health is forever altered in the eye of the professional providing support and guidance to traumatized people. To illustrate this experience, many helpers describe the unwanted thoughts at a social gathering of wondering who in the room has been abused or is abusing.
While there is no “cure” for vicarious trauma, there are steps that can be taken to reduce its impact and to increase personal protective factors. The ABCs of vicarious trauma refer to:
By becoming aware of the impact that daily exposure to trauma can have on a helper, one can better recognize when he or she needs support. Recognizing and acknowledging difficult feelings and thoughts can reduce the ongoing influence of trauma work. By “knowing” the impact the work has the individual helper, the helper can be more in control. The often difficult experience of helping others can be compounded by running away from one’s own difficult feelings. It is important to frequently check in with oneself about the effects of hearing about trauma. Debriefing with colleagues is critical to managing the impact of these experiences.
Balance refers to the ability to negotiate between work and personal needs. This means paying attention to the desires, events, relationships, etc. in one’s own life and not letting them become buried under the work of responding to trauma.
Staying connected to others and enjoyable activities is vital. Isolation can easily feed a trauma worker’s sense of their own trauma experience. Seeking out relationships that are fulfilling and supportive provides foundations for health and wellness.
Review Understanding Vicarious Trauma for descriptions and practices to support healthy management of vicarious trauma.
During the call, Helpline staff avoid or limit traumatic conversation that cannot be responded to productively. Callers who repeatedly describe abuse situations are redirected so that action steps can instead be the focus of the conversation. If the call taker is feeling traumatized, the caller is probably feeling similarly and helping the caller may include redirecting the call to reduce the traumatic content
Stop It Now!’s protocols determine what can be offered, not the caller’s level of neediness or trauma. It is important to remember that the role of the helpline call taker is to educate and motivate; it is the caller’s job to speak up or take steps to stop or prevent the abuse.
After the call, it is important to check in with oneself:
- We remind ourselves that the numerous system failures we hear about do not represent the number of successful system interventions. We only hear about the situations where the system is failing or struggling to protect children, but most cases do not fail
- People need time to process and act. Our calls are part of the progress towards a healthier and safer life.
- We only get a “snapshot” of where the caller is today. A call offers only one perspective on the problem – something is almost always withheld, unknown, unidentified, or avoided on the call
- There is hope. Many people who are affected by child sexual abuse not only survive, but recover, heal, and move forward
- This problem only affects a fraction of the general population
As noted, the sense of feeling hopeless and ineffective is common for professionals working with content that is trauma related. Debriefing is a tool that can help counselors from several aspects:
- Talk about what occurred or what was experienced
- Review how a particular situation was handled
- Get feedback and praise
- Identify what worked and what tools and resources are needed for similar calls in the future
- Feel witnessed by colleague, reduce potential isolation of helpline work
- Share ideas
Debriefing is not repeating and reliving the call. Rather it is a tool to help the call taker assess the work that they did, while also getting support as they deal with difficult content.
Creating time and space for debriefing is especially important. Ideally, the best time for debriefing is immediately after a call but debriefing can occur whenever possible. Ideally, a professional experienced with trauma is best to lead a debriefing but colleagues can be supported to debrief among themselves as well. However, it is suggested that anyone who works with trauma have access to professionals experienced in working with trauma and its impact.
A brief model for debriefing:
Review stage – This is the “How did it go?” portion of debriefing. The helper can describe their experience of the call – what was needed, what was offered, what happened.
Response stage – Here, the call taker is supported in identifying what is lingering on for them about the call. The call taker may want to identify and talk about what was hard about the call and what they would like to do differently with similar calls.
Remind stage – This is the follow up portion of debriefing. What needs to be done to complete the process? The call taker is asked to identify what they need for themselves to “let go” of the call and what administrative tasks need to be completed before an indi-vidual call is “complete”.