Talking with an Adult Who May be at Risk to Abuse

Decide first if it is safe for you to have a conversation

When your safety is at risk, it is simply not an option to speak directly with the person whom you know or suspect has abused a child, particularly in situations of domestic violence. In such instances it’s advisable to speak with a domestic violence advocate (for more information, visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline) and/or to report the abuse directly to the authorities.

Speaking up when you don’t know for sure

Usually it’s hard to know whether someone has actually sexually abused a child since there are rarely witnesses. If you have a gut feeling that someone you know may be at risk to harm a child, it’s better to have a frank discussion with them now than to wait until you know that abuse has occurred.

Adults don’t always know they are acting harmfully or inappropriately with a child

Sometimes parents need to explain clearly to other adults how they expect their children to be treated. If you see someone behaving towards a child in a way that you feel is questionable or that “crosses a line,” you may want to speak to them directly about it. One way to begin the conversation is to bring up the specific behaviors that concern you. For example, “I realized when you told that dirty joke last weekend you made a point of smiling at your young niece who was in the room with us. I noticed that it embarrassed her and made the other adults uncomfortable. Do you remember that?”

Maybe the way someone is acting makes you wonder if they could be thinking about abusing a child

Calmly drawing that person’s attention to the behaviors that worry you, is one way of letting them know that their actions are not going unnoticed and that you are on alert. “I’m uncomfortable with how frequently you insist on spending time alone with our grandchild. I’d like to spend time all together.” If additional signs emerge, consider talking again.

Speaking with adults who are not family members

If you are concerned about the behaviors of an adult outside the family, you may choose to talk to this person about the need to maintain distance or sever ties. Clearly state your concerns and your intention. If the person tries to convince you to change your mind or tells you that you’re overreacting, always keep in mind that you are the parent and that you must do what you think is right for your child.

Speaking up before a child is harmed can create a window of opportunity

If you believe that someone is really struggling to stay in control of sexually abusive behavior, you can offer to assist them in finding the treatment they need before they harm a child. There are many fewer barriers to getting help when no crimes have been committed. Remind them that they can’t be arrested for having thoughts. Only acting on sexually abusive thoughts is illegal.

Sharing information about the benefits and goals of specialized treatment

You can learn how specialized treatment can help people change their sexual behaviors, and share this information with the adult you’re concerned about. You may want to let that person know that people can and have changed, and that the likelihood of a successful treatment is greater when someone sincerely wants to change and is seriously committed to getting treatment.