A Report of Childhood Sexual Abuse is Made. What Happens Next?

Penn State’s Child Maltreatment Solutions Network and the Children’s Advocacy Center of Centre County hosted an event on April 21 acknowledging National Child Abuse Prevention month.A panel of national and local experts convened to discuss what happens once a report of child abuse is made. 

When a child steps forward and reports abuse, we can step up and help by having the courage and knowledge to take action. Teresa Huizar, Executive Director of the National Children’s Alliance, said 20 years ago she often met teachers and officials who did not know what to do and what happened next after abuse or neglect was reported. She wanted to create a better response.

Huizar works hard to eliminate the reluctance individuals may have when a report should be made. First, she wants people to know that reporting a situation is almost always better than not reporting one. She has heard from many adult survivors who wished someone had had the courage to make a report. Huizar acknowledges “It takes courage for survivors to report and for reporters to say something. When children are heard and adults believe their stories, then the healing process can begin.”

Even though the public’s awareness of child abuse and neglect has improved over the past 20 years, roadblocks still remain. Many individuals do not know what happens after a report is made. What will happen to the child? What are the ongoing responsibilities for the reporter? Will making a report ruin lives?

Everyone in a community is responsible to report situations or suspicions of child abuse. It is important for reporters to know that it is not their responsibility to substantiate the abuse. If you suspect a child is experiencing neglect or abuse, call ChildLine at 1-800-932-0313 to file a report. Reports can be done anonymously.

“You do not make the decision about whether it’s abuse,” Jennie Noll, Network Director and Professor of Human Development and Family Studies. “You make the call and a well trained team of professionals will take it from there. Our community is very well equipped and resourced to handle these situations.”

Nearly 2.4 million children have gone through U.S. children’s advocacy centers. There are 770 centers across the nation, and that number is growing. Kristina Taylor-Porter is the director of the Children’s Advocacy Center of Centre County, which opened in 2014. The CAC provides a compassionate approach to ensure that the child’s voice is heard by bringing together the professionals needed to identify, intervene, and treat child abuse.

Taylor-Porter outlined a number of system improvements that have made the reporting process efficient and straightforward for all parties, which has been integral in keeping children safe. Social services and law enforcement agencies participate in a child-centered environment. The CAC offers a friendly, comfortable, and highly supportive environment for the child. The more than 350 children who have come through the center since it opened last year are approached in a developmentally appropriate level, and are in a physical space that is warm and welcoming. Everything is “focused on the child." In the past, children were often brought to law enforcement agencies.  “Have you ever walked into a police station? It can be very intimidating for adults, let alone children,” Taylor-Porter said.

To further enhance services to the public, there are now more CACs than ever before. Prior to the creation of the center in the county, children and their families had to travel nearly two hours to the nearest CAC for consultation or treatment. “There was a gap in services for us in Centre County,” said Anne Ard, event speaker and director of the Centre County Women’s Resource Center. We needed to look at the family unit as a whole and help address their needs. “If you’re worried you’re not going to be able to feed your kids, you’re not going to prioritize going to a CAC to get an exam when it is four hours roundtrip.”

Approaches in interviewing children have improved dramatically.  Perhaps the most important role of the CAC is limiting the amount of times a child must retell his or her abuse story. It had been reported that children could retell their story between seven and 21 times, according to Taylor-Porter. Today, child protection professionals can monitor a single interview from another room while a child shares what happened once. This not only helps legal professionals conduct an investigation, it also helps by not re-traumatizing the child.

Another improvement in child abuse prevention is education.  Speaker Teresa Smith, coordinator of outreach and training at the Northeast Regional Children’s Advocacy Center, said expanding educational opportunities at the undergraduate and graduate levels is key to preparing students for professional roles in child abuse protection and prevention. Penn State is making plans to offer an interdisciplinary minor in child maltreatment and advocacy studies that may be available this fall.

“I am excited about the minor and the training of the next generation,” she said. “I am happy that there are more opportunities for education and training today.”

To learn more about child maltreatment and advocacy visit the Child Maltreatment Solutions Network and Child Advocacy Center of Centre County websites for more information.

Penn State's Daily Collegian also covered the story. You can read their article here