Step 5: Make a Plan

Learn Where to Go, Whom to Call, and How to React

My 11-year-old daughter said her step-father sneaks into her room at night. Then she said she made it up. Now she won't say anything. I don't know what to do.

Don't Overreact

If a child breaks an arm or runs a high fever, you know to stay calm and where to seek help because you've mentally prepared yourself. Reacting to child sexual abuse is the same. Your reactions have a powerful influence on vulnerable children.


When you react to disclosure with anger or disbelief, the response is often:

  • The child shuts down.
  • The child changes his or her story in the face of your anger and disbelief, when, in fact, abuse is actually occurring.
  • The child changes the account around your questions so future tellings appear to be "coached." This can be very harmful if the case goes to court.
  • The child feels even guiltier.

Very few reported incidents are false.


Offer Support

Think through your response before you suspect abuse. You'll be able to respond in a more supportive manner.

  • Believe the child and make sure the child knows it.
  • Thank the child for telling you and praise the child's courage.
  • Encourage the child to talk but don't ask leading questions about details. Asking about details can alter the child's memory of events. If you must ask questions to keep the child talking, ask open-ended ones like "what happened next?"
  • Seek the help of a professional who is trained to interview the child about sexual abuse. Professional guidance could be critical to the child's healing and to any criminal prosecution.
  • Assure the child that it's your responsibility to protect him or her and that you'll do all you can.
  • Report or take action in all cases of suspected abuse, both inside and outside the immediate family.
  • Don't panic. Sexually abused children who receive support and psychological help can and do heal.

Child Sexual Abuse is a Crime

Know the Legal Requirements for Reporting

  • All 50 states require that professionals who work with children report reasonable suspicions of child abuse. Some states require that anyone with suspicions report it. Information about each state's requirements is available at the Child Welfare Information Gateway www.childwelfare.gov.
  • If you are a professional who works with children, (e.g., a teacher, a nurse) there are special procedures and reporting requirements you must follow. Your employer should provide mandated reporting training.


Know the Agencies that Handle Reports of Abuse

Two agencies handle most reports of child abuse:

  • Child Protective Services (in some states this agency has a different name)
  • Law Enforcement

Some states designate Child Protective Services as the agency that accepts reports of suspected child abuse. Others designate law enforcement. Some do not designate or designate both. Many states have toll-free lines that accept reports of abuse from the entire state. To find out where to make a report in your state, identify the Child Abuse Reporting Numbers at The Child Welfare Information Gateway website, www.childwelfare.gov.

If the legal system does not provide adequate protection for a child, visit the National Center for Victims of Crime at www.ncvc.org or call 1-800-FYI-CALL for referral information.

Step 6: Act on Suspicions