While doing research for my book, I came across this report from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (in the UK): No one noticed, no one heard: a study of disclosures of childhood abuse. [Content note: the report contains discussion of multiple types of abuse and the impact of abuse on children and families.]
I have SO many swirling thoughts after finishing my reading of this report. If you work with children, take the time to read this. Here are some of my initial thoughts, but I know I’ll be processing this study for a long time.
This study looked at the experiences of young people (ages 18 to 24) reflecting on their disclosures of childhood abuse prior to age 18. Of the 60 young people interviewed by Debbie Allnock and Pam Miller, most (80%) told someone or tried to tell someone of the abuse they endured. Yet 90% of those who disclosed had a negative experience in their disclosure journey: they weren’t believed. They were ignored. They were spoken down to, or left out of the process. Sometimes disclosure made things worse, as when a teacher reported a child’s disclosure to her parents (who were the perpetrators of the abuse).
There were also moments of success and support, many involving disclosure to peers and friends. This made me think of how we talk to all students about supporting one another through hard times. Are we so focused on helping teachers become trauma-informed that we overlook one of the biggest resources our students have – one another?
Here are some of the big takeaways for me from this report:
- Believe kids when they disclose abuse. No matter what.
- Schools need to get crystal clear on the process of support and communication after student disclosure. It’s not just about complying with mandated reporting law. How are we communicating with students about the process in a way that empowers them? How are we explaining the process in a developmentally appropriate way? How are students supported after the legal boxes are ticked?
- Get to know your students. So many of the young people in this study wished that their teachers and other adults asked what was wrong. You can’t notice that something is wrong if you don’t know your students in the first place.
As I read, I also couldn’t help but think about the recent trend of schools asking students to fill out ACEs checklists. In Allnock and Miller’s study, young people shared the pain of disclosing their abuse only to have it ignored or minimized, or for there to be no meaningful follow-up. For those children who told someone about abuse while it was happening, fewer than half said that their disclosure led to the abuse actually stopping. Fewer than half. Youth in the study also shared that sometimes they weren’t ready to disclose to authority figures, choosing to talk to friends instead. I wonder about the experience of students prompted to fill out an ACE checklist, and whether there is meaningful follow-through on these disclosures. Why ask if we aren’t ready to truly hear, and to act? We need to take great caution as a field when considering the dynamics of disclosure as it connects to ACEs. Children wanted to be noticed and asked personally by a trusted adult if something was wrong. Schools need to carefully consider what all of this means in the context ofboundaries and role clarity.
These are just some of my initial thoughts, but I hope you can see what a powerful resource this is for anyone working with children. I encourage you to read the whole report for more recommendations and action steps from the authors. The report contains the words of the young people themselves and there is nothing more powerful than listening to their voices.