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Key messages

Given the subtle and often hidden nature of child sexual abuse, the following key messages should be considered when assessing and providing intervention in relation to child sexual abuse matters.

Every child has a right to safety and protection.

A child is never responsible for the sexual abuse.

Disclosure is accidental and delayed in a majority of cases and false allegations are rare. A child will often underreport or deny an incident of child sexual abuse; and children and young people have been known to deny sexual abuse even where physical evidence is available to confirm abuse has occurred. Children may delay disclosure due to fear of consequences, thinking they will not be believed or fear of parental sanctions (Sorensen and Snow, 1991).

Many people find it difficult to believe a child’s disclosure of abuse, particularly when the alleged abuser appears ‘normal’, the child has behavioural problems or fear of a person being falsely accused of abusing a child (Manay and Collin-Vezina, 2021). This is because believing that a child has been sexually abused is confronting, particularly if we feel responsible for a child’s safety. It can also make us question our core beliefs about our safety and the safety of our children and communities. It can be easier to believe a child has lied than to believe that the alleged abuser has committed these acts of abuse.

Physical indicators of sexual abuse are rare, however, their absence does not negate the accuracy or reliability of the disclosure. In other words: the absence of physical indicators does not necessarily mean it did not happen.

Child sexual abuse impacts upon social and emotional development and may distort healthy sexual development in a child. When sexual development is altered, a child may experience difficulty forming/ understanding healthy sexual experiences and relationships.

Child sexual abuse is often surrounded by secrecy. Relationship dynamics can be characterised by the misuse of power and control and often involves coercive behaviour or threats to harm the child, parent, family or others (including pets).

Children are most often sexually abused by someone known to them, including parents, parental partners/step-parents, siblings, immediate extended family and friends or peers (Quadara et al, 2015). Patterns of disclosure are often impacted by family relationships where a child may feel a sense of loyalty to the alleged abuser, may have fears around not being believed, being rejected or removed from their family. Child sexual abuse often occurs within the context of neglect or a lack of parent/carer supervision.

There is growing evidence of the presence of domestic and family violence in child sexual abuse cases and vice versa. This may be due to the misuse of power and control, with secrecy and coercion being present both in the dynamics of domestic and family violence and sexual abuse (Quadara et al, 2015).

A child who has experienced trauma, has a disability, low socioeconomic status or family factors such as absence of one or both parents or parental impairment are at a higher risk of being sexually abused (Quadara et al, 2015).

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