Researchers recently published an interesting longitudinal study of disclosures of child sexual abuse (CSA). They reviewed records of past interviews of suspected child abuse victims, and then interviewed as many of the victims as they could find 20 years later. Of the 99 suspected victims they were able to interview, 18 disclosed in both interviews, 17 disclosed for the first time as adults (after denying CSA as children), and 9 adults recanted their earlier disclosures. 26 denied CSA in both interviews, and it’s not clear from the study how researchers categorized the remaining 29.
The study was small, so it’s difficult to draw any generalized conclusions. There are some interesting aspects to it, however, that forensic interviewers can learn from. The original interviews were conducted when “children were placed into a forensic unit for an in-patient forensic evaluation,” and the stays averaged 5 days. In addition to the coercive environment, children were asked leading questions that could have elicited false disclosures. Conversely, the setting likely intimidated other children into concealing CSA. As one participant explained her earlier denial,
I was nervous because…I didn’t know what to say. Would it get me in trouble or would it get me taken away from my mom because I didn’t want to go anywhere….They were asking me…have I ever been like sexually abused and things like that. And I didn’t know some of those words so…you know I started crying because I was feeling uncomfortable.
This tendency of children, especially younger children, to try to give the “correct” answer to please the interviewer is one that we have to guard against whenever we are questioning children.
Older children are more resistant to this tendency, as shown in the study’s results that children who were older in the first interview were more likely to consistently disclose CSA in both interviews. This particular study didn’t find any significant disclosure differences between gender or racial groups.
The study did find that delayed disclosure correlated with more significant trauma symptoms. Researchers didn’t find the same correlation for early disclosure, consistent denial, or recanted disclosures. This difference indicates that children who are abused, but don’t disclose it, are more likely to miss out on mental health care that can help them avoid or overcome trauma symptoms.
Because the study had such a small sample, it’s difficult to draw any generalized lessons. It does open intriguing questions about delayed disclosures and recantations that need further investigations. Furthermore, its findings about trauma are consistent with other studies, and provide another illustration of the importance of quality mental health care for children who have suffered CSA or other forms of childhood trauma.