If a child has chosen to trust you and share that they are being abused and neglected, it is a very humbling position to be in as an adult. The child is trusting you with a big secret, perhaps a secret that they have been threatened into keeping in the past. Now it's up to you to handle your response in such a way that the child feels safe. Here are a few tips on how to handle yourself when a child discloses abuse and neglect.
Control your emotions. This is going to be tough. I'm not going to try to pretend that it's going to be anything other than extremely difficult, but consider the child. Do not show show shock, disgust, or anger towards the child, the perpetrators, or the situation. Remain calm and neutral. Again, this is probably the hardest part of listening to a child that has decided to trust you with one of their biggest secrets.
Comfort the child and let him know that he is safe. The child has decided to trust you, now it's up to you to maintain that trust by offering comfort and reassurance that they have done the right thing by telling. Remain calm and allow the child to share, but don't push for more information or ask questions.
Don't ask questions or interrogate the child. This is extremely important as cases have been compromised by well meaning individuals seeking for more information. Those who are inexperienced may unintentionally ask leading questions that would change the case and the child's testimony. Leave the investigation to the professionals - state welfare workers and police officers who are trained to interview children who have been abused and neglected. Simply gather the basic information needed to place a call to officials.
Gather the basics. You will need the child's name, parent's or caregiver's name, and the child's location. You will also need to describe what the child has disclosed to you and perhaps any other concerns you may have regarding the child's situation. Of course, the officials will also want to know if the child is in immediate harm.
Be honest with the child. Again, let the child know that she has done the right thing in trusting you with her secret and now you need to call someone you trust. Explain to the child that in order to get her help you will need to call and share her story with someone else. Be strong and help the child not to be scared by the call you are about to make. I would suggest not making the call in front of the child.
Make the report. Who you call will depend on the situation and whether or not the child is in immediate harm. Call local law enforcement if you suspect or worry that the child is in immediate physical harm. If the situation is not an emergency, contact your local child protective services.
If you think the child is making up the abuse story. There are times when a child may come to you and make what is called, a false allegation, against someone else. Some children, especially those from the foster care system, have received a lot of attention from making abuse allegation claims. This is not a fun position to be in, but it is still something that needs to be reported. You may also share your doubts when making the report, but to choose not to make the report is not a good idea. Most states have laws that require the reporting of suspected abuse and neglect, especially by mandated reporters. Consider also how you would feel if you personally decided that a child was making up a story of abuse, only to discover later that the child was telling the truth.