How to Respond to A Sexual Assault Disclosure

A sexual violence disclosure is when a person tells another person about an incident of sexual abuse or assault. The disclosure may be of a recent incident, it may have occurred in the past (historical), or it may be ongoing. A survivor’s choice to disclose should be treated as distinct from making a report to formal authorities, even if sometimes they are one and the same event.

When the disclosures are minimized, dismissed or the survivors were blamed and shamed for the assault, this negatively impacts the survivors’ ability to move forward with their healing journey. In cases of children and youth, a dismissed disclosure can lead to further revictimization when children are not removed from unsafe environments.

Based on our research, the vast majority (71.1%) of primary survivors told someone about their assault. The majority of these disclosures were made to friends (79.3%) and family members (57.7%), followed by counsellors (school counsellors, mental health counsellors, etc.) at 45.7%.

We found that more than one-third (37.6%) of these disclosures happened within one to three days following the assault. Another 34.5% told within the space of one year and unfortunately, another 27.9% of survivors would take more than two years before disclosing the assault to anyone.

This means that survivors who feel as though they don’t have someone to disclose to within one to three days following the assault, will go on to suffer in silence for months and  years without disclosing their experience to anyone.

Our hope is that, by providing you with some crucial conversation tips, you can be equipped to respond appropriately should someone in your life disclose a sexual assault to you.


How To Support A Minor Disclosing Abuse

  • Do not question the story unless you truly do not understand what the child said
  • Do not judge the child, their feelings, or behaviours
  • Let the child set the emotional tone and pace
  • Only collect enough information to lead you to believe the abuse has occurred and ensure that your report to law enforcement or Ministry of Social Services is verbatim as possible.
  • Assess the child’s safety and if where the person who assaulted them has access to the child in the near future.
  • Report your concerns immediately to the Ministry of Social Services Child Protection Unit or your local law enforcement agency

It’s important to let the child know you are glad they trusted you enough to share and that you need to tell someone who can help to keep them safe.

Remember that everyone in Saskatchewan has a duty to report a suspicion or knowledge of child sexual abuse to the Ministry of Social Services or to the police.

How To Support An Adult Disclosing Assault

  • Let the individual who has been assaulted set the emotional tone and pace of the discussion
  • Let the individual know that they can express how they feel openly
  • Reassure the individual that they are not alone
  • Assist the individuals with any major concerns or need that may need to be addressed
  • Don’t ask the individual why they did not disclose sooner

As family and friends, it can be difficult to hear the painful disclosure of a loved one and we often do not know what to do and what to say. The person who has committed the assaulted may be a person that you know, care about, or respect in the community. It is important to understand that what matters most is the survivor feels heard, believed, supported, and that he/she/they has done the right thing by telling you.

Here are three crucial conversation tips that will help you respond appropriately to a sexual assault disclosure:

Listen To Receive

Often times, when we are in conversation with someone, we feel the need to respond immediately to what the other person is sharing with us, especially if the person we are talking to is expressing a personal matter.

When someone discloses a sexual assault to you, they want their story to be heard by someone they trust. The best way you can ensure that they feel heard is to listen to receive, and not to respond.

Give the other person space to share what happened and express their emotions. By being witness to what they’re going through without responding immediately, will help the other person feel more comfortable disclosing to you.

Show You Care Through Your Body Language

A person who has been assaulted has experienced a violation of their physical autonomy. It is therefore important to take direction from the person as to what their needs may be around physical contact and space. Below are some ideas on how you can use your eyes contact, physical space and voice in making the other person feel heard, safe and supported.

Be aware of the physical space between you and the person who is disclosing. Look for indications that they may feel uncomfortable with the space between you such as moving their body away, not looking at you, looking at the door often, etc. Check in if it appears they are uncomfortable and adjust the space accordingly.

Be aware of touch and do not assume the person wants a comforting touch such as a hug or a touch to their arm, hand etc. as this could trigger a trauma response in the person who has been assaulted or abused. If you believe a comforting touch may be helpful, if appropriate, you can let them know that they can ask for that from you.

Look at the individual; however, if direct eye contact appears to make the individual uncomfortable, look in their general direction and do not search or probe for eye contact.

Be aware of your voice. Your tone of voice may convey a sense of calm and safety or stress and panic, depending on how you are feeling about the disclosure. If you are feeling emotional about the disclosure, a genuine acknowledgement of the emotion without making the disclosure about “you” may help you to focus and the other person to understand your response to them.

If it helps to stay focused, take a few notes, however unless you are in a role of an investigator keep notes to a minimum and focus on the person telling his/her/their story.

Ask Questions That Are Helpful Not Hurtful

During difficult conversations, it can be hard to find the right words to say, and sometimes we don’t say much at all for the fear that what we say isn’t the right thing. This is part of being human and it’s okay if we don’t know what to say.

What we can do, is ensure that we don’t say anything that could be hurtful to the person disclosing to us. It’s important to avoid asking “why” questions like – “why did you go there?” or “why didn’t you call for help?”. You have to remember that what the person has experienced is traumatic and the last thing we want them to think is that they should have done something differently or that it was somehow their fault. Consider using helpful phrases like:

I believe you

It is not your fault

Thank you for telling me

I am sorry this happened to you

You are not alone

You are brave to speaking out

I hear you

I am here to help you to the best of my ability

It’s okay to have mixed feeling about the person who hurt you and to not want to get into trouble

I am going to try to get you some help with this

Lastly, the most important thing you can do is help the survivor take actionable steps towards their healing journey. Here is a list of support services available to you:

911

Dial 911 if someone you know is in immediate danger or at risk of assault

811 HEALTHLINE

Dialing 811, to receive a 24-hour health and mental health and addictions advice, education and support telephone line.

211 SASKATCHEWAN

Dialing 211 will connect you with a free, confidential, 24/7, multilingual service that can direct you to human services in the province, including services for people experiencing violence and abuse. The 211 website also offers web chat services or you can text “Hello” to 211 to access service.  Resources are listed on their website.

http://abuse.sk.211.ca/

REPORTING CHILD ABUSE

Anyone having reasonable suspicion that a child’s physical or mental health or welfare has been or may be impacted by abuse or neglect has a legal duty to report that suspicion. 

Ministry of Social Services Child Protection Lines:

Regina (South): 1-844-787-3760

Prince Albert (North): 1-866-719-6164

Saskatoon (Center): 1800-274-8297

https://www.saskatchewan.ca/residents/justice-crime-and-the-law/child-protection/child-abuse-and-neglect

KIDS HELP PHONE

24-hour hotline for young people. Services include counselling, information and referrals.

Toll-Free: 1-800-668-6868

Text CONNECT to 686868 at any time to talk to a crisis responder. You do not need a data plan, internet connection or app to access this service.

www.kidshelpphone.ca

Reference:

Williams, T., Tocher, A., Ofrim, j., & Walroth, K. (2011). First Responder to Sexual Assault and Abuse Training, Participant Handbook. Association of Alberta Sexual Assault Services.

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