The disclosure had happened. This one rocked me a bit. I can’t truly tell you why, but its good to know I can still be shocked and upset by a disclosure. I worry sometimes that you can become desensitised within the child protection arena, so its good to feel that sometimes. To cry about what a child has told you.
There is lots of talk about child abuse, lots of focus on prevention and understanding. There is lots of literature on how to handle disclosures. But there is one part that gets little attention.
Having to tell the parents that their child has been sexually abused.
The rawness of it….
So, the child has disclosed. There are tears and usually a panic that their parent(s) will be angry or sad. Even when the parents are not involved in the abuse in anyway, children and young people always say that they think their parents will be angry about the disclosure. I have seen parents get angry about a disclosure. I have seen parents not care. I have seen parents lay blame on the child.
I have seen a lot.
Then there is the normal parent. The ones like me and you. Who don’t know how to deal with what has happened?
So, the child has disclosed. The tears are here. I make an excuse to my colleague that I must step out a second and hurry out the room and round the coner where no one is. I lean my back against the wall and catch my breath. I can’t cry, because I have phone calls to make and referrals to start. I need to make this child feel safe and make them see that I am in control. But I just need a second to process this. I feel sick. I feel emotional. I feel angry. I feel.
The initial phone call needs so to be made to the parent. I can’t. I try but …. the tears over come me so someone else makes that initial call. The phone call that is going to change a personas life. That is going to change how a family live. The phone call is made. The parent is in shock and on their way to collect their child.
We explain to the child what we will do now. The formal stuff. We explain that their mum is on the way. They cry. Ask if mum was angry on the phone. I say no. we sit and chat. Make small talk. Waiting.
I get the call to say mum is here and so we walk to where she is. It feels like the longest walk of my life. The child and another professional are just behind me, continuing with the small talk. I can’t. My legs feel heavy and I will be sick if I speak before I get to that room, so many emotions rushing through my body.
We get there and all enter at once. It sad to see a mother and child not know how to interact for a moment. Everything has changed, just like that. We all sit and the mother, a normal mum like you and me, eyes slightly red, anxious, says “What’s going on?” The child’s eyes darts to me instantly. Both mother and child are looking at me. Both with their own needs that must be meet. Both need protection. And I have to figure out how that is best executed in a matter of seconds. I have to read body language of someone I have never meet to gauge how this goes down. I speak for the first time and I ask the child’s permission to tell their mother what they have told us. That important because the child is in control now, on my part anyway. If they said no then I would give the parent a brief outline and that would be it.
“Can I tell your mum” I ask. Big wide eyes stair at me. Red raw. And a nod. I ask my partner to take the child to a different room. The mum looks confused and asked “Why?” I don’t answer until the child is gone.
“Because I don’t want your chid to keep reliving this. Because secondary trauma is extremely damaging” I say.
Sometimes the child stays. Sometimes its 2 parents. Sometimes it’s another family member
But right here…right now…I am sitting at a table with a woman, a mother, sitting in front of me and I say the words that no parent ever wants to hear…
“Your child has disclosed they were sexually abused”
I start to talk. We do not break eye contact, but as I speak the women’s face becomes harder and her eyes become wet. No tears yet. I wait for it. The anger.
She raises her voice “Why would she tell you, at school and not me”? she asks. I don’t break eye contact. “I am the mother. She can tell me anything”. This is shouted at me. “IM HER MOTHER” she shouts. She bangs her hand on the table. Our eyes still locked. I wait. I wait because I know the next line is going to floor this woman and she will remember the words for a lifetime.
I take deep breath “Because she didn’t want to make you cry” I say gently.
Have you ever seen a person soul break in front of your eyes? Seriously. Like…. watch them implode from within. When you tell a parent that their child has been sexually abused, that is what you see.
She starts crying. Its horrific. It’s frantic crying. I get up and go around to the other side of the table and I put my arm around her an say something like “Its ok to cry” and she turn sharply and hugs me. Dissolves in my arms Like a kid who has fallen over and needs comforting. The women is older than me. But right now, she is like a child crying in my arms. I just hold her and hope that she can’t feel the splashes of wet on her hair. Because I am the professional and to see me cry would make it worse.
We are just …. here…. for a few moments. This woman, this mother, holding onto me for dear life whilst her life just smashes around her ears. Every sob is like a punch in the stomach. I start to relive my own traumas and must stop myself. Not now Kendra. But, it’s always a room like this. Mismatched furniture, dodgy windows. Too many people outside. There ae the rooms where people fall apart. These are the rooms disclosures are made. Something’s never change.
I feel her sobs start to ease and she pulls away embarrassed. I push her hair away from her brow and just give a sort of smile. I say nothing and get up and sit round where I was sitting before.
Then the questions. So many questions. Many I can’t answer. Some make no sense.
And now I need to rebuild this woman so that she can be strong for her daughter. I broke her and I must put her back together. So, I explain just that. That her child needs her, and she needs to be strong. We take 5 minutes and I can tell that she is ready to face her child. Face her child properly.
This time when the child comes in there is no awkwardness. The mother grabs the child and smothers them with love and kind words. Promises of going home and having hot chocolate. That there is nothing to worry about. That everything is ok.
So why did that not happen when the child entered the first time you may ask?
Its usually that way when the parent has nothing to do with the abuse. They go into what I call robot mode. They kind of switch off an become all practical or angry. Its like if they hold their child, they will break down….and they know they need to be strong for the child.
So, I take that emotion on. Not just me. All professionals that must tell a parent their child has been sexually abused.
When you tell people, you work in safeguarding or child protection its always “Wow, that must be rewarding “or “Wow that must be hard” and both of those statements are true. And when a child discloses it is horrific, but you also know that, hopefully, you will now stop that child being hurt any further. You may be able to help that child to function in school and support them after the disclosure. There are positives from the disclosure.
But having to tell a parent that their child has been sexually abused, a normal person like me and you, and watching them implode whilst looking in their eyes…. that’s something that never gets easier.