Significant delays, poor communication and lack of clarity highlighted by adults who have disclosed to child protection servicesA recent study by Dr Joe Mooney shows that adults’ experiences of disclosing childhood abuse to child protection services is leading to negative and potentially re-traumatising outcomes. 

The study finds that once they disclose, adults can experience significant delays, poor communication and lack of clarity from child protection services. This includes not knowing what happens their disclosure information, who will be told, when the alleged perpetrator will be contacted; all leading to heightened stress, anxiety and possible re-traumatisation for the adults involved.

Dr Joe Mooney is Assistant Professor of Social Work at University College Dublin and a board member of One in Four. He has shared a recent blog he wrote : 

Sexual abuse in childhood affects a multitude of people across our societies and communities. While we can’t be deterministic about the effects of sexual abuse we do know that common effects include poor mental health, substance abuse, issues with trust, authority and control, stigma, powerlessness and a tendency towards re-victimisation.

“… some people don’t even realise… what way sexual abuse effects them, like ya know, the way they are, their personality… So, I just think that there should be basic consideration to at least try to imagine … how … that person is feeling coming to meet you… Are they nervous, are they anxious, …we’ll make em feel safe and secure and we’ll respect it. You know I think respect is a massive … it’s a massive word and I didn’t feel like I was given any respect…”


Childhood sexual abuse tends to occur within the child’s social structure, perpetrated by people usually known to the child. The SAVI (Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland) report highlighted that 80% of males and 76% of females knew their abuser. All of these issues lead to the barriers to disclosing abuse far outweighing those factors that facilitate people being able to tell. For these and other complex reasons, disclosure of childhood abuse tends to be delayed, with a greater tendency to disclose in older youth and adulthood, with ultimately an unknown number who never disclose at all; the tip of the iceberg.

With this in mind, it is important to develop policies, practices and environments that facilitate, encourage and support disclosure of childhood abuse, whether by children or adults; safe and trusted spaces. The Icelandic Barnahus model, currently being piloted here in Ireland (Galway), is one such model that supports children to disclose while also supplying supports and meeting any specific needs they may have. Unfortunately adults can have a somewhat different experience of disclosure here in Ireland.

Disclosures made by adults of abuse they experienced in childhood are known as retrospective disclosures. They have been recognised in Irish child protection policy for the past two decades; with the Health Boards, HSE and now Tusla having responsibility to receive and assess them. Such assessment is in the context of any possible child protection concerns that may be posed by an abuser identified in such disclosures. During this two decades of policy and practice recognition they have been subject of much scrutinycriticism and in some cases controversy; with Tusla’s management and response to such disclosures being discussed in terms of mismanagement, delay and ambiguity – all leading to potential harm to the adults wishing to come forward.

“… you finally get the courage up … to tell somebody about it, somebody who you think is going to do something for you … … and you become a victim again … … you become a victim … of… the system. And that’s not changing, that’s never going to change in this country.”


Given all of the above I wanted to explore the adults’ individual experience of going through this process, this system, in the context of having experienced sexual abuse in childhood. How Adults Tell is a study that was conducted with adults who have experienced sexual abuse in childhood and who have disclosed these experiences to the child protection system here in Ireland. It was conducted in fulfillment of my PhD within the UNESCO Child and Family Research Centre at NUI Galway, and under the supervision of Professor Caroline McGregor. The adults who kindly and courageously gave their time were accessed and supported via One in Four. The study had three main aims:

  1. What are the facilitators and barriers for adults disclosing to child protection social work services?
  2. How does the current child protection system take account of the specific needs of adults who have experienced child sexual abuse?
  3. What are the policy recommendations that can inform social work practice in this area?

The adults who took part in the research highlighted poor communication, a lack of clarity regarding the process and long delays; with one participant giving up on the process due to not having heard anything back.

“…to this day I have no idea what happened…… never…… I walked out of the room, I sent her more emails… ah… I have never been told… I never got a follow up…… I did get a follow up sorry, I got told… you’ll never be told… that’s what I got told…. “


Many of the adult’s praised social workers for their work, in general, and had the sense that ‘this work’, adult disclosures, was not the mainstay of their role. They experienced this as a lack of expertise with one adult stating she felt ‘the captain was not flying the plane’.

The legal context in respect of retrospective disclosures cannot be ignored, I have written about this in Child Care in Practice Journal and this work has been drawn upon in HIQA assessments of this area, I don’t propose to discuss it here but the adults in the study were conscious of this context of legal complexity and the difficulty social workers faced in working through this.

“… and all this mentioning of the Barr Judgement this and the Barr Judgement that, and I’m going yeah, I’m a human being here, you know, stop watching your pockets there’s ways of doing this without always looking to see who’s going to bring you to court…”


While we can see the wider policy and legal system acts as a barrier there were some interpersonal issues raised by the adults, with one adult, David, reporting that following his disclosure he heard one social worker say to the other “that was a lot of talk”. The physical and interpersonal environment and language used also featured as barriers.

“… the girl at the end who was taking the notes said, “that was a lot of talk” she said. And that was kind of hurtful. She said, “that was a lot of talk” and when I went out [Therapist] said to me “that was tough”.”


I wanted to know if the current practice takes account of the needs of those adults coming forward. In this, the concept of power featured strongly, and throughout the study as a whole, which is not uncommon in social work research, but particularly not uncommon when examining issues regarding sexual abuse.

“Consider that those, the people you’re going to meet are probably all that week leading up to it thinking about it, going through it, re-living what’s happened to them, ya know, going back to a place where they don’t necessarily want to be, want to visit, like ya know. All these things have to be taken in to account.”


Adults felt there was a lack of understanding of the dynamics of sexual abuse and disclosure, how these interact and how these might effect someone. Many shared concerns relating to the handing over of their story and a loss of control in the context of the delay and uncertainty they experienced. Adults used similar language and metaphors to describe this period, having disclosed to social workers. They described it as ‘The Void’, ‘entering a black hole’, ‘falling of a cliff’. One adult used the analogy of a Grenade saying it’s like pulling the pin on a Grenade … and then you wait.

“… ‘cause you took the pin out of the grenade and you count to ten and … … … … (tapping table) months later, still going on, … and you know I still don’t know where I stand”


One of the participants, Patrick, spoke about what this ‘void’ can be filled with and how harmful such delays and lack of communication can be:

“…that void is going to be filled with something… and usually the imagination of somebody who has been sexually abused isn’t necessarily the … straightforward imagination. It’s probably going to be more paranoid, more shame and guilt … they must know this, some of them have to have read a book on this somewhere, they must get it, even vaguely intellectually if not from a lived experience or not from having worked closely with people to go ‘this is important’…


Ultimately, I wanted to see what these experiences held in terms of improving practice and policy in the area, and while the adults’ experiences were unfortunately predominantly negative they did share sentiments in terms of what they expected would happen or what they wished had happened. Examining the system as a possible facilitator is something my work focuses on now and the findings of this research direct me in three possible areas; law, policy and practice.

Law: Legislation is required to underpin social worker’s assessment and response in this area, Section 3 of the Child Care Act was not developed with retrospective disclosures in mind.

Policy: Clear, published, social work policy based on law and research is urgently required. Development of safe and trusted spaces are key with adult versions of Barnahus being one possible route of examination?

Practice: Irrespective of policy or legal complexity, social work practice on the ground ultimately needs to take the specific needs of those impacted by childhood sexual abuse in to account. Trauma informed care is often bandied about in recent times, however if stripped back to its basic elements it is about asking if professionals were to pause and consider the roll trauma plays in the lives of specific client populations, how would they behave differently?

“I felt sorry for them[social workers]… that they were put in that situation that it was like, here’s the new guidelines don’t fuckin’ mess it up, if someone calls you be sure you photocopy that and read that out to them. Meanwhile back at the ranch they are looking after all these little people who are so distressed”.


Finally, as always in social work we are in the midst of an emerging context. With a lack of legislation, emerging policy and contentious issues regarding GDPR, the Departmental Expert Assurance Group‘s final report is highly anticipated and it will interesting to see what recommendations they call for. Tusla need support in this area also; so that they are not forced into a situation where judges via judicial review are developing national child protection policy, as has been occurring over the past decade. Legislation is required to underpin the social worker’s role in this area. I would argue that the current review of the child care act is an opportunity for this. I would go further to argue that the EU Victim’s Directive provides an ideal starting point for such legislative design, working from the basis of supporting those affected by sexual abuse in childhood, whether children or adults.

It should go without saying, but it is critical to note that social workers don’t go out to do this type of work. Child protection work, by its very nature, will remain complex and contentious but the system needs to change in order to avoid those adverse findings identified in various HIQA reports, the disclosures tribunal, the Taking Stock report in 2017, and my own work here.

“… sitting in the, the waiting area, it really brought home to me the context of the type of work that they do, you know, that’s why that had such an impact on me, ‘cause I was like wow… I was watching these tiny little children, some of them, you know they ranged from like babies to four and five-year olds…like what a fucking start in life to be brought, you know, alcoholic parents coming through the door and… I was just like these people are amazing to be doing this kind of work…”


Finally, we need to value adult disclosures, and not just for the role they play in child protection, and move towards an environment that facilitates, encourages and supports disclosures of child sexual abuse.

These are children’s voices that have been silenced, hidden or dismissed.