Our latest blog has been written by Dr Joe Mooney who is the Assistant Professor of Social Work at University College Dublin. Joe is highly active in the area of Child Protection and Welfare research. He has spent the past nine years researching the area of Irish policies concerning Retrospective Disclosures of Childhood Sexual Abuse. Joe is also a Trustee of One in Four. 

The latest figures available from the Child and Family Agency (Tusla), for November 2020, show that 77% of retrospective disclosures are made via mandated reports. An Garda Síochána and psychotherapists and counsellors account for the largest proportion of these. What is significant is that while retrospective referrals account for just 3.6% of all new referrals to Tusla, they account for over 13% of the organisation’s waitlist. This ought to prompt a concern, or at least a question, as to what are the potential impacts of delay and uncertainty for someone who has disclosed sexual abuse, someone who may only be engaged with the child protection system due to mandated reporting, and are such impacts being considered?

Telling others about an experience of childhood sexual abuse can be difficult and complex. Disclosure can also be a critical component in the process of healing, it can be a process of ‘accounting for’ or ‘meaning making’, it can also play an important role in ensuring current and future children are safe from harm. Disclosure can be a life-long process that takes many forms. It is a process that is beset with multiple barriers which must be overcome, and, in some instances, it is a process that can replicate the effects of abuse. A loss of control, powerlessness, issues regarding belief, trust, and experiences of deliberate or unintentional silencing may all feature. Disclosure is something that is therefore dependent on relationships, it occurs as a series of actions and behaviours over time; from the point at which abuse occurs on into later life. It is influenced by multiple factors, leading to nuance, individuality, and complexity, including pressures for secrecy, complex family pressures, feelings of blame, shame or embarrassment, fear of negative consequences, or guilt. 

Due to these complex dynamics, most individuals who experience abuse in childhood delay disclosure, many until adulthood, with an unknown proportion who never tell. Many individuals conceal their experiences of abuse due to the unpredictable responses they may receive to their disclosure. Unhelpful responses to disclosure are related to higher levels of distress and can undermine a person’s ability to continue with the process of disclosure, or to go through it all again! Those attempting to disclose tend to seek a level of intimacy and trust when choosing recipients; seeking environments that offer safe and trusted spaces. For some, mandatory reporting can remove this choice. This therefore places a greater onus on those receiving disclosures to build that trust from first contact. 

Organisations such as One in Four strive to offer such safe and trusted spaces, however there is an onus and responsibility across all services and upon society at large to encourage, facilitate, and support disclosure of sexual abuse. Research tells us that services and helping professionals can often hold ‘blind spots’ that produce or sustain barriers to disclosure. My own research examined this issue in respect of adult’s interactions with the Irish child protection services. Adults talked about experiencing a lack of professional awareness of the dynamics and impacts of abuse. Information about the adults’ disclosures and the subsequent process of assessment was experienced as insufficient, unclear, or not forthcoming; with delay featuring as a significant issue. 

Basic practices such as providing information, clarity and frequent communication may address potentially harmful dynamics of power and control that can exist in respect of disclosure of childhood trauma. For example, we know that words matter; how they are said and the context in which they are put across. Whether those words are included in a letter from a state agency advising that your experience, your narrative, of abuse is unfounded, or whether those words are couched in a legalistic report, but in a similar way minimising or denying your experience, like we see in recent criticisms of the report on mother and baby homes. 

Professionals displaying understanding and openness has been found to contribute greatly to building a trusting relationship. Learning from those who have experienced abuse and violence is key to developing this understanding. The recently established One in Four Survivors Focus Group is one important example of how those voices can be translated in to change, ensuring that “any future developments in legislation or policy are informed by the voices and experiences of those who have been affected”. 

The interpersonal response to disclosure is critical but the societal response to sexual abuse is as important; as a nation we need to listen… and learn.