A retrospective approach to examining child abuse disclosure

Child Abuse Negl. 2020 Jan:99:104263. doi: 10.1016/j.chiabu.2019.104263. Epub 2019 Nov 14.


Background: Often times, a child's disclosure is the only forensic evidence available in child abuse cases. Therefore, understanding disclosure patterns of suspected child abuse victims plays a critical role in the forensic investigations of both child physical abuse (CPA) and child sexual abuse (CSA) cases.

Objective: To explore adults' retrospective reports about childhood disclosure of CPA and CSA.

Participants and setting: College students (N = 907) were screened for reported histories of CSA (n = 94) or CPA (n = 109).

Methods: Through an online survey, participants provided anonymous information regarding CSA and CPA experiences along with information about any disclosure events or opportunities that they have encountered since the abuse.

Results: Among the adults reporting CSA histories, 50 % indicated disclosing the abuse during childhood; 80 % indicated any lifetime disclosure. Among the adults indicating CPA histories, 32 % reportedly disclosed the abuse to someone during childhood with 52 % reporting any lifetime disclosure. For both groups, length of delay until disclosure was bimodal with many individuals reporting immediately and many waiting considerable time. Among adults reporting CSA, a minority (16 %) indicated the abuse came to the attention of authorities, with even fewer CPA cases (8%) reporting authorities were aware of their abuse. Denial and recantation in a formal setting was infrequent regardless of abuse type reported.

Conclusions: Given that participants experiencing CSA and CPA both reported low levels of denial and recantation, forensic investigators and practitioners may benefit from considering consistent interviewing approaches and protocols, regardless of the type of abuse suspected.

Keywords: Child physical abuse; Child sexual abuse; Denial; Disclosure; Recantation; Retrospective.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Adult Survivors of Child Abuse / psychology*
  • Child Abuse / statistics & numerical data*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Self Disclosure*
  • United States
  • Young Adult