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Child Sexual Abuse: Understanding Entrapment, Delayed Disclosure, Coaching, Inappropriate Questioning and Parental Responsibilities

It is crucial to recognize that when a child discloses sexual abuse, it is not a one-time event but a process. After deciding to tell someone about the abuse, the child typically goes through several stages in revealing the disclosure.

Research has shown that children who experience sexual abuse rarely report it immediately. In fact, most children never tell anyone about the abuse and may wait until they are adults before disclosing the trauma they have experienced. Those who do tell someone about the abuse often do so weeks, months, or even years after the incident. This delay can make it challenging for families and professionals to accept, believe, or pursue legal action.

In the child crimes investigation community, we understand that most reported cases are situations where the abuse was discovered by a protective adult, rather than the child bringing it forward themselves. In these situations, the child may feel forced to disclose the abuse, leading to a "forced disclosure" scenario. Children may withhold the extent of the abuse if it has been occurring for a long period of time, making tentative disclosures about the abuse and only revealing the full story later.

For other children who do decide to disclose, it may be a tentative process. They may ask questions or make statements hoping that the protective adult will understand that the child is crying out for help, without making any direct statements about the abuse. For instance, a child may say that they want their parent to stay home with them, without revealing that their stepfather sexually abuses them when their parent goes to work. If the parent dismisses the child's statement, the child may decide not to say anything about the abuse, feeling that the parent does not care or will not believe them.

Research indicates that sexual abuse of children is most commonly perpetrated by a family member or a close friend, particularly if the child is in the home or spending the night. Studies also show that children who are victimized by a close family member, such as their father, stepfather, grandfather, uncle, or brother, often take longer to disclose the abuse. This phenomenon was first identified by Roland C. Summit in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Summit believed that sexually abused children learn to adapt to their situation and adjust their lives to survive the abuse while it is ongoing. As a result, there is often no motivation for the child to disclose the abuse and risk causing significant problems for themselves and their family. Summit coined this phenomenon as the "Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome."

This syndrome involves five stages:

  1. Secrecy

  2. Helplessness

  3. Entrapment and Accommodation

  4. Delayed Disclosure

  5. Retraction or Recantation

The first stage is secrecy, where sexual abusers closely guard the secret of their abuse. This is often achieved through a process called "Grooming," where the offender selects a victim for abuse and isolates the child from protective persons. Once the relationship has become sexual in nature, the offender will continue to psychologically manipulate the child to maintain secrecy about the nature of the relationship.

The second stage is helplessness, where young children may not understand that the sexual relationship is wrong and may think it is normal for the abuser to show them love in this way. As the child gets older, they may realize that the abuse is wrong, but they may also believe that the abuser has power over them or their family and that nobody will believe them if they disclose the abuse. This feeling of helplessness can prevent the child from making any plans to disclose the sexual abuse.

During the Entrapment and Accommodation stage, the child may feel completely trapped in the sexual abuse situation and may accept it to avoid angering the abuser. The child may feel a personal responsibility to keep the family together and happy or safe by giving in to the sexual abuse. They may also try to keep the abusive relationship a secret to prevent any unfavorable situations for their mother, mentally, emotionally, or financially.

The Delayed Disclosure stage is where the child will not talk about the ongoing sexual abuse due to various barriers to disclosure. These barriers may include fear of not being believed, fear of getting into trouble, fear of the abuser harming them or their family, or fear of being labeled something they do not want to be. The child may also face barriers to belief from non-offending family members who refuse to act protectively due to their own fears and beliefs.

If a child makes a disclosure about sexual abuse, parents and caregivers should always show that they believe them and will protect them from further abuse. It is essential to report the disclosure to law enforcement and child protective services immediately. Children who make tentative disclosures about sexual abuse may retract them when life becomes difficult for them after the report to professionals. Parents must provide a supportive and protective environment for the child and ensure they receive any applicable forms of support and counseling.

One common defense provided by offenders at trial is that the child was coached into saying that the sexual abuse happened when it did not happen at all. While coaching does happen in many forms, it is crucial to note that most legitimate coaching cases involve children aged between 3 and 6 years old. As the child gets older, they become less susceptible to coaching and suggestibility. Trained professional investigators can easily find clear evidence of coaching in legitimate cases.

Coaching and suggestibility in child sexual abuse investigations first came into the public eye during the famous "McMartin Preschool" case in California in the 1980s. Following this case, better procedures and research have been conducted involving child sexual abuse allegations. Today, forensic interviewers conduct interviews in child-friendly environments, such as Children's Advocacy Centers, using best-practice standards. Law enforcement officers, child protective services investigators, and other professionals should avoid asking potential victims of abuse questions and refer them to one of these centers for a forensic interview.

It is crucial to note that any lines of questioning with children to elicit details of abuse should not be conducted by parents, school teachers, counselors, child protective services investigators, or law enforcement. Instead, trained and experienced forensic interviewers should conduct the interviews in a child-friendly environment. By following best-practice standards, we can ensure that the information obtained from the child has not been corrupted in any way.

Inappropriate questioning can be harmful to the victim and may impact the legal case against the abuser. Only trained and experienced forensic interviewers should conduct interviews with alleged abuse or neglect victims. Law enforcement officers and detectives should not try to obtain all details of the abuse from the child during the initial report. Instead, they should take an initial statement and refer the child for a forensic interview at a Children’s Advocacy Center nearby. Similarly, Child Protection Services Investigators should also ensure that the child is seen at a Children’s Advocacy Center for a forensic interview. Parents or caregivers should not ask any questions or attempt to obtain further details from the child. They should immediately report the allegations to Law Enforcement and CPS.

Parents or caregivers should not attempt to video or audio record the child making the statements again or make further statements on recording about the alleged abuse. This is because it is nearly impossible to conduct such an interview on recording that is not obviously coercive or suggestive. This may harm the case against the abuser and give defense attorneys ammunition to use against the interest of the disclosure from the child, such as claiming that the caregiver coached or manipulated the child into making a false allegation of abuse.


As a parent or caregiver, it is important to know your responsibilities when it comes to handling child sexual abuse allegations. If your child makes a disclosure of abuse, here are the steps you should take:

  1. Stop asking any more questions. Asking questions can contaminate information and hinder professionals' ability to investigate and prosecute a case.

  2. Tell the child that you believe and support them and that you will keep them safe no matter what.

  3. Do not confront the alleged abuser or question anyone else about the allegations. Allow professionals to introduce questions and concepts to witnesses when appropriate.

  4. Immediately report the abuse allegations to Law Enforcement and CPS before contacting anyone else. If you observed the abuse first-hand, try to prevent the destruction or removal of evidence.

  5. Provide as much information as you can to investigators and cooperate with the investigation. Understand that these cases take time and immediate action is only taken if necessary.

  6. Ensure that the child receives appropriate counseling and follow-up appointments after the forensic interview.

  7. Establish normal routines and boundaries with the child to provide structure and dependability.

  8. Keep investigators informed of any changes to your contact information and report any harassment or pressure.

Remember, failure to act protectively for a child may be a crime, and it is typically mandatory under the law in any state to report sexual abuse allegations. Contact the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (800-422-4453) if you or someone you know is currently suffering from abuse or neglect.

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