- One study found that most individuals delayed disclosure of child sexual abuse for three to 18 years.
- Some individuals who experience childhood sexual abuse never disclose their abuse to anyone.
- The majority of childhood sexual abuse is never disclosed to authorities.
President Biden recently signed The Eliminating Limits to Justice for Child Sex Abuse Victims Act, which will eliminate the statute of limitations for people who were sexually abused as minors to file civil claims. Senator Dick Durbin, who co-initiated the bill, stated: “The science of trauma is clear: it often takes years for victims to come forward."
So what is the science behind delayed disclosure of child sexual abuse?
Research suggests that disclosure of childhood sexual abuse (CSA) is a complex process, and many victims are reluctant or incapable of reporting their victimization in a timely fashion. Accordingly, most victims of CSA delay disclosure into adolescence or adulthood or do not report at all. For instance, one study of the general population found that 22.1% of women and 9.7% of men reported a history of CSA. Most CSA victims in their sample delayed disclosure for three to 18 years, with only 21.3% disclosing within one month of the abuse. Importantly, these results indicated that 1 in 5 CSA victims never disclosed their abuse at all.
Another study of 76 young adult females (mean age 21 years) who experienced CSA on average 10 years earlier revealed that in nearly half of the cases (46%), the victims never disclosed their sexual abuse experiences to anyone prior to the interview. In 53% of the cases, the victim told a social support about the abuse, while only 10% disclosed formally to authorities.
While prompt informal CSA disclosure to social support sources like family and friends is very low, research suggests that an even smaller percentage of cases is brought to the attention of the authorities. It is estimated that only 1 in 250 cases of CSA are reported to police or child protective services. A meta-analysis of 217 published studies found rates of self-reported victimization of CSA to be 127 in 1000 people, which is 30 times higher than the rate based upon studies that relied on official CSA reports to authorities (4 out of 1000). Another review of retrospective CSA studies found a somewhat higher rate of official reporting, ranging from 5% to 13% of cases of CSA.
These findings show that CSA is not only under-disclosed, but also under-reported. Moreover, the difference between rates of informal disclosure and formal reporting suggests that a large number of informal victim disclosures result in so-called “dead-end disclosures” that are never brought to the attention of authorities and so the perpetrator cannot be prosecuted.
Why Is Disclosure of Child Sexual Abuse Often Delayed?
Research has identified multiple internal and external barriers that prevent disclosure of CSA in a timely fashion.
The most identified internal barriers are:
- Self-blame caused by the abuse.
- Fear for self and others if the abuse is disclosed.
- The child's developmental level may prevent them from fully comprehending that the abusive behavior was wrong or inappropriate and thus delay or prevent disclosure.
Identified external barriers to disclosure include
- Threats or force by the perpetrator.
- The presence of sexual grooming behaviors.
- Lack of opportunity to report.
Other Factors That Delay or Prevent Disclosure
Several characteristics of the perpetrator and the child have consistently been linked to delays in disclosure:
- Children whose perpetrator is a family member or acquaintance are significantly more reluctant to come forward with their abuse compared with when the perpetrator is a stranger.
- Specifically studies have consistently found that delays in disclosure result when the perpetrator is a family member.
- Younger victims and male victims are significantly less likely to tell someone about their abuse.
Factors That Help Children Disclose
Several studies have examined factors that help children disclose the abuse and found:
- Children who participated in sexual abuse prevention programs were more likely to disclose sexual abuse.
- Children who were asked by a friend or family member were more likely to report.
- Knowing that the adult will support them no matter what decreased fear around reporting facilitated reporting.
Given that it is estimated that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys experiences CSA before they reach 18, it is important to understand that disclosure of CSA is complex and facilitate it when possible in order to provide abused children with supportive interventions and enable the prosecution of perpetrators.