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How to respond when you child confides you about violence?

In the role of the recipient of a child's call for help, you can find yourself as a parent, a close person, an employee of the institution that the child attends. By showing your trust to you, it may surprise you. You may not be the first person a child asks for help, but be the one to help.

It is important to recognize potential signs of a problem and show interest in the child by asking him or her if something is bothering him or her. It is suitable e.g. gently and occasionally (even repeatedly) let the child know that you are ready to hear anything he or she would like to talk to you when he or she is ready.

Revealing experiences of violence is difficult for a child, so it is not surprising if the child decides to do so only gradually. It is possible that at first (perhaps on several occasions) the child will only probe how you react. Be patient.

If you learn from an interview with a child that he or she is or has been the victim of violence, your priority is to provide support to the child and to assist in seeking further help and protection. There are some basic recommendations on how to respond in such a situation:

Trust the child and pay full attention to him/her.

If you don't believe that the child needs help, you can't really help him/her. Respect the child's wishes regarding the conditions and place to talk: some places that may seem appropriate to you may contain stimuli that remind the child of violence (e.g. being alone in a quiet, isolated place with an adult). Concentrate fully on the conversation with the child. Avoid anything that might give the impression that you are distracted, absent-minded, or even in doubt.

Don't interrogate, just listen actively.

If the child indicates that something has happened, ask him or her to tell you what happened, but respect that the child decides how much he or she will tell you. It is not appropriate to push the child to describe the details in any way. Don't overload the child with questions. For the purpose of filing a possible criminal complaint, it is sufficient to have basic information about who did what (or if the child, considering his/her age and intellectual ability, can provide data when, where, under what circumstances). It is not your task to find out as much detail as possible about the matter and to verify the credibility of the information. If you try to do this in a conversation with a child, you can not only harm him / her by unprofessional interrogation. You may also jeopardize the further investigation and, last but not least, you will no longer be able to provide the child with the supportive role that he/she will miss later. Remember that the child has chosen you to accompany him or her. Under no circumstances should you confront the alleged perpetrator with the information you have learned from the child. This could potentially threaten the child's safety and thwart the success of the investigation.

Don't make guesses.

Children have their own way of describing their experiences. Let them express themselves in their own words. Don't assume you know what the child has in mind or what he/she wants to say. Do not put words  in  child's mouth, that he/she did not say. Some experiences are described inconsistently by children due to trauma or their mental and intellectual  abilities. Do not try to proove that the child´s statements are incorrect.

Keep calm.

As you are learning about violence against a child in a conversation, it can cause a strong emotional outrage in you. While this can be challenging, keep calm. If the child notices your restlessness or outrage, reassure him/her that he/she is not the cause; otherwise, it could discourage him from continuing the conversation. You can explain to him/her that violence against children makes you anger and sad, because no one has the right to harm children. Speak slowly and maintain a calm manner of communication. Avoid hate speech against a particular violator. Respect that if the abuser is in close relationship with the child, the child may have a number of positive experiences with him or her and does not necessarily perceive the abuser negatively. For the child, maintaining a relationship with the person can still be important (even in the long term), the child doesn't want it to end, it just wishes the violence to stop. You may know the perpetrator in a completely different context than the child ("he/she is such a nice gentleman/lady"). Your doubts may be a part of the mechanisms that belong to processing the issues of violence. A child chose you so keep in mind that it is the child who needs help. Not a potentially prompted or identified offender. Do everything you can to help the child, not the perpetrator.

Do not arouse feelings of guilt in the child.

Although the responsibility for the act of violence lies fully with the perpetrators, it is often the victim who feels guilty and ashamed. Reassure the child that what happened is not his/her fault. Do not judge a child's actions before, during, or after experiences of violence. Don't ask the child accusing questions like: What were you doing there? What did you do to make it happen? Why didn't you stop it? Why didn't you tell me earlier? Aren't you lying? Don't stand up for the perpetrator like: He certainly didn't mean it the way you understood it or If you hadn't provoked him, it certainly wouldn't have happened. With such inappropriate questions or comments, we raise doubts in the child not only about himself/herself, but also about the maltreatment towards him/her. This can dicourage the child to continue the conversation or even lead him/her to withdrawing his or her claims.

Reassure the child that it is right to say what happened.

It is important to encourage and praise the child for daring to report the violence. The child may be worried that revealing what was done to him/her may harm someone. It is important for child to know that if sanctions are imposed on the offender in future, it is not because of what was said, but because of what the offender himself is doing or has done. Also, even if some relationships are disrupted or broken as a result of the revelation of violence, it will not be the child's fault. Don't place excessive responsibility on the child´s shoulders (eg "if you don't stop the violator now, he/she will hurt other children"). A child cannot be put in a position to be responsible for  violence committed by someone else.

Don't give the child promises you can't keep.

Never promise the child that what he or she has told you will be kept as a secret. Explain why and with whom the information needs to be shared. Never promise the child a smooth and quick investigation, as this cannot be estimated in advance.

Arrange further steps with the child.

If you explain to the child what will happen, make sure he/she understands you. Explain the names and purpose of the institutions you mention if the child does not know them. If the further discussion about the violence you have learnt is needed, apart from the police or the child welfare authority, (eg the school head), let the child know. If you find it relevant to inform the parents (in case neither of the parents has been identified by the child as the alleged perpetrator of violence), prepare the child in advance. After experiencing the violence, victims often feel they are losing control over their lives. If the child is fully informed about each step, it helps him/her to go through the whole process with less stress and restore a sense of confidence and security.

Explain to the child why a professional long-term help/guidance may be needed.

The child's journey does not end with entrusting himself to an adult. It is necessary to offer the child help for a longer period of time in the form of psychological or psychiatric help, and explain their significance. The consequences of maltreatment of a child can take various forms, such as physical difficulties, nightmares, memory flashbacks of violence. If left without explanation and therapeutic intervention, the child's suffering may be unnecessarily prolonged. A possible criminal law process can also represent a psychological burden for the child, which he/she can handle much more easily with professional help.

After a discussion with the child, make a written record.

Do this as soon as possible while having the information in fresh memory. Record the place, date, time and duration of the discussion, people present, the circumstances leading to the interview, information you learned from the child and what you asked him or her. Strive for maximum accuracy. Handle information sensitively and do not conceal anything. In the record, describe the child's statements, try to minimize your own assumptions and opinions. Such a written record can be important evidence in the later clarification of the case. You can capture many things in the record that you may not remember immediately.

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