Disclaimer: the guidelines discussed in this article come from a variety of sources that are mostly unavailable online. Sources are listed at the end of the article. Please note that some of these sources are intended for professional audiences (adult protective services workers, forensic interviews, advocates, therapist etc.) While we believe you may benefit from knowledge of these guidelines they are in no way a substitute for professional help and for police involvement. Please consult local authorities before and or while attempting these approaches or if you have reason to suspect someone is being abused.
Trying to Shed Light on Abuse – Speaking with A Potential Victim
There are fewer more delicate situations than suspecting that someone you know is a victim of abuse. And yet there is a moral, and sometimes legal imperative to intervene and to prevent further harm. Before you broach this subject with a family member, a friend or an acquaintance, here is a checklist to help you wade through the treacherous waters of abuse and its consequences:
The victim may have ambivalent feelings about the offender, including love, dependence and loyalty. The abuser is most likely to be a family member or friend. The victim often does not want to involve police or get the person into trouble, and may be very afraid. Do not make your support conditional on initiating a police complaint. Remember that this person has already had to deal with a tremendous loss of control and dignity; it is best for the person to feel that he or she has some say in how the situation is handled. Sometimes there are alternative paths of conflict resolution that take into account the victim’s wishes. This being said, you should do your due diligence by consulting experts like the police, crisis workers, adult protective services and determining if you have a duty to report the abuse.
Be mindful of the abused person’s gender and comfort level. If, for instance, you suspect that a female friend is being abused, think about whether she might be more comfortable talking to a woman about it than to a man. The personal may also become very uncomfortable when discussing abuse. Do not be crude, and make all possible efforts to preserve the person’s dignity—even in the face of the abuse.
It is best to ask questions away from the place where you suspect the abuse is happening. The person may be afraid to speak up if there is a chance of being overheard by the abuser or someone who will relay the information. Sometimes even the act of leaving the place of abuse can embolden the victim by opening up the idea of other options. A person who feels stuck in the location where he or she is experiencing the abuse is oppressed by these feelings. An ideal location would feel safe and offer privacy.
When asking questions, try to avoid leading the person. Try to avoid using questions that begin with “why”. Try to stick to open ended questions that are based on previous disclosures and observations. For example, instead of asking: “The last time we talked, you told me that sometimes your step-son is not very nice to you. Do you mean that he is abusive?” ask something like: “The last time we talked, you told me that sometimes your step-son is not very nice to you. What else can you tell me about this situation?” After you have spoken to your friend/relative take detailed notes of the exchange and remember to include all relevant dates. This may become important if the police needs to get involved—it could provide valuable evidence.
If the victim denies the assault: at this point it is very important that you remain calm. DO NOT express judgment, anger, or other emotions towards either the victim or the offender. This will only increase the victim’s agitation. Tell the person you are concerned about their safety. If the victim becomes angry or overly anxious, ask if you can come back another day.
If the potential victim has speech and/or language limitations, ask “YES”, “NO” or “PASS” questions using large cards. Ask the person to point to the answer if they can, otherwise to nod. Anatomical drawings can be used to elicit details for nonverbal answers.
If abuse has occurred, be aware that this most likely means that your friend, family members is at high risk for a repeat incident. Statistics tell us that if an assault has taken place, the likelihood of subsequent assaults is even greater. Most occur when one is alone with the perpetrator. Therefore, always have at least two persons present. Although this is not fool-proof, as two may collude in the assault, it is much less likely.
Make sure that those providing direct service and their supervisors or agency are aware of their abuse-detection and reporting responsibilities and that they implement them. Let them know that you (parent/family/advocate/conservator) are aware and are monitoring the situation.