Q: What should I do if a youth tells me they’ve been abused?
A: You may find yourself in a situation where the rules you and your organization have about confidentiality may no longer apply. When a youth discloses about abuse to you, you have an obligation (both legal and moral in my opinion) to tell someone about what happened.
As a youth worker, or youth work volunteer, it’s your role to advocate for the youth in your care and give them the best possible chance in their lives. This includes keeping them safe.
One of the best things you can do is to know your organization’s guidelines, policies and procedures on how to handle disclosures of abuse. If your organization doesn’t have those in place, this is your first opportunity for advocacy. It will help provide support for you, your volunteers and the youth you work with.
When a disclosure happens – or is about to – remember the following:
- Remind the youth that you will have to tell someone. If they’re asking you to keep a secret, you need to remember your professional boundaries and prepare the youth that you may need to tell someone about what you’re told. This is not to discourage them from sharing but it will help your relationship with them, as they will (hopefully) not feel betrayed when you tell the appropriate members of staff and/or law enforcement about the disclosure.
- Do not look shocked. No matter what any youth tells you, do not look shocked, nervous, upset or angry. These may be involuntary body language reactions to the allegations of abuse you might be hearing, but you need to work hard to keep your composure. By reacting, you may project feelings of disapproval onto the youth, instead of about the incident, leaving the youth that is disclosing with feelings of shame. You also might inadvertently stop the disclosure as the youth feels uncomfortable talking any more.
- Remember details without taking notes. Do your best to absorb as much information during a disclosure as possible without sitting there writing down notes. While it may seem like an important step to ensure you get all the details correct, you may stop the disclosure which is the last thing you want. It may have taken years for a youth to build up the courage to share about their abuse; by stopping them to grab a paper and pen, you might cause them to rethink their decision. Listen carefully and at your first opportunity make notes about the incident.
- Do not ask leading questions. Encourage the youth to share information without asking leading questions that may hinder any further legal action. ‘Can you tell me about what happened?’ is a better question than ‘Did they do ‘x’ to you?’ Just let them share their story.
- Do not decide if what you have heard is abuse or not. Your role in a disclosure is to report. Allow the police or other law enforcement officials to determine if actual abuse took place. Take your youth seriously, do not rely on past patterns of distrustful behavior, and follow your organization’s policies and procedures about what to do in the case of abuse disclosure.
- Be prepared to advocate for your youth, even if your organization will not. As a mandatory reporter, it’s your role to move up the ranks in your organization to ensure the proper steps are taken to report and end the abuse. If you believe abuse happened and the management or administration at your organization do not do anything with that information, you then have the responsibility to go to law enforcement officials yourself.
Question: What advice would you give about how to handle abuse disclosures by youth? Please share your thoughts on best practice in the comments below.
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