Abuse of Children and Dependent AdultsPage 7 of 10

5. Communicating with Victims and Families

Effective communication is based first of all on the principle of respect. Both the sender and the receiver of the message have unique physical, emotional, mental, social, and spiritual characteristics. Effective communication shows acceptance of a person’s individual worth and involves good listening skills.

Talking with Children


  • Find a private place, not in front of the person who might be causing harm.
  • Remain calm—a casual and non-threatening tone will help put the child at ease.
  • Be honest, open, upfront, supportive.
  • Be an advocate, reassure children that they are not in trouble.
  • Listen to the children—allow them to talk. When they pause you can follow up, if necessary, using their vocabulary.
  • Report the situation immediately.


  • Overreact
  • Make judgments/promises or lay blame
  • Interrogate or investigate

Most of the time suspicions of child abuse and maltreatment develop from things that you observe about a child’s physical condition or behavior or in the behavior of the child’s parent or other legally responsible person. However, sometimes a child will say something to reveal that he or she is possibly being abused or maltreated and you want to be prepared to act in a supportive way without frightening the child or promising something you can’t follow through on. Stress that the child is not at fault for the situation or for others’ actions (NYSOCFS, 2019, 2011; RAINN, 2019).

Many healthcare and social services professionals receive training in talking to children, and that knowledge can be applied when dealing with children who are possible victims of abuse or maltreatment. However, always keep in mind that your responsibility is to assess for reasonable cause to suspect and make the necessary report (or whatever your state’s process is), not to investigate or interrogate (NYSOCFS, 2019, 2011; RAINN, 2019).

Normally there are specific guidelines for cases where sexual abuse is suspected, and once a child reveals information that makes you suspect such abuse you need to avoid talking in detail with the child about the incident. Specially trained CPS and law enforcement professionals will often work together to interview a child at the same time and it will be a traumatic experience for the child to relive (NYSOCFS, 2019, 2011; RAINN, 2019).

You are not legally required to inform the parents or other person legally responsible for the child that you are making a report to your state’s mandated agency. Do not assume the parent will be supportive of the child. It is always possible that informing the parent will further jeopardize the child’s situation and risk more harm. If you have questions or concerns about informing the parents contact your local or state child protective services office.

Talking with Dependent Adults

When talking with a dependent adult, the following principles will facilitate communication.

Overcoming communication barriers

  • Use clear, simple language.
  • Ask open-ended, one-part questions.
  • Be an attentive listener and allow for periods of silence.
  • Allow sufficient time so there is no pressure to hurry.
  • Use explanations that progress from simple to complex.
  • Allow eye contact, but do not force it.
  • Allow plenty of space to move around; medications may cause restlessness.
  • Keep background noise to a minimum.
  • Sit facing the person to help them identify visual cues.

Ways to Ask About Abuse

First, be direct. Ask non-threatening questions and respond empathetically. Second, universalize the question rather than personalizing it. For example, “Many people are hurt physically or in other ways by someone they know. Is this happening to you?”

Make your questions gradual and exploratory, such as:

  • How are things going for you?
  • What kinds of stresses do you have in your everyday life?
  • Is there anyone in your life who is pretty strict, or hard to please?
  • Do you get blamed a lot?
  • Can you disagree? What happens when you don’t agree?
  • Have there been situations in which you felt afraid?
  • How often are you called names? How often are your feelings hurt?
  • Are you ever threatened with forced sex, been pushed or shoved, had your hair pulled or been slapped?
  • Have you had things thrown at you?
  • Have any of your precious possessions been deliberately broken?
  • Have your pets, children, grandchildren, or other people close to you been intentionally hurt?
  • Are you ever prevented from leave the house, or from seeing friends or family?
  • Do you feel safe in your home?
  • Should I be concerned for your safety?

Supportive Ways to Respond

When talking with victims of abuse:

  • Allow time for the person to speak.
  • Listen.
  • Believe what the person says.
  • Empathize: validate the person’s feelings.
  • Make it clear that the abuse was wrong and it was not the victim’s fault.
  • Speak directly about the violence.
  • Ask in what ways you can be helpful.
  • Respect the person’s right to self-determination.
  • Assure the person there are resources to help and that he or she is not alone.
  • Discuss a safety plan and offer followup contacts.

Communication Don’ts

When talking with victims of abuse:

  • DON’T talk to the victim while others are present. Confidentiality and privacy are essential and the presence of others may interfere with information the victim wants to provide, particularly if the perpetrator is present.
  • DON’T blame the victim. Societal attitudes often blame the victim for the abusive situation. This is extremely harmful to the victim and may result in an inability to trust.
  • DON’T tell the victim it is not that bad or minimize the pain. The shame and fear he or she feels is natural.
  • DON’T check out the story with the abuser. Talking with abusers may tip them off to a possible evaluation. This not only hinders the evaluation but may also endanger the victim.
  • DON’T demand that the victim take a certain course of action. You may offer suggestions, but it is necessary for him or her to be comfortable with the plan of recourse.
  • DON’T think you have failed if you did not fix the situation. Many abusive situations indicate long-entrenched patterns of behavior. To assume that you can always alleviate the situation by reporting the abuse or other action is unrealistic.

Try to establish whether the victim is competent and does or does not want help, or whether he or she is incompetent to make decisions. If he or she is not competent, someone else is needed to make decisions for that person. In some cases the victim is competent to make decisions but there are barriers to that person’s being able to ask for or accept help.