Do I Have to Report My Own Child?
If an adult stranger had sexually assaulted your child, there’s no question you would call the police. But when it’s your own child, it’s not that simple. If it happened years ago, if the offender is or was a preteen or teen, if you’re not sure what actually happened, if you’re not sure if it crossed the line from curiosity to abuse or assault, things get really complicated, really fast.
If you’re unsure what do to in your specific situation, you can get reliable, confidential, anonymous guidance from the helplines at RAINN.org or StopItNow.org. Defend Young Minds also has an excellent step by step guide for parents who have just learned of their child's harmful sexual behavior. (I am not an attorney and this is not legal advice. See guidance on finding a lawyer.)
If the survivor is now an adult the decision of whether or not to report is in their hands. However, if you witnessed a sexual assault yourself, you can still make a police report.
If the survivor is still under age 18, then at some point someone will be required to report to child protection authorities. Read on to learn more about your options and for a general idea of what happens next.
How do I make a report?
- Call 911 and they will send officers to you
Go to a local police station
Take the child to the Emergency Room or Urgent Care
Call your state’s child abuse hotline
Bring your child to a physician or therapist, discuss the situation, and let the provider make their required mandatory report
What will happen after I report?
Child protection workers or law enforcement, or both, will contact you and come to talk to you. How quickly they respond will depend on the information you give them. They will want to come to your home at some point. They will ask to interview both children. If there is any chance of physical evidence of an assault, they will want to sample that evidence--which could mean a physical forensic exam of your child. They may require you to keep your children separate from each other, possibly in separate homes and schools with no contact.
The Investigators - Lauren's Kids (example from Florida, typical of most US states)
Will they arrest my offending child?
Usually, no. However, if they have good reason to believe the child has committed a crime and is an imminent danger to others or self, law enforcement could take them to juvenile detention or to jail.
Will my children have to talk to police?
Reporting will mean that the child who was harmed will be asked to tell their story to authorities*. Sometimes this is a validating, healing experience. Other times, if the survivor is not ready or if authorities do not handle it well, it adds to their trauma.
When a child under 18 tells their story to authorities, it should be done in a Child Advocacy Center. This is a child-friendly space where the child or teen has to tell their story only once, in an age-appropriate way. The interview will be recorded for use by child protection authorities, law enforcement, and even future therapists. This saves the child from the need to tell their story many times or in more difficult settings.
*Technically, legally, no one has to talk to the police. This includes suspects (offending sibling), victims (sibling who was harmed), and witnesses (parents). Legally, you do not have to allow them to enter your home or give them any evidence (computers, clothing, etc) unless they have a warrant. You do have the right to contact a lawyer before meeting with authorities. A child who is suspected of a crime has the same rights to an attorney and against self-incrimination as an adult. However, if child protection authorities perceive your actions as not cooperating with the investigation, or as failing to protect a child who has been abused, they can take legal action to remove the child from your care. Consult an attorney familiar with both criminal justice and family law.
I’m a mandatory reporter for my job. Does this mean I have to report my own child?
If you are a mandatory reporter in your job, this does not mean you are required to report abuse that you see outside your job responsibilities. So, unless your child is also your student or client, you are not under a time limit to make a report. But some states have laws that all adults are mandatory reporters. And as a parent you do have a responsibility to keep your child safe. You can use RAINN's interactive tool to search your state's mandatory reporting laws.
My child is just telling me now about something that happened years ago. Do I need to report?
If the survivor is still under age 18, mandatory reporting laws apply. You can still report, or if your child gets therapy or talks about it to any other mandatory reporter, they will need to make a report. Reporting can be a concrete way to show your support for the survivor.
What if my child doesn’t want me to report?
This is a difficult situation. It’s impossible for a parent to know how much of the story has been told, whether their child has been threatened or coerced into not reporting, the depth and type of trauma their child is experiencing, what are the reasons are that a child does not want to report or to give an interview to authorities. For a teenage child, issues of privacy and autonomy also come into play. If your child is willing, you could both start by consulting a local crisis center or the RAINN hotline. You can still help your child find a therapist; many therapists who work with teens are skilled at helping while navigating both mandatory reporting and teen privacy concerns. A local attorney specializing in family law could also be an important resource.
What will happen to the child who caused the harm, if I report them?
If the child who offended is still under the age of 18, their case could be handled by the juvenile justice system. The actual age cutoff depends on where you live, what offense is charged, and possibly also on which judge is assigned. Consult a local defense attorney who works with juvenile offenders.
If the sibling who caused the harm is now legally an adult, but offended as a minor, there are lots of unknowns. A local defense lawyer who specializes in sexual offenses would give the best answer. “Local” would refer to the place where the offense took place, no matter where anyone lives now.
If a sibling has offended after the age of 18, they will be dealing with the adult criminal justice system.
Can I report but not press charges?
The final decision on whether to charge a person with a crime rests with the prosecuting attorney. Not the police, not even the victim. The prosecution usually seeks the victim’s and/or parent’s input, and they are unlikely to proceed without the victim’s cooperation. But at the end of the day, no one can “press charges” except the prosecuting attorney.
What about the sex offender registry? I don’t want my child to go to prison, but I want to make sure they can’t do it again.
You can’t put someone on the public sex offender registry unless they are convicted of a crime. Many states have a secondary registry which lists people who have been determined by the Dept of Human Services investigation to have abused a child. This requires a much lower standard of proof, and it prevents those people from getting a job or professional license to work with children and other vulnerable populations.
Can I find a therapist for my child and let the therapist decide whether to make a report?
You do have the option to prioritize searching for therapists for both children, and let a therapist make a report if necessary. A significant advantage to this is that you and your child will have the support of the therapist as you all go through the process of reporting and interviewing and reacting to changes in your family.
But there are risks:
It can take weeks or months to get even a first appointment with a therapist, which creates the risk that harmful behavior and/or intimidation could occur during the delay.
It is tragically common for parents to underestimate their ability to keep their child safe. This includes keeping a child whose offenses have been revealed safe from self-harm.
Authorities may criticize the parent for not reporting immediately. Keep notes, photos, screenshots, etc. of all you have done to ensure safety and get your children help.
There is a very remote possibility that the case would go to trial and the defense will accuse your child’s therapist of planting a false memory of abuse. Very few cases of any kind of sexual abuse go to trial, and it is even more rare in cases of sibling abuse.
I want to get my child into sexual behavior treatment but they only see court-ordered clients. How do I get help without condemning my child as a criminal or labeling them as a sex offender for life?
This is a really tricky situation and a huge drawback to the way the system works in the US. The answer depends on the child’s age, the laws of your state, resources available where you live, what the victim wishes to do, and more. Safe places to describe your specific situation and get an answer confidentially include:
Hourly consultation with a local criminal defense lawyer
I made a report but they closed it without doing anything. I still think there is a problem and I’m scared for my child. What can I do now?
If you made a report, the child who was harmed should be eligible for counseling under victim services, even if the case was not pursued. You can get help through your local Child Advocacy Center or call your local prosecutor’s office and ask for Victim Services.
If you find any more evidence, no matter how small, you can make another report. If your child reveals more information, either to you or to a therapist, you or the therapist can make another report. You can make sure an older child or teen has a way to contact authorities directly to make their own report, as well as the contact for RAINN.org and your local sexual assault support center.
I’m really on the fence. I’m scared to report, but I'm also scared not to report. I’m not sure if it is the right move. Is there anyone I can talk to go get confidential advice?
RAINN.org has confidential talk, text, and chat support 24/7. You can describe your situation to them without giving personal identifying information, and get advice and referrals for your specific situation. Stopitnow.org also has confidential talk and chat support during USA business hours.
Reporting is Only the Beginning of a Long Journey…