Your reaction when your child tells you that they’ve been emotionally, physically, or sexually abused will be their first indication of whether they are safe to tell their story. If you start yelling, panicking, sobbing, or exhibit any other over-the-top reaction, your child’s level of fear and stress will rise. The best thing you can do is show concern and ask them to share the details they are comfortable with. Assure them that you love them no matter what was done to them. Let them know that telling you what happened shows maturity. After that, your course of action will depend on whether your the custodial or non-custodial parent. Either way, you must make calm but deliberate efforts to seek assistance for your child.
If you’re the custodial parent, and your child comes home after a visitation with the other parent and tells you they were physically or sexually abused by the parent or someone associated with the parent, you have to act. First, assure your child that you believe him and that everything will be okay. Then, take him to the police station or sheriff’s department to talk to a law enforcement officer. Do this before contacting social services. The police will either take the child’s statement or refer you to social services. A referral from law enforcement will make things move faster and more efficiently.
Make sure to tell your child that if they ask them not to, the police will not tell the other parent who made the complaint. While your first instinct might be to contact the other parent and tell them you’ve taken the child to law enforcement, let the process work. This isn’t about punishing the alleged abuser. It’s about protecting your child.
After you’ve taken the child to law enforcement and/or social services, you might want to ask the court to modify any visitation order. Check your State Bar’s website to find the necessary information and forms.
If you’re the non-custodial parent and your child shows up for a visit and tells you that she has been physically or sexually abused by the custodial parent or someone associated with that parent, you have to act—quickly. Immediately reassure your child that you believe her. Then take her to the police department or sheriff’s department to talk to an officer. Let her know that if she doesn’t want the other parent to know she made the complaint, law enforcement won’t disclose her identity. Depending on the circumstances, law enforcement might refer you to social services. If it’s a weekend or holiday and the local social services agency is closed, law enforcement will take the complaint and notify social services on the next business day.
Unlike custodial parents, a non-custodial parent faced with a child’s claim of abuse by the other parent or someone associated with the other parent must return the child to the home of the alleged abuser at the appointed time unless the child has been placed in temporary protective custody. Allowing the child to go back into an abusive environment generates visceral emotions, but remember this: if you resort to violence, if you refuse to follow the court-ordered visitation routine, you will be the one in trouble. What happens to your child if you’re in jail and she’s left at the mercy of the person who physically or sexually abused her? If you lose your temper, she’s in real danger.
You don’t have to tell the other parent and neither does your child. The other parent will find out there was a complaint made soon enough.
If your child trusts you enough to tell you about the abuse they are suffering, it means you’re a good parent. Don’t let them down. Don’t destroy their trust by using the situation to get even with the other parent. The only focus is your child and what’s best for her. Keep calm, and engage the system. You might also want to consider going back to court to change any dispositional order that gave physical custody to the other parent.