They Won’t Believe Me —
Disclosing Sexual Abuse

Stacey Kirkpatrick
6 min readSep 6, 2021
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As I stood outside the courtroom with my mom and her lawyer, I agonized over whether to tell them what happened. Should I tell them what he had done? Would this be the thing that helped the jury know that he was a bad man, not to be trusted or believed? Could this be the evidence to win her case? No. They won’t believe me. They will say I made it up to help my mom. No one will believe me if I say anything now. Why hadn’t I said something before!

My mom’s ex-boyfriend had brought stolen property into our house, and somehow my mom was charged, and her ex would testify against her. As we were going through the trial, I wondered if I should tell them he sexually abused me. In the end, I didn’t. I was too afraid I wouldn’t be believed.

Children and adults alike, often find disclosing their abuse to be one of the hardest things they will ever do. We sit with the weight of our story pushing down on us, feeling ashamed because perhaps somehow it was our fault. Maybe we did something to bring it on ourselves, or surely, we could have stopped it. Even as I sit here, at age forty-eight, I pause, feeling the anxiety of shame pushing on my chest. The feeling is so heavy; it reminds me of when I had pneumonia, fluids filling my lungs, making it hard to breathe. I am drowning in shame.

These moments are fewer now, after years of coming to terms with what happened and why. It was not my fault. How could sexual abuse be a child’s fault? Yet often, I hear of children disclosing abuse they endured, only to have adults question it and not believe them. There is a taboo around talking about sexual abuse and a stigma around sharing the crimes committed against us. Somehow the abuser’s dirty little secrets become ours to keep.

My mom and I were close, but I still couldn’t tell her what happened. Her boyfriend groomed me and made me feel like I was a willing participant. I felt like maybe I enticed this man, and so not only did I hold shame around the sexual acts that I knew were wrong, but I also felt like I had betrayed my mom. I was around ten years old when it started. No ten-year-old, or child of any age for that matter, has the emotional or mental capacity to handle the sexual advances of an adult. It is never okay for an adult to instigate any kind of sexual act with a child.

What constitutes sexual abuse?

Many believe sexual abuse only occurs when there is intercourse, but this isn’t only about penetration. As Dr. Frank Putnam, M.D. states in his Ten-year research update review: child sexual abuse, this includes a range of activities like “intercourse, attempted intercourse, oral-genital contact, fondling of genitals directly or through clothing, exhibitionism or exposing children to adult sexual activity or pornography, and the use of the child for prostitution or pornography.” Some adults will downplay a disclosure because there was no penetration, or because they were still wearing clothing. It is sexual abuse. It is an act of power and control over a vulnerable child.

Do children lie and make false claims?

Victims who come forward are often asked why they didn’t say something sooner. Sometimes the question is well-intentioned because the person wishes they had known and could have done something to stop it, but this places blame on the victim, who now feels like they did something wrong. Some will ask questions with a sense of judgment, implying that the sexual abuse didn’t happen because surely the child would have said something at the time if it were true.

Do children lie and make false claims? Dr. Mark Everson and Dr. Barbara Boat did a study and reviewed numerous past studies looking into false reporting of sexual abuse, all of which show very low rates (1.8% to 8%) for potential false reports. Additionally, it was noted that there are serious questions about criteria used to determine a child’s credibility and that across many professionals, there is a bias towards not believing children. What does this mean? Even among the suspected false reports, there may be a significant number that are indeed true reports.

What do we do when a child discloses?

We must always support the child. Even if you cannot believe the abuse occurred, know that something is not right, and this needs to be taken seriously. In 92 to 98.2% of cases, we can be confident that abuse has occurred. Even in those rare cases where the disclosure is false, there is an issue that needs to be addressed. If a child comes forward, be supportive. Tell them how difficult that must have been for them. Tell them you believe them. Be sensitive and don’t place any blame on the child. Even if it turns out to be false, the child needs your support.

The next step is to ensure the child is safe by stopping all contact between the child and the accused abuser. Follow this by getting the child a therapist but know that the therapist will need to report the situation, and child protective services will likely need to be called. This is not a bad thing as it will help provide the child and family with resources to get through this difficult situation. Many fear the involvement of child protective services but remember they are there to help your child. I won’t lie and tell you it will be easy, and not all services are as helpful as we’d like, but ultimately, this is another avenue for your child to be heard and protected.

Should the client have therapy, even if they seem okay?

The short answer is yes. A child who receives therapy is less likely to suffer as many adverse effects in the long- and short-term. A child may resist or say they are fine, but it is still crucial that they get help. Children or teens may worry about the stigma of seeking help as they don’t want to be different from others. Normalize the concept of therapy. You may want to go to therapy yourself to help you navigate your own feelings. When a child discloses sexual abuse, it affects everyone, even if the abuser is not a family member. Sometimes we forget that even siblings will be affected as they may feel ignored while parents spend more time with the child who disclosed the abuse. They may feel angry and resentful or may even feel guilt, as they believe they could have done something to stop the abuse. This will be hard for everyone, but you can get through it.

I didn’t disclose to my mom and her lawyer that day outside the courtroom. It took me another five years before I said anything because I believed it would be easier for everyone to pretend like none of it happened. My abuse was not just that one man but started earlier with my grandfather, and it was his grooming that likely made me more vulnerable to future abuse. My mom believed me, and she never made me feel like I did anything wrong. I saw a therapist a few times and went on with my life. Others in the family seemed to ignore that it happened. I don’t think they could believe that my grandfather was capable of abuse. Who could blame them? I pretended like everything was okay. I ignored it, and so it was all swept under the rug as our extended family continued to celebrate family holidays together at my grandparents’ house. Even if they believed me, the message was clear. Family unity was more important than talking about the sexual abuse I endured.

This doesn’t have to be your story or your child’s story. Don’t allow things to be swept under the rug and ignored. Don’t let your story remain hidden within the shadows of shame, whether the abuse took place a week ago or a decade ago. Take a deep breath and take action. Reach out for help and ask for resources. Bring light to the situation. You’ll be so much healthier for it.