What if I am wrong? A common question. Should I report or not report? A common misstep. When there is reasonable suspicion of child sexual abuse, you must report your suspicions to the police or child protective services or both. But why do many adults fail to act —fail to do what is in the best interest of a child? State laws only require us to have ‘reasonable suspicion” which means that you do not need ‘proof’ that abuse is occurring to report. When you have a reasonable suspicion—you have witnessed physical or behavioral signs of maltreatment, either in a child or a parent, or both—OR—a child has told you—disclosed—they are being abused.

Making a good faith report—acting in the best interest of the child is the only way we can help victims receive treatment sooner. The promises for a better recovery from the trauma start with intervening immediately.

My three attempts at disclosing what was happening in my home failed terribly. I share them as a small case study as to how children are silenced. My first attempt was to tell a nun, Sister Catherine, who had noticed a bite mark on my neck. Sister Catherine bent down and placed her hands over mine in a prayer position, and gathered my nail-bitten fingers into her own. She stared at the mark just above the collar of my blouse. I knew how it looked, not just a red mark but not quite a bruise. I was embarrassed.

“What happened to your neck?” she asked.

I said nothing.

“Call her mother. Tell her to come to my office immediately,” she instructed another nun.

She asked me again, “Young lady, who did this to your neck?” I stared away at the blue-eyed, long-haired Jesus portrait that hung crooked on the green cement wall. Sister Catherine then snapped open her desk drawer and took out a pen and paper and said, “Write it down. The name of the person who did this to your neck.” I thought for a long time while she paced back and forth behind me. Soon enough my mother strutted into Sister Catherine’s office. She wore a bright yellow terrycloth short set with matching high heels. I flinched as soon as I saw my mother; her ‘don’t you dare say a word look’ caused me to drop the pen after I had written the name — Charlie Brown. Sister Catherine looked at the paper, rolled her eyes, then instructed my mother to follow her into to the hall. It was imperative that they talk — immediately. I heard my mother mumbling through the closed office door and watched Sister Catherine’s head shaking back and forth emphatically as she dismissed my mother’s words. Sister Catherine finally ended their conversation and, without lowering her voice, plainly said, “This is a serious situation and your attitude is not helping. I will expect you to address this situation at home and for this never to happen again.” My mother brought me home as if she were sick and plastered Band-Aids across my neck. I was sent to my room, where I spent the rest of the day, making Kleenex flowers; enough flowers to cover the entire comforter my sister had helped me sew together from two sheets for a Brownie badge.

– JoAnn Stevelos, MS, MPH

Read more: Top Five Things Child Sexual Abuse Victims Need From You

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