Research Watch

Child sexual abuse disclosures across the developmental spectrum: findings from a retrospective case file review.

Year of Publication
Reviewed By
Olive Lyons

McElvaney, R., Moore, K., O’Reilly, K., Turner, R., Walsh, B., & Guerin, S. (2020). Child sexual abuse disclosures: Does age make a difference? Child Abuse & Neglect, 99, 104121–104121.


Very few studies in child sexual abuse (CSA) disclosure research consider children across the developmental spectrum. The objective of this study is to expand the knowledge base by examining disclosure by child age (i.e., 0-4, 5-8, 9-12, 13-14, 15-17). Research questions included 1) Is there a relationship between age of disclosure and age of abuse?; 2) Is there a relationship between the age when disclosing and choice of confidante across the five age categories?; and 3) What factors are identified as influencing a child’s disclosure; are these factors related to age when the abuse occurred and age when abuse disclosed?

Using a retrospective case file review, the authors examined the files of 273 children (70 males and 203 females) who were assessed at three child sexual abuse assessment units in Ireland and provided a credible/substantiated account of CSA. The review examined files of these children who had attended the units from 2006 – 2015, and the authors divided the child’s age into five categories.

Findings indicate that children across all age groups most often disclosed their experience of abuse within the developmental period when it occurred. Approximately 50% of children under 4 disclosed child sexual abuse while still in that developmental period, and a notable increase in disclosure occurred within each subsequent developmental period. Of note, all children in the final age profile (15 to 17-year old’s) disclosed their victimization within the same period that it occurred.

Children identified the following confidants: mother, peer, father, family members (i.e., aunt, sister, etc.), professional (school/police), sibling, and foster carer/foster sibling. Overall, mothers were the primary choice of confidant (43.9%); this varied with age, and in agreement with other literature in the field, over 60% of children aged 0 – 4 years first disclosed to their mother. In each category up to 12 years of age, children continued to primarily tell their mother, followed by other family members. Conversely, older children (over 12) were more likely to confide in a peer.

This study also conducted a content analysis of the factors influencing disclosures and found that ‘feeling distressed’ was referred to in children’s disclosure (80.9%). Other factors cited were ‘being believed’ (58.4%), ‘fear’ (54.4%), ‘difficulty saying it’ (46.9%), ‘contact with Alleged Perpetrator’ (45.6%), and ‘being asked’ (45.9%). Findings of the content analysis also concluded that the factors influencing disclosure were not related to whether a child disclosed within the developmental range or later. The study did not find a factor that was predictive of disclosing promptly after the abusive event.

Methodological Notes

Certain limitations exist in this study; foremost, as this was a file review, the information was not originally collected for research purposes; therefore, some of the files did not contain the study variable of interest.

The authors highlight that the study may have benefited from the inclusion of the video evidence (all interviews are recorded); however, they did not have the funding to review the videos. While the sample size was relatively large (n=273), it could not provide reliable analysis about factors influencing disclosure and time to disclosure.

A strength of the study is that it examined very young children’s disclosure narrative (albeit from the professional’s assessment report). This cohort of children is often not accessible for research purposes. Further, five age groups for children from 0 - 18 are used, providing a more in-depth analysis of the relationship between age of abuse, age of disclosure, and recipient of disclosure depending on age category.

This study contributes to the literature surrounding disclosure of sexual abuse across childhood; it is unique in this aspect as most other studies rely on adult or adolescents’ retrospective reports. In addition, this case file review was extensive (n=273) and included parents’/guardians’ viewpoints as they are interviewed as part of the child abuse assessment report before the child’s interview takes place