How adults tell: messages for society and policy makers regarding disclosure of childhood sexual abuse
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The social work profession in Ireland plays a significant role in the assessment of child sexual abuse referrals. Somewhat unique in an international context, this role encompasses assessment of disclosures by current children who have experienced abuse but also disclosures by adults who have experienced abuse in their childhood. This latter role has remained undefined, un-legislated and under-resourced since its recognition in child protection guidelines in 1999. Anecdotally, the result of such inattention has had devastating effects on those adults who come forward to disclose. This research seeks to explore such concerns by examining how adults tell and addressing the central research question of ‘what is it like for an adult to disclose to child protection services in Ireland?’ This research presents individual voice and lived-experience of adults who have experienced childhood sexual abuse. It utilises a Biographical Narrative Interviewing Methodology (BNIM) and is situated in the wider fields of social work and disclosure scholarship. The research examines how the voices and experiences of such adults can be utilised to critically inform the process of disclosing to statutory child protection services in the Republic of Ireland. The research addresses the following aims: (1) What are the facilitators and barriers for adults making disclosures of childhood sexual abuse to child protection social work services in Ireland, (2) How does the current disclosure process within the child protection system and its underlying policies take account of the specific needs of adults who have experienced sexual abuse in childhood, and (3) What are the policy recommendations that can inform social work practice in this area? The research draws upon a framework of theories incorporating ecological systems theory, ethics of care, power, social constructionism and life course theory to present disclosure and effects of abuse as tandem, fluid and life-long processes that practitioners need to be informed about in order to best facilitate those adults who wish to come forward. This framework is informed by the vast literature regarding sexual abuse and disclosure and draws upon the work of Alaggia, Collin-Vézina, McElvaney, Finkelhor, and others in an effort to advance the scholarship in this field. This research reinforces the existing literature in the field demonstrating the everyday and lifelong effects of abuse in childhood and how experiences of disclosure, not only follow a similar life trajectory but, can also echo and replicate the effects of the abuse itself. The research adds to the field by presenting this in an Irish context in respect of a very specific social work policy and practice setting. The research also adds to the field by presenting narratives from individual adults which demonstrate the impact of engaging with a system that is currently not taking adequate account of the dynamics and effects of childhood sexual abuse. Policy and practice recommendations are explored.