Chances are someone you know is a survivor of child sexual abuse.

With 42 million adult survivors in the US alone and 1 in 10 children experiencing abuse before they turn 18 child sexual abuse is a problem that affects all of us.

If we want to keep kids safe from abuse and support survivors—we have to bring this problem out of the shadows.

We have to be able to talk about it.

That’s why the SHINE campaign exists. When we let survivors know they’re not alone and their voice matters, we help dismantle the stigma that keeps survivors silent. We shine a light on the reality of the problem we face. And we create the possibility for change, for safety, and for survivors to SHINE.

Talking about abuse isn’t easy. The stigma is real. Unfortunately, victims and survivors of child sexual abuse often feel like the abuse is their fault. They feel ashamed about what happened or afraid no one will believe them if they tell. They worry that asking for help will upset the people they love.

So this year, we’ve created this guide to help you—someone who may know and care about a survivor—feel better prepared to support a loved one or friend on their journey toward healing.

Together, we have the power to make it safe for victims and survivors of child sexual abuse to find their voice, to share, and to SHINE.

How to support the survivor in your circle.

Survivors of child sexual abuse need supportive, informed, and compassionate people in their lives. Here are four ways you can be that person:

1. Believe them.

CACs know that for the child victims we serve, the single most helpful thing after stopping the abuse is having a supportive parent or caregiver (like a grandparent or foster parent) who believes them. Even just one person in a child’s life can make the difference between ongoing trauma and the beginning of a healing journey. Children whose parents or caregivers don’t believe them—or who act or speak in a way that a child interprets as blaming them for the abuse—will have a much harder road ahead.

When it comes to a child abuse investigation, CACs are neutral—we provide the best place and process for a child to feel comfortable disclosing if abuse has occurred. Forensic interviewers at CACs never ask leading questions when talking with an alleged child victim. But regardless of the legal outcome of a case—when abuse has taken place, it’s essential for child victims to feel supported by the people closest to them.

The same goes for adult survivors who were victimized as children.

2. Respond with words that help heal.

We all struggle with what to say when someone shares a difficult experience they’ve had, and the first responses that pop into our minds aren’t always the best. Here are some common conversation missteps to avoid, and some ideas about what to say instead.

Avoid:Wow, I can’t believe that happened to you.” 


Because: It is hard to believe that child abuse happens—and none of us wants to think about that happening or having happened to someone we love. But a response like this could sound like you’re doubting the survivor.


Instead, try:I’m so sorry that happened to you.”  This response affirms the person and their experience—and offers a simple acknowledgement that they matter.

Avoid: “Why were you alone?”

Perpetrators of child abuse often seek out opportunities to be alone with a child. WE call this “grooming behavior.” They win the trust of not only the child, but also their parents or caregivers. Sometimes the abuser is a parent or caregiver who already has access to a child. It’s NEVER a child’s fault that abuse happens—no matter the circumstances—and questions like this one can reinforce the internalized guilt and blame that so many victims and survivors carry.

Instead, try:
You know, it wasn’t your fault.” A supportive response that puts the blame for abuse where it belongs—on the perpetrator—can help a survivor overcome stigma, shame, and the pressure to remain silent.

Avoid: Why didn’t you tell someone? 

Because: Many children experiencing abuse don’t tell because they never feel safe or supported. If the perpetrator is someone they know and trust, often there are complicated feelings that may keep a child from disclosing. That’s not their fault. Questions like this put the responsibility for what happened on the victim or survivor. We call this “victim-shaming” or “victim-blaming” and it’s never okay.

Of course, children should be educated about abuse—and how to ask for help if they ever feel unsafe or uncomfortable—but it is the responsibility of adults to keep kids safe, notice signs of possible abuse, and seek help by making a report.

Instead, try:
What is it like to share your story now? Survivors of child sexual abuse have enough of the past to deal with. Try to be present for them NOW. Invite them to talk about what they are currently experiencing as they come forward and share their story with others—maybe for the first time. That sharing and support can be a big part of someone’s healing journey. Of course, if someone prefers not to talk about their past abuse or any part of their journey, that’s okay. You can let them know you are there if they are ever interested in talking.

Avoid: It might be good for you to try and move on.”

It may be that sharing their story with you is a survivor’s important first step toward healing. Healing is a journey, and it takes a long time. In fact, many survivors will tell you that the journey never ends. Suggesting they should hurry up and get over it can be damaging to their healing, and your relationship with them. 

Instead, try:
“How can I support you now?” A response like this shows you understand how hard healing can be, and that you’re there for them no matter what their journey looks like (or how long it takes). How you respond when a survivor shares their story of past child abuse with you can be an important part of their healing. Focus on being someone they can trust in that moment.

3. Be aware of your responsibility.

Sometimes, a conversation about child sexual abuse becomes your ethical and in some cases your legal responsibility to report. Don’t let this responsibility deter you from talking with someone about their experience—instead, make sure you’re informed about when you need to report, and when you don’t.

If you are a mandated reporter in Pennsylvania:

  • If you are speaking with a person under the age of 18 years who discloses past or current abuse, or any concerns about safety that reasonably cause you to suspect abuse, you must report immediately. 
  • If you are speaking with an adult survivor who discloses past abuse and if the abuser is not deceased, and if there are children who could currently be at risk from close contact with the same individual, you are highly encouraged to report to ensure the safety of children. As always, if you have reasonable cause to suspect abuse of a child, you must report immediately. 
  • If you are speaking with an adult survivor who is sharing their story of past abuse and there is no reasonable cause to suspect a child may be currently at risk (for example, the perpetrator is deceased), you are not required to report.

If you have concerns about possible abuse in Pennsylvania, call the free 24/7 reporting hotline ChildLine immediately at 1-800-932-0313. Even if you are not a mandated reporter in Pennsylvania, if you have concerns about a child’s safety, you should make a report immediately.

4. Have practical resources to offer if needed.

You may have the opportunity to connect a survivor to resources for professional help and peer support. Here are some go-to resources we recommend:

Pennsylvania Resources

  • Children’s Advocacy Centers serve children and their families during investigations for alleged abuse, and provide follow-up services and resources for long-term healing. Referrals to CACs are made by law enforcement or child protective services. If you are concerned about the safety of a child, please make a report to ChildLine at 1-800-932-0313. If you have general questions about child abuse or survivor support, CACs may be able to refer you to partner agencies in your community.
  • PCAR, the state coalition serving all Pennsylvania victims of sexual abuse, assault, and harassment, can help connect you to local resources. Visit the link above to view a map of locations by county.
  • PA Office of Victim Advocate has advocates who can help victims of crime understand options and resources for justice and healing. Services include the Address Confidentiality Program, parole notifications, and the Resilient Voices program that connects survivors with speaking opportunities. Contact the office by phone at 1-800-563-6399 or use the link above.
  • PA Family Support Alliance provides training for mandated reporters in Pennsylvania. Learn how to identity signs of possible child abuse, know when and how to report concerns, and find community prevention education and resources.

National Resources

  • Darkness To Light provides data and research on child abuse incidence, as well as training opportunities and resources for support.
  • Zero Abuse Project’s SurvivorSpace is a safe online space where survivors can learn about child sexual abuse; find legal information; focus on self-care and resiliency; read survivor stories; explore civil litigation; access national resources and institutional programs; and connect with others to learn about and discuss a wide range of topics.
  • RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) is the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. RAINN created and operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline (1-800-656-HOPE) in partnership with more than 1,000 local sexual assault service providers across the country and operates the DoD Safe Helpline for the Department of Defense. RAINN also carries out programs to prevent sexual violence, help survivors, and ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice.

At CACs, these conversations happen every single day.

When a report of suspected abuse is made, child victims and their families are often referred to their local CAC. CACs provide a safe place and a supportive process for kids in crisis. We coordinate teams of professionals so that an investigation can take place in a way that doesn’t re-traumatize a child. 

At a CAC, instead of having to talk about what happened as many as seven times (the number of professional disciplines often involved), a child can be interviewed just once
by someone who is trained in how to talk to children about abuse as part of an investigation. Watch the short video below to learn more about how CACs reduce additional trauma to child victims.

A forensic interview is usually the first step in the CAC process, but we do a whole lot more. We provide all the services a family needs to make sure the child is safe and can heal after trauma. From medical evaluations to victim advocacy to trauma therapy, the CAC centralizes everything so families don’t have to navigate systems of care that can be unfamiliar and overwhelming when they’re just trying to get through the day. 

Here in Pennsylvania, we’ve worked with a LOT of children and their families—our centers serve more than 15,000 kids each year.
That’s how we know first-hand the questions, worries, and fears that survivors—and the people who support them—often have. It’s also how we’ve learned what’s helpful (and what’s not) when it comes to a survivor’s journey toward healing. Sharing those tools with you helps us make sure more child victims and survivors have a chance to live their best possible tomorrow.

Together, we can help survivors shine.

“For a child victim of abuse to SHINE, it takes a team. A team of people to listen to them, to really hear them, to support them, and to work together to advocate for the well being of their entire family. To build a support system around them. To give them back some control.”

When you take the time to learn how to talk about abuse, you take on an important role in a survivor’s story. You give them the opportunity to overcome harmful stigma and painful silence. You become a trusted ally who undermines shame and provides space for grief and vulnerability. You avoid adding to the hurt they’ve experienced and become a powerful step in their healing journey.

When we’re willing to learn to talk about abuse, we bring it out of the shadows.

We make it possible for child victims to get the help and safety they need.

We help survivors SHINE. Learn more and join the campaign at https://penncac.org/shine/.

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