I hope you never need this information. I wish I didn’t. As it sits right now. Let me start at the beginning. This is what to do when your adoptee discloses trauma

My kids are adopted from foster care. When they were foster children, we had a very strict flow chart to follow if one of them told us something that constituted abuse or neglect (or anything that seemed like it could lean that way). When my then-four-year-old (adopted) daughter told me something horrific, it felt like my brain had fallen out of my head and my heart dropped through the floor of the van. Thankfully, I had some training to fall back on because of our foster parent class.  

Let’s say your young child says, “big sister touched my privates,” or something equally shocking and unnerving. (I’ve been hit with “my bio dad shot me with a toy pistol for fun” while I was driving somewhere. I nearly wrecked the car.) This trauma is real and serious.

1. Don’t panic.

As a friend of mine told me “you don’t have enough information to know if you should panic yet. Save it for later.”

Keep your voice calm. Your kid needs you right now. You absolutely can (and probably will) have a cry later. Now is not the time. 

Listen and try to take notes if you can. You don’t want all the details. I know you think you do, but if they give you all the details, you become the person who is now responsible to get and keep all the facts straight. You don’t want this job. Listen with intent so you can tell the authorities what you know about the trauma. Don’t try to investigate it on your own. 

Act as normal as you can. “Thank you for telling me. You know you can tell me anything at all right? I’m so glad you let me know so we can do something about it.” Stay neutral. Don’t say, “I’m so mad at your sister/stepdad/babysitter etc.” If a child has come to you, they have probably already felt lots of feelings and the guilt of getting someone else in trouble, even if it’s someone that absolutely should; it can make the investigation harder for the special victims unit.

2. Get your child involved in something else. 

Watch a movie, play with toys, invite over friends—whatever. You need to get on the phone, so they need to be out of earshot and occupied—but still supervised.

3. Call the police. 

I know this feels like escalating the problem. I know it feels like making a mountain out of a molehill. It’s still what you need to do. 

The police usually have an officer whose whole forsaken job is to take these kinds of calls and launch the investigations. Whatever they are making for pay isn’t enough. 

If you are too flustered to look up the actual non-emergency police number, 9-1-1 will direct your call to where it needs to go. This isn’t an abuse of the system. What you’re facing now is an emergency. Because now a clock has started. There will be time-sensitive things that need to happen and the quickest, easiest way to get that done is call the emergency number. 

4. Inform your counselor.

If your child sees a counselor let them know what is going on. They will be a valuable asset down the line. 

5. Take precautions. 

If the victimizer lives in the same home as the victim you need to not talk to them about any of this yet. Do be vigilant, don’t leave them alone or unsupervised. But don’t ask them about the accusation. This will be hard. I’m sorry. 

6. Wait for a call back from the police. 

Keep everyone safe and act as normal as possible while you contemplate and battle the desire to start crying and never stop. 

The return call is really where the ball starts rolling on things you’ll need to do. 

Our county has a children’s advocacy center that specializes in what is called a forensic interview. Your child will speak to one of those specialists and they will determine from the interview if the abuse happened how the child said, if it happened recently, if it happened more than once, and so on. 

7. Schedule an interview.

Take the child to the forensic interview. Bring tissues. 

Do whatever the caseworker, police, and interviewer say to do. Here’s where things will either get better or worse. If it appears the abuse or trauma happened, you will likely need to take your child to the hospital for a rape kit. This is unfortunately traumatizing for every person involved. If the abuser is in the house, they will need to be taken to the police station.It’s awful. You’re not allowed to say anything about why you’re going anywhere. Alternatively, you may request a police officer take the accused to the station instead of you. 

8. Keep going.

This may be your life for a little while. CPS will likely launch an investigation on your home to make sure you are not culpable in the abuse in any way. It’s scary, but manageable, if your house is reasonably clean, you have food, running water, and a safe clean place for kids to stay. 

If the abuser is one in your household, you will need to attend court for both the victim and the accused if the accused is a minor. If it’s another adult, you may need to attend and testify with what you know of the trauma, but you are less involved in the care and keeping of the accused.

Our experience was of course terrible. The age of the victims and the history of the victimizer made the whole thing seem like a bad lifetime movie from beginning to end. You will need to both pull into your family for a bit and depend on people who love you to take up the slack in other places. Once you have the child settled and you lay down for bed the first night, you may not be able to sleep. You may find yourself crying, being angry, and wanting to hide. Or you might be okay. 

There is nothing easy about the situation. You can’t go back in history and make the abuse not happen (which was basically my dearest wish). Expect to feel like you’re in mourning. No one died, but it might feel like someone did for a while. Find a counselor who is familiar with this sort of trauma. If one is not assigned find a counselor for your child. You’re not alone. 

Christina Gochnauer is a foster and adoptive mom of 5. She has a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Letourneau University. She currently resides in Texas with her husband of 16 years, her children ages 3, 3.5, 4.5, 11, and 12, and her three dogs. She is passionate about using her voice to speak out for children from “hard places” in her church and community.