The Signs of Sexual Abuse and What to Do

When children are sexually abused, the damage lasts far longer than the act. However, recent research has demonstrated that with the proper treatment, and a healthy dose of justice, survivors of childhood sexual abuse can overcome the trauma and lead healthy fulfilling lives.

How to Recognize the Symptoms of Child Sexual Abuse

Young Children (under 12)

Parents know that young children are often unwilling or unable to communicate complex feelings and thoughts. Frequently the best barometer of their well-being is to watch their behavior. This is absolutely true for children who have been sexually abused, and common worrisome behaviors include:

  • Advanced sexual knowledge and/or behavior: Acting out sexually and demonstrating greater knowledge than their peers. Be particularly concerned where the child can describe a sex act by sight, taste, or sound.
  • Emotional changes: Increasing clinginess with caregivers, resisting independent activities, becoming withdrawn or depressed, refraining from favorite activities and friends, increased aggression, self-harm and suicidal statements (e.g. "I wish I was dead.")
  • Attitude toward a particular adult: Resisting being with an adult, as well as seeking him out. Many sexual abusers use gifts and special privileges to lure their victims (and buy their secrecy).
  • Physical symptoms: Difficulty sleeping and nightmares, as well as physical signs including pain, discharge, bleeding and even venereal disease (STDs).

Remember, even older children are often hesitant to come forward fearing they won't be believed, particularly where the abuser is an authority figure, such as a scout or religious leader, teacher, counselor or adult family member.

Older Children and Adult Survivors

Frequently, survivors of childhood sexual abuse experience denial and dissociation (detachment from the experience). Also referred to as repressed memories, symptoms of dissociation include:

  • Trance-like states and forgetfulness: Periods where the person is inattentive or unresponsive
  • Strong, sudden mood swings: Including also personality changes, these victims may even ask to be called by a different name
  • Sudden changes in activity: Demonstrating dramatic swings between lethargy and hyperactivity

Dissociation is a poor solution, and untreated survivors of childhood sexual abuse often suffer lasting effects:

  • Emotional: Fear, shame, anxiety, depression, intrusive thoughts and other symptoms of PTSD. Sadly (and wrongly) many victims believe they are at least partly to blame.
  • Physical: Chronic pain, self-harm actions (cutting), suicide attempts and addiction
  • Sexual: Association of pain and violation with sexual activity, STDs, and, in women, gynecologic problems including pelvic pain and chronic infection

How to Get Help

Whether through individualized counseling or group therapy, many survivors find that treatment gives them a healthy way to "put the abuse away."

The first step is to find skilled help, and organizations like the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network are a great place to start.

How to Obtain Justice

Survivors can press criminal charges against their abusers, as well as sue them privately.

Statutes of Limitations

Each state sets its own rules on how long survivors have to come forward, and these are usually different for criminal prosecutions and civil (private) lawsuits. These time limits are referred to as “statutes of limitations”.

For example, in Pennsylvania, criminal charges must brought by the time the victim turns 50, while a private lawsuit against the perpetrator must be brought before the victim turns 30.

Discovery Rules and/or Long Statutes of Limitations

The reticence of children and the phenomenon of dissociation (detaching from the abuse) make enforcing strict deadlines difficult. On the one hand, it is completely unfair to punish a child sexual abuse survivor for being unable to face and recall abuse. At the same time, it is well established in the law that after a certain period of time, it would be difficult to have a fair trial where all of the evidence has been lost.

To get around this, most states set their statutes of limitations to begin running, at least in part, when the survivor becomes an adult (generally, turns 18 or 19). In addition, each state typically chooses one of two options for accommodating repressed memories – either a long statute of limitations period or a discovery rule.

Many states, like Pennsylvania, address the problem by establishing long statute of limitations and not starting them until the victim turns 18.

Others have adopted a "discovery" approach, where the time period will not begin until the adult victim has regained memory of the abuse. For example, in Iowa, generally the criminal prosecution must be brought within 10 years of the survivor turning 18.

For civil suits in Iowa, a victim has two years from the day s/he turns 19 to bring most private lawsuits, although 5 years from his/her 19th birthday to bring a private lawsuit against a counselor, therapist or school employee.

However, these 2- and 5- year periods in Iowa may be tolled (delayed) until the person "discovers" the connection between the acts of abuse and his/her damages, and after that she or he has 4 years to bring a suit. Therefore, in Iowa, if a person does not realize her emotional and physical problems are due to the abuse until she is 25, she has until age 29 to bring a private suit.

Each state has unique rules, and the above should not be taken for legal advice. Each situation has a unique set of circumstances which requires the specific advice of an attorney.

Vicarious Liability

With private lawsuits, sometimes other people and organizations bear some responsibility for the abuse. For example, the organization that knowingly allowed a scout leader to continue to be alone with children, as well as the business that owned the property where the abuse occurred, may also be liable for the survivor's injuries.

Note that, in some jurisdictions (like Pennsylvania), the statute of limitations for suing someone for their vicarious liability is far shorter than for seeking justice against the perpetrator.

How to Get Help

At Kobylinski + Kobylinski, our attorneys understand how painful and difficult coming forward can be. Over the years, however, we have discovered that, rather than compounding their suffering, many survivors become empowered once they see their abuser brought to account through the legal system.

If you or someone you love has been the victim of child sexual abuse, please contact us today to discuss your legal rights. We never charge a fee for an initial consultation, and we prosecute many cases on a contingent basis—meaning we only receive a fee if and when our client's case comes to successful resolution.

Kobylinski + Kobylinski prosecutes sexual abuse cases nationwide.


Adult Manifestations of Childhood Sexual Abuse (ACOG)

Childhood Sexual Abuse – It's Your Business

Facts, Myths, and Statistics

The Fragmented Child

Putting Away the Past

Search for a Local Crisis Center

Sexually Transmitted Disease and Childhood Sexual Abuse