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Pointers for Practice: 10 key principles for managing disclosures of abuse and neglect

Ruth Marchant and Triangle Consultancy1 has developed guidance for managing disclosures. This guidance is based on years of taking vulnerable witness testimonies. These testimonies have been used successfully in court. The Guidance, referred to as ‘Opening Doors’, was developed for children but has been adapted here so that it is relevant for adults at risk.

If a practitioner is to take notice, engage with an adult at risk and respond carefully and well they need to know how to ‘open doors’ for that person so that they feel safe and able to tell.

The following 10 key principles should inform the approach.

  1. If an adult at risk tells or shows about possible abuse, listen and attend carefully, with 100% of your attention, even if you look like you are doing something else. This demonstrates that you are taking what they are saying seriously. Many individuals find it easier if eye contact isn’t demanded of them.
  2. Let the person tell you what they want to tell you, or show you, without interruption, what they want to show you, as long as they and others are safe. If the time or place is tricky, you might be able to adjust the environment rather than interrupt or stop the person (for example, move others, reduce sound in the room, and always try and have a pen and notebook nearby).
  3. If you aren’t sure what the person said or did, or if you aren’t sure what they meant, offer an open invitation, for example, ‘tell me more about that’ or ‘show me that again’. Avoid leading questions such as what, who, why that could impact on further investigations by police.
  4. Say things like ‘uhuh’ or ‘mmhmm’ to show you are listening or repeat back what they have said to you. These are safe things to say because they encourage the person to continue, without directing their account in anyway. Saying ‘OK’ or ‘right’ or ‘yes’ is riskier because these can suggest approval of what is being said, and some things that they need to tell are really not OK.
  5. Make clear through your behaviour and body language that you are calm and alright and that you have time. Give the adult at risk as much physical space as they need.
  6. Adapt your language and communication style in line with the person’s needs. Be clear about what you need to know. Let the person use his or her own words.
  7. Try to get just enough information to work out what action is required. Make a careful record of what they said and did, and any questions you asked as soon as you can.
  8. If an adult at risk tries to demonstrate violent or sexual acts using your body, say calmly ‘I can’t let you do that’ and if necessary move away.
  9. If appropriate, reflect back using the person’s own words. Say exactly what they said, without expanding or amending or asking questions. If appropriate, comment to show that you have noticed what they are doing (e.g. ‘you’re showing me’).
  10. Let the person know what you will do next including who you will have to tell. This can be very simple: ‘I am going to have a think and then I will come back’ then perhaps ‘someone from the police is going to come, they need your help. I will stay with you when they are here’.

    Further information:

1Marchant R (2019) Opening Doors: Best practice when a child might be showing or telling that they are at risk of harm in Horwath, J. and Platt, D The Child’s World The Essential Guide to Assessing Vulnerable Children and their Families; London, JKP.