Abused kids text crisis hotlines to find help

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Children who need a discreet way to report abuse are turning to text-based crisis communication services, report researchers.

“She says she will burn the house down with me in it.” “He threatened to pull a gun on me.” “He told me he could kill me in an instant if he wanted to.” These are just a few of the texts children have sent to crisis hotlines in the last several years, researchers say.

“There was a general theory in the field that when kids text in about depression or suicide, they’ll mention abuse. But we found that in many cases, abuse was the first thing they mentioned,” says Laura Schwab-Reese, an assistant professor of health and kinesiology at Purdue University.

“Kids are actively seeking support regarding abuse and neglect through these services, which isn’t what we expected.”

What are kids talking about?

Every year, Child Protective Services receives more than 3.6 million reports of child abuse, involving more than 6 million children in the US. The effects of this abuse and neglect can be long-lasting and varied, from mental to financial. It can even be fatal—about 1,750 children died from abuse and neglect in the US in 2016, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

When children text or call hotlines to discuss their concerns, crisis counselors are required to report suspected abuse to the state if the misconduct meets certain criteria.

Kids “use very blunt language to describe what’s going on.”

Schwab-Reese read all the text conversations (made anonymous) from one crisis service that resulted in reports from October 2015 to July 2017. Rather than starting with a hypothesis and looking for answers to confirm or deny it, she dug into the data with an open mind.

“We were just trying to figure out what kids are talking about when they text in. We had no idea what we were going to find,” Schwab-Reese says.

This is likely one of the first studies of its kind, as it can be difficult to obtain good information on content of reports while maintaining victims’ privacy. No one records phone calls and text-based services remain new to the landscape, Schwab-Reese says.

Kids are more blunt about abuse

The most common form of abuse mentioned in the initial disclosure was physical abuse, followed by psychological abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect.

More than half of texters discussed abuse or other significant family issues in the first message, according to the study. Many also reported psychosocial issues beyond the maltreatment, with nearly a quarter discussing suicidal thoughts.

“Counselors can experience vicarious trauma.”

The fact that many texters described their abuse in blunt terms surprised Schwab-Reese, she says. Nearly half of texters used a variant of the word “abuse,” or other graphic terms such as rape, molest, or assault, in their first disclosure of abuse.

“It’s rare for adults to come right out and say, ‘I’m a victim of abuse.’ They say things like, ‘Things aren’t great at home right now,’ or ‘My partner and I have been fighting a lot,'” Schwab-Reese says.

“We thought kids might use vague terms to describe their abuse as well, but we found that a lot of them use very blunt language to describe what’s going on.”

Not a fleeting experience

The findings also show that for most abused children, it’s not a fleeting experience—nearly 93 percent of texters reported recurrent abuse. A recent crisis or escalation of harm often prompt these kids to reach out.

Implementing text or chat-based communication methods could offer a way for social and health services to reach young people, according to the study.

A 2011 Pew Research Center report found that one-third of adults prefer talking on the phone to texting (a number which is likely higher among young people, and eight years later). Crisis Text Line, a SMS-based support service for people in crisis, has exchanged more than 96 million messages since its launch in 2013.

In addition to adapting to the changing communication landscape, crisis services should work to provide or continue providing care for people on both sides of the phone, Schwab-Reese says.

“Counselors can experience vicarious trauma. The conversations they have with abused children are graphic and heart-breaking,” she says. “Some organizations, such as Crisis Text Line, are providing terrific training and resources to counselors.

“But every organization providing these services needs resources to help counselors after they’ve engaged in these conversations, and to be really explicit in training how to respond to disclosures.

“It’s an entirely different task to respond to ‘Things aren’t great at home,’ than a nine-year-old saying her dad has been sexually abusing her and is threatening her so she’ll keep it a secret.”

The study appears in JMIR mHealth and uHealth. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation supported the work.

Source: Purdue University