Objective.

To describe factors that prompt pediatric practitioners to suspect child sexual abuse, the barriers to inquiry, and the approach to management of cases of possible abuse.

Design.

Qualitative, descriptive, and case-based.

Methods.

Six focus group interviews were conducted. Maternal and Child Health Bureau-sponsored collaborative office rounds groups nationwide participated in discussions of five vignettes. Each group interview lasted 1.5 hours and had 7 to 16 participants (n = 65). Audiotaped data were transcribed and analyzed independently for themes by two reviewers.

Results.

Five themes emerged from the group interviews: anticipatory guidance, red flags, approach to management, terminology used in discussions, and barriers to inquiry. All groups discussed giving anticipatory guidance about sexual abuse. Half (3/6) believed girls were more likely to be victimized, and some (2/6) gave more anticipatory guidance to girls for this reason. Although some groups reported giving anticipatory guidance about sexual abuse, many reported inconsistencies in their practice. All groups identified historical, behavioral, and physical red flags for sexual abuse but believed that they were not trained in residency to recognize these signs. There was no consensus regarding the approach to management of cases of possible sexual abuse, and many participants did not know the types of questions that they should be asking children when they suspect abuse. Members of all groups reported using imprecise terms when they discuss sexual issues with families. Most (4/6) believed that it was a practitioner's responsibility to inquire about abuse but believed that their discomfort with sexual topics was a barrier to inquiry. All believed that the most significant barrier to inquiry was inadequate training in the area of sexual abuse and that cases are missed because of lack of training.

Conclusions.

Highly motivated pediatric practitioners reported that they give anticipatory guidance about sexual abuse inconsistently, that they were not trained to recognize red flags for sexual abuse, and that they do not have a consistent approach to cases of suspected abuse. Additionally, they reported that they are not comfortable discussing sexual issues and that they miss cases of sexual abuse primarily because of lack of training. Educational interventions that target these themes are essential to improve the ability of pediatricians to screen children and to intervene when sexual abuse is identified.

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