April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month as well as Child Abuse Prevention Month in the United States. Both issues involve terrible crimes and reflect somber realities in our society. But for many children in the United States, and all over the world, these two issues overlap into one huge and often invisible problem.
Any kind of child abuse is wrong and heartbreaking, but sexual abuse comes with its own (less obvious) pitfalls that can sometimes keep well-intending families from getting the justice they deserve. Everyone should know some important signs of abuse — and the myths that each debunks.
First, child sexual abuse does happen. At least anecdotally, sex and children in the same sentence is something no one wants to hear about. Unfortunately, it happens more often than it should and recognizing that is a huge first step.
A study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that more than 60,000 boys and girls were sexually abused nationally (including Puerto Rico) in 2011. The victims ranged from less than a year old to over 18 years old. This number can be perceived as relatively high or low, depending on your knowledge of the subject, but it’s important to note that the reported numbers may not represent the actual number of incidents. The same is true for almost all types of crime.
In child sexual abuse, exact numbers are hard to pin-point because of issues in under-reporting. Unlike other kinds of child abuse, such as physical abuse or neglect, sexual abuse isn't always frightening and doesn't always hurt. Of course, in most cases children are scared and threatened into not telling. Even in normal circumstances, a child's relationship with an adult involves a lot of control and being told what to do. With sexual abuse, children stay in their submissive role and will likely comply with the adult.
Sometimes, however, the abuse may be disguised in the form of a game or a "secret" between the victim and the abuser. Even though there is still much negative latent behavior from sexual over-stimulation, depending on whom the perpetrator is, the child may not even realize something bad is happening. The American Humane Association lists some behaviors to look for in children of different ages. (That being said, please take a look at this list of normal sexual behavior in children — a degree of self-stimulating sexual behavior is perfectly normal.)
Another important myth to debunk is that a child molester is typically a stranger to the child victim. We usually imagine a "child molester" or "pedophile" as a shadowy figure jumping out of the bushes in a trench coat. This character also exists, but unfortunately statistics show that the many perpetrators of sex crimes against children are family members.
Page 172 in this report by the National Center for Victims of Crime reads: "Among victims of sexual abuse coming to law enforcement attention, more than a quarter are victimized by a family member, while 60% are abused by someone else from their social network." So, only about 15% of sexual assaults against children are by strangers.
It's very important to realize this information is to raise awareness and not fear; by filtering myth from facts, we can be safer. And knowing who is likely to be an abuser helps in at least one very important way: believing the child.
The idea that only strangers or completely deranged people are capable of child abuse is a dangerous one because rather than making the child's allegations against a known person more plausible, it makes them more unlikely. But even after taking the right precautions, even after looking for the right signs and trusting the right people: abuse happens. If it happens, it is not the protective parent's fault and it is definitely not the child's fault. It is the criminal's fault.
Because the perpetrator is typically someone the family trusts and because the victims themselves may not have even disclosed the abuse, uncovering sexual abuse is emotionally and psychologically confusing and draining.
Amidst the confusion, though, there are a few very key steps that an affected family should take in figuring out what happened in a suspected sexual abuse case. It's very difficult to try to remain calm in as terrifying a situation like this but the initial reactions and procedures can go a long way for the child’s mental well-being and toward achieving justice.
First thing first: Report to the police.
Try to avoid asking the child any questions but any questions should be open-ended questions. These are the "5 Wh-'s" that we learn in middle school. By asking open ended questions, the child has an opportunity to tell their story without being limited to "yes or no" questions. Just imagine asking a child in a panicked voice, with tears in your eyes, terrified, "Did he touch you?!" The equally panicked child will likely say, "no."
In any case, report to the police. From there, the officer will make an initial report and should ask the child some basic questions. The officer just needs to know the "who" and the "what," and shouldn't ask many more questions themselves. Depending on the state, county and sometimes even police department, the next step should be making an appointment to see the local Child Advocacy Center (CAC).
CACs vary in what they look like, but each should have a trained Forensic Interviewer who talks to the child. Forensic interviewing is a developmentally appropriate, forensically sound way to obtain information from a child. The interviewer's only job is to find out what happened while reducing trauma as much as possible. It is in the best interest of the child and law enforcement team to get accurate information and not just a disclosure. The CAC also provides the child and his or her family with a victim advocate. Victim advocates provide the family with resources for anything from bus passes to therapists, and often provide support in court. Child's advocates make sure the family has someone personal to go to when dealing with the impersonal ins and outs of the case.
From there, the process can be difficult and trying but there are resources and people along the way whose job is to make fighting this crime a little easier. Even though at the time the world seems to be falling apart, families and children do heal. It does get easier and the child is still whole. The most important goal is the well-being of the child given this horrible situation. Knowing what to look for, and how to appropriately handle the situation, can help achieve that goal.
As an aside, I’d like to note that I learned much of what I know about child sexual abuse during my time at Contra Costa County’s CAC: The Children’s Interview Center. I had the privilege of working alongside hard working victim advocates, forensic interviewers, sexual assault departments and district attorneys in Contra Costa County who fight tirelessly to combat child abuse 12 months during the year. I'm proud to have worked with them and I am glad to continue to support the cause the best way I can.