by Joey Crandall, firstname.lastname@example.org
“The reason why child victims of sexual abuse rarely speak out is that they think it is their fault and that they won’t be believed because the abuser is so admired by others. They don’t feel they have a voice … Some of them, or most of them, are damaged for life, whether they realize it or not …”
It was a message from a Carson Valley resident and victim of childhood sexual abuse, sent during a month designated both as Sexual Assault Awareness Month and Child Abuse Prevention Month.
It’s a message that could be echoed by virtually any victim of childhood sexual abuse.
And that victim could be virtually anyone you come into contact with.
One out of every 10 people, to be exact.
According to Darkness To Light, a national organization geared toward ending child sexual abuse through training parents, youth-serving professionals and organization volunteers in its “Stewards of Children” prevention program, about 7-12 percent of children in the United States will be sexually abused before they turn 18.
More specifically, one in seven girls and one in 25 boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18 (The Centers For Disease Control & Prevention peg it at closer to one in four girls and one in six boys).
To put it into practical terms, as many as 400,000 babies born in the United States this year will be sexually abused before their 18th birthdays.
“It could happen to anyone,” said Douglas County Sheriff’s Office Investigator Nadine Chrzanowski to a room full of about 20 students at a recent educational symposium session on sexual assault prevention at Aspire Academy High School. “Statistically speaking, someone in this room. Or one of your friends.”
It is a crime, according to Darkness To Light, that is immeasurable in its impact upon the victim.
“Child sexual abuse is likely the most prevalent health problem with the most serious array of consequences that children face,” the organization states.
The effects on the victim in the aftermath of the crime are long-term and far-reaching, ranging between a fear of healthy affection and relationships, vulnerability to other victimization, instances of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, overly sexualized behavior as they grow older, anxiety and depression, withdrawal and social isolation, runaway behavior, decreased school performance, criminal behavior, obesity, self-inflicted harm and suicide.
The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention has estimated that the lifetime burden of the crime of child sexual abuse is $210,012 per victim, when considering the immediate costs along with the long-term loss of productivity and increased healthcare costs in adulthood.
“We primarily work with domestic violence cases,” said Donna Buddington, Marriage and Family Therapist for the Family Support Council of Douglas County. “I would say close to 60 or 70 percent of our domestic violence clients were also sexually molested as a child.
“The prevalence is enormous. But some people never tell. They carry it with them. It’s estimated that the crime gets reported only 38 percent of the time.”
In Douglas County, seven cases of child sexual abuse were reported to the sheriff’s office in 2015. That number, though, doesn’t reflect the totality of the crime as many victims never report, or don’t report for years or even decades.
“People will be in their 50s, they are experiencing profound depression and they’ll disclose something that happened to them at the age of 7,” Buddington said.
Victims sometimes don’t know anything wrong is happening.
“There is a term, being groomed, the grooming begins when the child is very young in a lot of cases,” said Family Support Council Advocate Norma Olmos. “You begin to think it is normal as a victim.”
“In 90 percent of the cases, the victim knows the assailant,” Buddington said. “It will be within the family, or a family friend.
“They’ll make the child feel special, again grooming them. It’s opportunistic on the part of the assailant. It’s an opportunistic crime. The opportunity is there, and the resistance is low. They (the abusers) need help also, and they don’t come forward to get it. It happens more than you ever want to think it would.”
For the victims, it’s a sentence that many bear silently, often believing that they were personally at fault.
“In anyone’s mind, it’s almost easier to throw yourself under the bus and believe it is your fault than it is to face a world where people who say they love you could do something like that,” Buddington said. “Just the random craziness of it is too much too bear.
“They think if it is my fault, at least I feel like I have some control over what has happened. Negative control, but control.
“They’re afraid, especially if it’s within the family. They feel like if they report it, it threatens the family structure, and for children, family structure is survival.”
Children also fear that they won’t be believed, and in some cases, that ends up happening.
“A child will tell once or twice and nothing happens, so they give up,” Buddington said. “It’s estimated that less than 4 or 5 percent of claims are fabricated.”
“Children do not lie about this stuff,” she said.
Of the more than 100 cases Olmos and Buddington have encountered over the past three years, commonalities have surfaced.
“With children, the presenting concern is there and they start exhibiting regressive behaviors,” Buddington said. “They’re clingy, nightmares, vague somatic complaints like tummy aches, and developmentally inappropriate sexualized behavior are the more prevalent signs.
“Their academics fall off. They are agitated. For any trauma, in my experience, if you have a repeat offender that goes on and on, the victims are more disposed to drug abuse, promiscuity, violence, crime. All of the indicators are way higher.”
“Female victims of childhood sexual abuse are three times more likely to end up abusing a substance than any other person,” Olmos said.
According to Darkness To Light, in many cases the abuser will shame the child and suggest that the child had let the crime happen or that the child’s parents will be angry. In other cases, children love the abuser and don’t want to get the abuser in trouble or end the relationship – they just want the abuse to stop.
Also, for the child, the effect of the investigation makes an impact.
“There is the crime itself, and then there is the child having to recount that crime to investigators and in court, just reliving the story over and over again,” Buddington said. “It can take a toll, although the justice system has done a tremendous amount to make the process as gentle as possible.
“The victims who do come forward and do the work, they wind up realizing how courageous and strong they really are. They really rise to the occasion and find their innate resiliency. Really become incredible people.”
As far as prevention, Darkness To Light suggests creating an open communication with your children, having age-appropriate conversations about boundaries and what is “against the rules” in how adults act toward them.
They suggest monitoring the safety of any isolated, one-on-one setting with children, including setting an example by avoiding such situations with children other than your own; assessing the safety of any situations where older youth have access to younger children, and also monitoring children’s internet use as offenders will use the internet to lure children into physical contact.
Those responsibilities, the organization suggests, extend into public life.
“Offenders are rarely caught in the act of abusing the child, but they’re often seen breaking rules and pressing boundaries,” the Darkness To Light Web site states. “If you are a ‘bystander’ who witnesses a boundary violation, or sees a situation in which a child is vulnerable, it’s not important to know the intentions of the person who crosses the boundary. What is important is that you reinforce the boundary – even if you are in front of others, or in a public setting.”
Olmos said much of the focus within the Family Support Council in cases of child sexual abuse is on being an advocate for the parents of the victim.
“They need help in knowing how to be around the child, what to say,” Olmos said. “How to deal with an unthinkable situation like this. We refer the child to the proper channels, but we want to equip parents to be able to accommodate their child.”
“We talk about how to keep their life as normal as possible,” Buddington said. “They’re still a normal kid, but this thing happened to them.
“They aren’t alone. This crime exists everywhere, at every socioeconomic level. Any age, race, gender. It happens.
“It’s not so much a crime of sex as it is a crime of power. What the children lose is their innocence. They have a confusion between what is love and what is power, and that is something they continue to have to work out throughout their lives.
“It is never too late to come forward, though. To speak out. It’s a secret that no one should have to carry alone. It can be very empowering for victims to speak out. In the context of feeling that it is their fault, it is the shame factor that becomes so prevalent.
“Shame thrives in isolation. When they begin to come out from that isolated place, so many people who have had the same experience feel the same way, there is something very freeing about that.”
The Family Support Council offers a number of support groups, including a women’s support group. They also offer bilingual services.
“Anyone in need of help can call the office, or even send an anonymous e-mail,” Olmos said. “We do have a crisis line they are more than welcome to call. It’s all confidential. There’s no judgment and our services are free.”
For more information on those, visit www.family-support.org or call 775-782-8692 (which also serves as the crisis line). For more information on Darkness To Light, visit www.d2l.org. Additional resources include www.rainn.org.
To report a crime, call 9-1-1 or the non-emergency line at 775-782-5126.
Western Nevada College is hosting a sexual assault awareness walk on April 30 at 10 a.m. at Bully’s Restaurant, 3530 N. Carson Street, at the intersection of Highway 395 and West College Parkway.