One reason victims of abuse often suffer in silence is because they know we don’t want to hear about it. But now we must listen.
Nobody asked me why I stopped talking for several months when I turned 11. As a child, my “normal” state was shy but impish, with my head buried in a book.
Silence was the only coping mechanism I could conjure. I didn’t know how else to respond to the molestation of my young body and spirit by my alcoholic stepfather. I didn’t speak for several months. That muteness was noticed by many, but attributed to other causes.
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In my twenties, I finally told – my fragile psyche cupped gently by many as I excavated the locked-away shame, and grieved. I came to believe that what happened was not my fault, not my shame, and not “who I was”: all necessary steps along the path from victim, to survivor, and now advocate.
I could have just as easily believed that I deserved to be hurt again and again, ending up prostituted or battered. I am one of the lucky ones.
Those of us who work to fight crimes against children use the Jerry Sandusky trial as a platform to say that this happens so much more than you would imagine. We use this as an opportunity to appeal to parents to pay attention, to look for changes in a child’s “normal”, and to understand the consequences of looking the other way.
While we wait for the outcome of this latest national scandal, we are missing the bigger discussion. I understand why. It’s an ugly topic nobody really wants to talk about.
But we must. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now consider child sexual abuse a public health problem. According to the adverse childhood experiences data, from 17,000 Kaiser Permanente enrollees, one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused.
It often takes a long time for these children to come forward because, for most, the abuse occurs at the hands of someone they know and trust. Children are not emotionally equipped to automatically process trauma, are afraid they won’t be believed, and think they are to blame. In order to cope, they lock away and often masterfully cover their internal wounds.
They do sometimes display changes in behavior that are outside of their “normal”. We just don’t always pick up on the signals; sometimes, they are quite subtle.
Former Penn State linebacker LaVar Arrington wishes he had paid more attention to “Victim 4” in the Sandusky case. In a heartfelt apology in the Washington Post, he wrote:
“It’s mind-blowing to realize that a kid I took an active interest in during my time at school was suffering right in front of me … I will never just wonder why a child is mad. I will never just assume ever again. I will always ask, and let them know that it’s okay to tell the truth about why they are upset.”
Some never tell and may believe they are forever damaged. The outcomes for those who never fully process their trauma include lingering self-doubt, depression, addiction, heart disease, obesity, and suicide.
There is hope. More than 600 children’s advocacy centers nationwide offer a child-friendly place for children to speak their truths. Before advocacy centers existed, traumatized children were taken to police stations, CPS offices and district attorney’s offices to tell what happened, potentially over and over to multiple people. This process, in and of itself, was found to be traumatic.
Imagine being a child, thinking you are somehow to blame, and finding yourself in a police station. Then, imagine you are a child up on a witness stand being called a liar because your story shifted slightly based on the way questions were asked during the initial disclosure process. The children’s advocacy center movement started because we knew we could do better than that.
Today, when 911 or CPS is called, many children across the US are taken to an advocacy center, where they can talk to someone specially trained in how to interview children in an unbiased, non-leading way. Law enforcement and CPS professionals can watch the interview from an observation room.
This model reduces trauma for the child and creates a stronger case if it goes into the criminal court system. Children and non-offending family members also utilize the services of advocacy centers for healing their wounds, whether from physical abuse, sexual abuse, witnessing a violent crime or abduction. The heartbreaking stories told through advocacy centers seem surreal and unimaginable to those not involved in this fight every day.
The Sandusky Eight have a long journey of healing ahead of them. Many following the trial won’t want to believe their stories over the word of a man once so respected. The defense attorneys will try to find ways to discredit them.
Many will desperately want to look the other way and find another explanation. Some will accuse these young men of lying for financial gain. It is true that there are children who make up the sexual abuse they appear to be disclosing, but these constitute fewer than 5% of cases and in almost all, they have been coached by a parent to lie during a custody dispute.
Last week and this, child sexual abuse is a headline because of the Sandusky trial, but it will soon go the way of the Catholic Church – and the nation’s heightened awareness will dissipate. But let’s not wait for another national scandal to be exposed before we take all this in, and adjust to the reality that more children than we could ever imagine face this trauma. It’s time to pay attention because we have many, many young walking-wounded among us. And they may be crying out, even in their silence.