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How to support a victim of child sexual abuse

Posted April 08, 2013, at 3:50 p.m.
Last modified April 09, 2013, at 4:21 p.m.

Child sexual abuse has been a frequent focus of national and local media in the last year. We know child sexual abuse happens — with great cost to children, their families and their communities.

Child sexual abuse is perpetrated at a rate that we have yet to fully comprehend. Best estimates suggest that one in four girls and one in six boys will experience child sexual abuse, according to a 1990 study, “Child Abuse and Neglect.”

It’s hard to know the true extent of child sexual abuse because barriers to reporting are significant for children. They may not want to get the abuser or themselves in trouble. They may worry no one will believe them. The abuse may be normalized in their life, and they may not know it’s wrong. Children may also blame themselves and feel ashamed about the abuse they endure. A child may disclose to an adult who may not know what to do and may feel as though they have to “prove” sexual abuse was perpetrated before they make a report (they don’t).

Most of us can’t imagine the trauma experienced by a child sexual abuse victim. Research tells us that the impact is long lasting and will often affect someone throughout his or her life. These significant impacts make child sexual abuse the most expensive violent crime in the United States.

The process a child and his or her family experiences after disclosing sexual abuse can help or harm the survivor, and what happens after is critical in the healing process.

What supports can communities put in place to lessen the trauma caused by having to re-tell their story to a number of strangers, ensure adequate medical exams are done and help navigate through a sometimes confusing criminal justice process?

The answer — across the U.S. and in Maine — is a multidisciplinary, victim-centered approach called Children’s Advocacy Centers. Our local center, a program under the Sexual Assault Crisis & Support Center, is housed at Maine General Medical Center’s Seton campus in Waterville. It includes a range of professionals from different disciplines including law enforcement, victim advocates, mental health services, child protective services, prosecutors and health-care professionals.

In the center, these teams work together on cases of reported child sexual abuse and are better able to guide children and their families through difficult and often hard to navigate systems. The results are more communication with victims by the same professionals who get to know their case, better victim and family support and confidentiality, and collaboration across service providers — all of which vastly improve the outcome of child sexual abuse reports. This also increases the likelihood of offender accountability, which helps prevent future sexual abuse.

The center in Waterville opened in May 2012. Since then, the staff have facilitated more than 170 forensic interviews and assisted in coordinating important support services for the families of the children impacted by this horrific form of violence. We know that all forms of sexual violence — everything from child sexual abuse to elder sexual abuse — are community problems with community solutions.

These types of centers are community solutions in the truest sense — people coming together to improve the way we work with child sexual abuse victims and survivors. They deserve all of the support we can provide and deserve to live in communities that seek to be “silent no more” and to end child sexual abuse.

For more information about the Kennebec & Somerset County Children’s Advocacy Center, visit our website at www.silentnomore.org.

Donna Strickler is the executive director of Sexual Assault Crisis and Support Center, serving Kennebec and Somerset Counties. She may be reached at director@silentnomore.org.

 

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