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Empowering child victims, reducing shame of sexual assault

I paced up and down, back and forth, across the hospital parking lot.

"Her stepfather," I said into the phone, trying to keep my voice and hand steady, to avoid bursting into tears or dropping my cell.

"The perpetrator is her stepfather." 

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The Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCP&P) phone screener continued with her questions without even the slightest pause. “How old is she? Where does she live? Where does she attend school?” Some of the questions I was permitted to answer; some I absolutely could not due to my confidentiality granted by victim-counselor privilege.

The screener mostly understood this limitation, and only occasionally pressed me for additional details.

“I cannot confirm or deny,” I replied a few times.

At the end of the call, the screener said that yes, my report of child abuse warranted an investigation by DCP&P.

I went back inside the hospital and back to the girl’s bedside. I reiterated, almost urgently, that none of what had happened was her fault. The girl was frightened, not only because her stepfather had assaulted her while she was sleeping, but of her mother’s reaction to the news. She was nervous about the forensic exam, the DCP&P involvement, and the potential for criminal charges. And then there was the shame. Our entire conversation was blanketed with a layer of shame.

I promised that I would call the next day to see how she’s doing, and that she was in good hands with the sexual assault nurse, also known as the Forensic Nurse Examiner.

On the ride home, I don’t remember crying. I don’t remember screaming or yelling or even being angry. I just remember staring out the windshield while sitting in deep silence.

April is a special month for me. April is both National Child Abuse Prevention Month and Sexual Assault Awareness Month, two topics that are close to my heart. In my career, I have been both a Sexual Assault Response Team member and a child advocate, and on that day with that girl, I was both.

One in 5 girls and one in 20 boys is a victim of child sexual abuse; in the majority of these cases, the perpetrator is a parent.

While these numbers may already seem high, I have bad news—like all forms of sexual assault/abuse, child sexual abuse is severely underreported. The actual number is likely a lot higher.

The potential effects of child sexual abuse are as heartbreaking as the above statistics. Initially, victims may exhibit regressive behaviors like thumb-sucking and bed-wetting. In the longer term, child victims may develop self-destructive behaviors like alcohol or drug abuse. They may experience deep feelings of shame, guilt, and blame, and struggle with anxiety, depression, and flashbacks.

Children rely on adults to provide for them and protect them from harm. So what happens when the adults in a child’s life are the dangerous ones?

Then it’s on us to stand up and speak out for this most vulnerable population. 

How you can address child sexual abuse:

  1. Help prevent child sexual abuse: https://www.rainn.org/safety-parents

  2. Be aware of the signs: https://www.rainn.org/warning-signs

  3. Believe children who confide in us

  4. Become an advocate for children in the foster care system who are victims. Learn more at an upcoming CASA information session: https://www.passaiccountycasa.org/orientation/

 

-Written by Jessica L. Mickley
Director of Outreach and Training
Passaic County Court Appointed Special Advocates