Child abuse has devastating societal consequences

As the MDIT Coordinator for the Lassen County Mikailia Child Advocacy Center, I hear firsthand accounts of the tragedies children in our community are victims of and the impact it has on their lives. Childhood trauma is relatively common with estimates as high as 1/2 to 2/3 of all children experiencing trauma in their childhood. These children may have an elevated risk of mental and physical health problems, substance abuse, human trafficking, and criminal justice involvement during adolescence and throughout their adulthood.

Moreover, these devastating consequences do not just affect the child victims; they impact society as a whole. One way we can reduce the impact on society and help lessen the burden child victims carry is to change the way we think and talk about abuse.

When you talk to someone about a case of child abuse, you will almost always hear the question, “Why didn’t they tell someone?” There has been a significant amount of research conducted on child abuse disclosure rates. One of the key findings in the research is, delayed disclosure. Kids delay in disclosing (telling) someone they were a victim of child abuse, especially if they are a victim of child sexual abuse.

Due to the fact that children’s bodies heal quickly and disclosures are delayed, roughly 80 to 90 percent of child sexual abuse cases will have no physical evidence. Sometimes the child’s disclosure may be the primary evidence that a crime was committed. Shockingly, up to 43 percent of child sexual abuse victims are unwilling to disclose the abuse even when there is corroborative evidence that the abuse occurred. That number drops even more when the perpetrator was a female. That corroborative evidence could have either been obtained through a medical exam, abuser confession or witness reports. That is why it is so important to create an environment where victims feel safe to disclose, but sometimes that still isn’t enough.

There are several factors influencing a child’s decision to disclose or not disclose, and I could list them, but I think it would be more meaningful if local survivors explained what they were thinking and what prevented them from telling someone they were being molested.

 

Mikailia is a survivor of child sexual abuse. She was victimized from the age of 5 to 13 by her stepfather.

Q: What prevented you from telling someone you were being molested?

I was scared. I was scared for my family, my life and my future. I was worried that people would look at me differently. I was afraid of the potential catastrophic impact it would have on my family and the normal that I knew. I didn’t want people to blame my mom for not knowing, because he was that good. He had me convinced that if I told, it would be my fault that all of those things would happen, so I buried it. After he was out of my life, I just ignored it and pretended it never happened.

He would tell me things about my future, and how I was going to think about the abuse and that I would tell my future husband about it. Unfortunately, he was right! I still think about the abuse, even though he was prosecuted. His arrest and conviction is validating, but it doesn’t heal the scars. I am still working towards healing and I think it will be a life long journey.

Q: How did law enforcement find out about the abuse?

Law enforcement found out because he confessed everything to his sister. He told her he was sorry, and he wouldn’t do anything like that again to another child, and she believed him. She held on to that secret for a year until she saw a picture of him with another young girl, and she knew he wasn’t going to stop.

After that, she reported his confession to the Lassen County Sheriff’s Office and they investigated. I honestly think that if she didn’t report it, I would have taken that secret to the grave. By then I was a master at suppressing my feelings about the abuse.

Q: Is there anything you want people to know about child sexual abuse?

I want people to know that it happens and it is happening here in Lassen County. I want them to understand that it is more common than you think and it is almost always some you know.

I also want people to start placing blame on the perpetrator and not the victims and their families. The abuser is to blame. They manipulate the family and capitalize on children’s vulnerabilities. It is not the child or their familiy’s fault. It is the abusers fault.

 

Michelle prefers to think of herself as a thriver, not just a survivor. From the ages of 3 – 12 she was sexually abused by her paternal grandfather.

Q: What prevented you from telling someone you were being molested?

Shame. I knew what was happening wasn’t right, but I also loved my grandfather. He would tell me things like, “I will get in trouble if you tell and you don’t want me to get in trouble.” He would psychologically manipulate me. I also remember I didn’t feel a lot of support from my family and was afraid they wouldn’t believe me. I thought I would be the one who destroyed the family if I talked about our secret. As I got older, I realized some of my family knew and did nothing to protect me. I remember my grandmother telling me when I was 3 years old while she cleaned my privates after the abuse that I would forget about it when I was older. That was not the case, I never forgot.

Q: How did law enforcement find out about the abuse?

They never did. Back in the 1970’s when my sexual abuse was happening, there weren’t social services like there are today. In fact, the federal law, the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) that encouraged states to pass laws to investigate reports of maltreatment and professionals to identify children who needed protection wasn’t enacted until 1974. I was also unaware of my rights as a victim and did not realize I could have come forward as an adult and the crime could have still been investigated.

Q: Is there anything you want people to know about child sexual abuse?

I want victims to know that it doesn’t have to define their life. It is possible to not only survive, but thrive and use your experience to help others. I want them to realize that they have value, and it’s important to love yourself and to forgive yourself for keeping the “secret”.

 

Heather was a victim of numerous forms of child abuse. When she was 4 -5 years old she was molested by her step-grandfather. Then, from the ages of 9- 12 years old she was physically and sexually abused by her stepfather (mom’s boyfriend) and witnessed her stepfather repeatedly physically assault her mother.

Q: What prevented you from telling someone you were being molested?

I don’t know. I think because I was so young and didn’t know that reaching out for help was an option. There wasn’t a lot of public awareness and prevention education about child abuse going on back then like there is today. I also think watching my mom be abused by my stepfather and not speaking up about her victimization at his hands caused me to follow suit. I did not speak up until I reached the point where I was so scared I couldn’t keep the secret anymore.

Q: How did law enforcement find out about the abuse?

At approximately 12 years old I overheard my stepfather saying he was going to marry my mother and take all of us far away from Lassen County. This scared me, because I felt somewhat safe here. There were a few law enforcement officers that would respond to calls at our home and deescalate the domestic violence situation, but if we were leaving, I wouldn’t have that anymore. That was when I decided to tell my mother I was being molested by my stepfather. I didn’t have to disclose the physical abuse, because she had witnessed it multiple times. However, after disclosing the sexual abuse, my mother reported it.

All I remember after that was a bunch of people (agencies) coming at me to investigate. At 12 years old that was intimidating. I didn’t know who to trust, and I didn’t understand why there were so many people I had to talk to. Additionally, while that was going on my stepfather was threatening me, so I took it all back. I said I lied to stop the chaos. I did not feel safe to tell the truth, so I decided it would be easier to say it didn’t happen.

Since I recanted, and due to his peace officer status, he was released and never charged.

Q: Is there anything you want people to know about child sexual abuse?

My biggest take away is that more people should trust that the child is telling the truth, and after disclosure, make sure they feel supported and protected throughout the process.

In conclusion, whether or not the child ever discloses is up to them, but we should encourage our children to talk to caregivers or a safe adult about things that make them feel uncomfortable. Secrecy is essential to the perpetrators safety and talking openly with children about child sexual abuse can help prevent it.

Teach them that their bodies belong to them and they don’t have to do anything that makes them uncomfortable. Each time I hear a child speak up against the person who robbed them of their childhood, I admire their inner strength and think of Mikailia and her quote, “You are already strong, be brave.”

Thank you to the survivors brave enough to speak their truth, and to the ones that are not ready, I understand. Please know that the abuse isn’t your fault.

If you suspect someone is being abused, or you are being abused, please report it to Law Enforcement or Child and Family Services. Also, here are a few resources that can help you get the support you need to begin your journey to healing. You don’t need to suffer alone.

Lassen County Mental Health Services. Call 251-8108 or Toll free 24-hour Crisis Services (888) 530-8688

Lassen Family Services lassenfamilyservices.org/

Call 257-4599 or the 24-hour Crisis Hotline 257-5004.

Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network rainn.org/.

In addition to an online hotline, RAINN offers a National Sexual Assault telephone hotline (800) 656-HOPE. RAINN also offers information on sexual assault, tips for what do following an attack, information on how to help loved ones who have been raped, and a search page for finding local rape crisis centers.

Childhelp — National Child Abuse Hotline childhelp.org/child-abuse/.

Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline is a 24-hour hotline with resources to aid in every child abuse situation. All calls are confidential. Call (800) 4-A-CHILD (800) 422-4453 for help.