It's a beautiful April morning. The sun is shining, it's not snowing, and the sap is definitely running today! You have a brief moment in your hectic schedule to step outside, take a breath and enjoy the warm air.
Two bright yellow school buses, full of children, go past. You glimpse in the windows. All the seats are full, three to a seat. You are impressed with the way they are all sitting calmly, facing forward. You take a second look because you recognize a face or two. The little girl next door, one of the boys that was on your child's baseball team last year, your best friend's teenage daughter. They must be going on a field trip!
You glance at the side of the buses to see which school they are from. It says Child Advocacy Center and you realize the children sitting on the buses are going on a journey, but not a field trip. These children are potentially all survivors of sexual abuse. The calmness the children portray is in reality nervousness and worry. Each child is navigating their own traumas, and recoveries, the best that they can.
These two school buses full of children represent the sexual abuse cases that come to the Bennington County Child Advocacy Center and Special Investigations Unit each year. On average, 130 children are supported at our center through the course of the year.
Does that number shock you? Larger than you thought? Smaller?
If you are looking for firm numbers, that is difficult to pin down. This is what we know for sure: According to U.S. Census data, there are 7,350 children residing in Bennington County. One in 10 children will be sexually abused before the age of 18 (Darkness 2 Light). Therefore it stands to reason that 735 of our children will be sexually abused prior to their 18th birthday.
On average, 130 children are supported at our center through the course of the year.
One-third of child victims will report that they have been sexually abused. Research also tells us that 73 percent of children do not disclose being sexually abused for at least a year. Some 45 percent do not disclose for at least five years (Smith et al, 2000; Broman-Fulks et al, 2007).
What can we do? Talk to our children and listen to what they say. It is very rare that a child will false report (4 to 7 percent.) Most importantly remember, it is not the child's fault. The responsibility lies with the offender.
Keeping a child safe falls on shoulders of the adults in their life. Part of keeping our children safe is to instill in them the skills of accountability, empathy, and communication.
Stranger Danger? When I was young we were taught to stay away from strangers. That is still good advice and should be taught; but in the state of Vermont 97 percent of the victims know their abusers.
Good Touch/ Bad Touch? This too is not completely correct. When talking to your children, you should talk about good touch and bad touch but also include Secret Touch and Confusing Touch. Secret Touch is when a child is convinced to not tell when something has happened. Confusing Touch (or feeling mixed up) is when you are touched in a way that doesn't quite hurt but you know it's not right and makes you feel uncomfortable, mixed up, or confused.
Let's go back to the two school buses and the 130 cases of possible sexual abuse. It is the role of the investigators to determine the validity of the who, what, when, and where; and to do so without re-traumatizing the child. The investigators are trained to interview children in a forensically sound manner. The goal, gather as much information as possible so that the child only needs to be interviewed once. No matter the outcome of the investigation, the family is offered the support of the Child Advocacy Center for as long as needed. We seek justice for the children who have been victimized, support their non-offending family members, and hold the offender accountable for his/her actions.
Joy Kitchell is executive director of Bennington County Child Advocacy Center & Special Investigations Unit.