By Laura Young, Youth Advocate, Umbrella
On Friday, June 9th a local St. Johnsbury counselor was arrested for sexual assault of a child (a 14 year old young man) and recording a sex act of a minor. Many of our community members have been left reeling and angry. In my role as the Youth Advocate at Umbrella in St. Johnsbury, I would like to continue to share my thoughts on how this happens and what to do if your community has been affected by child sexual abuse.
- Child sexual abuse is common and a person who sexually abuses a child could have multiple if not many children that they are abusing.
According to the organization Child Lures Prevention: “Male offenders who abused girls had an average of 52 victims each, men who molested boys had an astonishing average of 150 victims each, and only 3% of these crimes had ever been detected.” These statistics only reflect men who perpetrate sexual violence. Although offenders are overwhelmingly male, it is estimated that women are the abusers in about 14% of cases reported among boys and 6% of cases reported among girls (Statistics on Perpetrators of Child Sexual Abuse, National Victims of Crime).
- It’s not easy to know how to respond to child sexual abuse, especially when it’s someone well known in the community.
Knowing “how” child sexual abuse can occur can be helpful but, when an incident happens, the information on “how” is often less important to the community affected by it because after the shock phase ends the question “what now” hits hard…what do you do when someone who you trusted hurts a child?
- First, after someone sexually abuses a child many community members are left questioning, wondering, second guessing themselves and feeling terrible because maybe they or their children trusted this person. Some may feel regret as though they felt something was off but did not say anything. Others may feel dumb because they did not see the signs that they see when reflecting on the past. Please, if you are feeling responsible for not acting on a feeling that you had or you’re feeling bad for trusting someone who has hurt a child – give yourself some support when facing these emotions and treat yourself gently. Remember the grooming process we talked about? No one wants to believe that a trusted member of the community could perpetrate such devastating violence against a child and the perpetrator not only groomed the child, they groomed the child’s entire support network. Remember, perpetrators usually present as kind, caring, charismatic, friendly people! They are great at manipulating and hiding. Many people will share the same feelings as you, it’s okay to ask for help to process through the shock and anger that you feel.
- That said, as easy as it is to simply talk and discuss details of the event and the anger at the perpetrator, please remember to remain focused on how to support a survivor rather than on tearing down the person who perpetrated the act of violence. Remember that a child felt connected to the person who perpetrated the violence against them. So if you tell the child or someone involved in that child’s life how terrible that person is or how the offender’s actions were (which believe me they were, I’m not saying they weren’t) you could be hurting them more than helping. The best thing you can do is listen and provide empathetic support. Remind them how brave they are to talk about it and that they have your whole support.
- Think about how you would respond if someone disclosed child sexual abuse to you. If you are wondering what to say if someone tells you they have been sexually abused or that their child has been, the best thing that you can say to them is “I believe you” and “I care about you”. It is not helpful for a survivor or one of their supports to hear “why didn’t you say something sooner?” or “are you sure that really happened?” or “why did you trust that person if you thought they might be creepy?” Remember, you are not a detective. You do not have to figure out if this happened or not. Besides, it’s better for you to believe than to not believe someone who is telling the truth! FAR FAR FAR more often than not, someone who talks about being abused is telling the truth.
- Community Response Matters: it’s important to create a new norm.
As much as we want to believe that child sexual abuse and sexual violence can’t happen within our community, it does and will. The best thing we can continue to do is support survivors, take a strong stand against child sexual abuse and support lifelong prevention and education. Together we can create a culture where the norm becomes that sexual violence of any kind will not be tolerated. Find out how you can help prevent sexual violence and abuse by reaching out to your local Vermont Network Program.
- Remember, no one is alone in responding to sexual violence.
If you are reading this and you are a survivor or are supporting a survivor and you could use some support, please remember that across our state (and nationally) there are advocates who will listen and who care about what happened. Please do not hesitate to reach out. You are not alone!
If you’ve stuck it out and read this whole post-thank you! Please remember that you are an important member of a community who can make a difference in responding to child sexual abuse.
For more information on responding to child survivors of sexual abuse and ways to help protect kids, please check out the links below:
- The National Sexual Violence Resource Center offers a free 15 minute class on how to respond to a child disclosing child sexual abuse.
- National Child Traumatic Stress Network fact sheet which includes ways to help protect children from sexual abuse.
- The NEK Rural Project MOU team has updated the Teacher’s Guide to Responding to Domestic and Sexual Violence.