Keiki And Sex Abuse Trauma
Interviewed by Rasa Fournier
Wednesday - January 19, 2011
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Director of programs at the Children’s Alliance of Hawaii
How long have you been with Children’s Alliance of Hawaii?
I joined CAH more than six months ago. Before this, I was with the Child Sex Abuse Treatment Program at Catholic Charities Hawaii for about 16 years.
What do you do at CAH?
I coordinate programs for children who have been sexually abused. We work in collaboration with the community, the Legislature and with other service providers.
I also work with children and their parents directly.
How are children referred to you?
Sometimes their primary care providers refer them to us, such as the Sex Abuse Treatment Center, Child and Family Service, Catholic Charities Hawaii’s Child Sex Abuse Treatment Program and the state Department of Human Services. We also receive referrals through the prose-cutor’s office. When the case is being prosecuted, which isn’t often enough, they have the victim go through their victim-witness Kokua Program and the social worker there refers them here for services.
What are signs of sexual abuse that parents should be aware of?
There’s a whole continuum of what you might experience with a child. For some children, you see changes in sleeping habits and in eating habits. Unusual and/or sudden changes in any of their behaviors are usually a sign that a child is uncomfortable with something. Other indicators could include having nightmares or being overly preoccupied with sexual matters that may not be age appropriate. On the other hand, there are children who learn to accommodate their abuse and they are straight-Astudents. They come home and help their brothers and sisters with their homework; they help their mom clean the house. Just by looking at their behavior you wouldn’t know there was any abuse going on.
What preventative measures can caregivers take?
The best thing I can say to parents is be open with your children communication-wise. Be a safe person to talk to. Be safe moms, dads, uncles, aunties, grandpas and grandmas. Children will come to people with whom they feel safe. From childhood we’re teaching kids whether or not this thing about sexuality is a good thing or a bad thing. When I’ve been in front of the parents, they’ve asked, “What can we do to make our kids safe?” It really is about being present to the child and believing them. It’s not an easy thing to do because I don’t think any parent is ready to deal with the fact that their child was sexually abused.
How can older children protect themselves?
That question is asked so often, and it presupposes that the child is responsible. It’s on us adults. Certainly, teenagers need to tell someone if someone is touching them or behaving in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable. That’s sometimes difficult, because there are things like entrapment or threats, and there are also promises of gifts if you don’t tell the secret. We can’t hold teenagers and children to the same kind of response that adults might have if we were assaulted. Children and teenagers tend to pretend like they’re sleeping or even disassociate from their bodies. Kids have a different way of protecting themselves. What a child will do is play possum - children are magical thinkers; they pull the covers over their heads. That’s pretty much all that we can expect from them. The message I’d like to get out for teenagers is if someone is bothering you or making you feel uncomfortable in any way, tell someone safe so they can get it to stop.
Where can the abuse victim or caregiver get help?
Call the police. One of the things we know - and I’ve been in this field for about 16 years - is the victims do well when someone takes responsibility and accountability for what happened to them. The only way that’s going to happen is if they’re confronted either through the courts or the Department of Human Services, and to get into treatment themselves. When that happens, the child realizes it wasn’t their fault, that it has nothing to do with what they were wearing or where they were hanging out or how they were acting, but that this was an adult decision to molest the child, or even with child on child sex - it’s not their fault. The best thing they can do is to tell someone. For parents, caregivers, friends and extended family it’s to believe the child. When I’ve asked kids who have been in therapy for some time, “What was the most hurtful part of this whole episode?” it was not being believed. About 96 percent of all accusations turn out to be accurate. I would like parents to know that for me and the other service providers out there, we are going to believe the child.
Any final words?
Imagine you go home and there’s a police officer who says, “Your partner has been molesting your child.” We’re not prepared to have that told to us because there’s the person we love with whom we made an agreement to raise children and to protect them and offer them a healthy home. It could be that the child put up with the abuse to protect a younger sister or a younger brother. And if they run away to be safe, that exposes yet another child in the house to abuse. No one wins in this scenario. It’s one of the few crimes where the victim loves the perpetrator. In well more than 80 percent of the cases, they’re being molested by people who are relatives or someone very close to the family. We give our children permission not to talk to strangers, but we don’t give them permission not to obey elders in the family. If one of those elders happens to be a perpetrator, the kids feel kind of stuck. The good news is that children are resilient, courageous and strong. Our first step as family and community is to respond to their disclosure by believing them, letting them know they did the right thing, and by telling them that we are proud of them for not keeping the secret.
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