ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – It’s midnight in Florida, 10 p.m. back home. I have just spent the first day of a two-day seminar at the Poynter Institute, part of a group of 24 reporters from newspapers and TV stations around the country. We are here at this journalism center to learn about reporting on child sexual abuse.
Sexual abuse of children is a topic I’ve avoided writing about until now even though I’ve strongly wanted to. I am well aware of the devastating effects of sexual abuse on children, but I didn’t have the tools I needed, the information.
I want to share some important statistics I heard today directly from representatives of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center and the Centers for Disease Control:
One out every four women and one out of every six men in this country have been sexually abused by the time they are 18. That’s a startling and disturbing statistic.
I didn’t read the studies, so I don’t know how the CDC arrived at these numbers, but in some areas they are said to be even higher. I thought it might be important for people who were sexually abused as children to learn they are not alone.
Very few children ever tell anyone. They are afraid, or ashamed, or don’t want to upset their parents, or have been threatened by the abuser. Children don’t understand what happened to them and they need help.
Kids are taught about “stranger danger,” but the incidence of cases involving strangers is only one in 10. Ninety percent of the cases involve people the child knows and may trust. Sixty percent of cases involve persons outside the home, often well-regarded authority figures in the community.
And it’s not just the high profile cases, like those involving priests or coaches like Jerry Sandusky. Those stories make the headlines but are just the tip of the iceberg. At least they have also been icebreakers, and make it easier for us all to talk about the topic.
Then there are the remaining cases that happen in the home, the ones where it is not as easy to point the finger at an institution, to fix blame elsewhere. It is estimated that in 30 percent of the cases, the perpetrator is a family member or extended family, older siblings, and other caretakers.
And the impact is much more serious when the abuse takes place in the home. In talking later with a psychologist who specializes in post-traumatic stress syndrome, I learned that the closer the trauma occurs in a context in which you believe you are safe, the worse the impact on your life.
As a reporter for the Navajo Times, living near the Navajo Nation, I hear about the sexual abuse of children here. I also hear that there is not enough social and therapeutic support within and for families to deal with situations when they come to light.
And in general, like everywhere, there is the inability of the community at large to cope and help victims.
But there are certain areas that can be improved.
There is a recognized need for more training of law enforcement and health care staff. There is a huge need to educate the community. There are some training initiatives to address sexual abuse of children on the reservation, and part of this is simply giving people the language, a way to talk about these things, including training health workers and police in how to ask questions and report incidents.
These programs are in the beginning stages and much more must be done.
Victims, and even perpetrators seeking to modify their behavior, simply do not have the language to articulate their experience. This is particularly true in a community where cultural taboos inhibit parents from talking clearly about sexual matters with their children.
Lack of information about what constitutes sexual abuse may mean it is not even recognized by adults when it happens. Children definitely do not understand it.
Even when it is recognized, sexual abuse of children mostly goes unreported and therefore, untreated. Social services and trained counselors are few and far between. Potential loss of a breadwinner, or worse, loss of custody further inhibits reporting in some cases.
Another reason it may go unreported is that serious crimes on the reservation fall under the jurisdiction of the FBI, leaving no chance the case will be decided under Navajo laws.
Cases that are reported to federal authorities often die for lack of evidence.
The U.S. attorney general’s office almost daily issues reports of child sexual abusers prosecuted and sent to prison, but the number brought to justice doesn’t begin to address the enormity of the problem. Strict laws that require sex offenders to register are in place on the reservation, but are difficult to enforce.
The system is not working.
Traditional healing ceremonies are important to families but as traditional ways become less available, young families may not know how to ask for information.
I have to say, when I saw this seminar offered I felt drawn to it and repelled at the same time. Maybe I am not alone in feeling that way. I waited until literally the eleventh hour to sign up for it. But now I know it is something I can write about, and, because I can, I really cannot walk away from it.
This was first published in the print edition of the July 19, 2012 Navajo Times, page A7, Reporters Notebook