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Providing hope and healing for survivors of child sexual abuse

Posted at 7:18 AM, May 01, 2019
and last updated 2019-05-01 08:12:30-04

April marked Child Abuse Prevention Month, but the end of April doesn't mean the conversation about child sexual abuse, a topic that for many is hard to approach, should stop.

We hear about horrific crimes that make headlines, but for the victims, what happens afterward?

That's where the Children's Advocacy Center of Kent County comes in, doing the unrecognized work that leads to hope and healing for more children then you'd think. they see about one thousand children a year and five to six new cases of child sexual abuse every day, says CAC executive director Melissa Werkman.

"We first hear their story," Werkman explains. "We second begin to heal their pain, and through our prevention and education we halt the cycle of sexual abuse in Kent County."

This initiative started in 1993 when the Grand Rapids police chief at the time realized something needed to change. "He realized we needed to create one location where a child could come and tell their story one time and utilize a multi-disciplinary approach … utilizing law enforcement, CPS (Child Protective Services), forensic interviewers, therapists, and case managers who could really come around that child and family."

This approach can be found only at a select few advocacy centers across the country. But it doesn't stop there.

Sara Soehnel is the manager of the Kids Have Rights Program, used in classrooms all around Kent County to educate and empower educators and students. "When we go into classrooms there's very rarely a child that doesn't have lots of questions on this topic."

In fact, Soenhel says, they get one disclosure of sexual abuse a week during their visits, humbling proof of how their work really is needed.

"The most important thing for parents and caregivers to know is that body safety conversations don't need to be scary and something that makes our children frightened, that they can be very empowering,"says Soenhel. "When we use language that is simple and easy for our kids to understand, they really get it, and they will come to us when they see were comfortable."

A testament to the importance of listening to kids.

"When kids come forward, and when they are brave enough and find the courage to tell us that they have experienced sexual abuse, it is so important to believe them and to reach out for help and resources, so we make sure they heal from this trauma."