GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — April is Child Abuse Prevention Month. It’s a chance to shine some light on a very serious issue that is more prevalent than you might think.
About 1 in 10 children will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday, according to Darkness to Light, a non-profit organization, whose mission is to put an end to child abuse.
The Children's Advocacy Center of Kent County is one of many agencies in West Michigan dedicated to helping victims of sexual abuse. The organization says the pandemic has caused a greater need for their services.
"When school started, again, we saw our cases increase. and then throughout the fall, we started to get really busy and had some of our probably more cases and some of our months this fall than we have had any years so whether that's a backlog from things not getting called in right away, or more cases were happening, while kids were at home. we haven't really figured that out yet,” said Sarah Zuidema, LMSW Program Director, Children's Advocacy Center of Kent County.
While many things in our world paused or shut down due to the Coronavirus pandemic, sadly, child abuse did not.
"I think if abuse is happening in the home, the children usually aren't able to tell somebody in their home what's happening. and so they would often be talking to teachers about it, or friends if they were older and with them not being able to get out and connect with others, even pediatricians a lot of that was done.”
Zuidema says the Children’s Advocacy Center spends its time helping children as young as five to teenagers as old as 18, survive their abuse.
"So they meet our forensic interviewer here who is very, very well trained and talking to children. and the rest of the team will watch through like a one way mirror or through cameras, and then could ask follow up questions to the interview but then that child only has to tell their story one time, and then we can follow up with any other kind of services, therapy, advocacy support through the court process," she said.
"That child has been here, they know who we are, it's a child friendly environment so this is the place where everybody comes and kind of surrounds the child through that journey of disclosure and healing.”
Samantha Akerman is the clinical supervisor at the center, she sees the kids in a one on one setting, which, as you can imagine, is not easy.
"So, we hear that a lot like this is really hard work. and it is a tough job but it's also it's such an honor to think about what these children have been through and what their families have been through and then to think about that they trust you and they feel comfortable with you. and they let you walk that journey with them," she said.
"Clients coming in who feel that they have a safe space to come to is to know that we can provide that and you can be that person to them. that's that means everything.”
The number of kids who report sexual abuse across the country is startling, with an estimated 30% of child sex victims reporting their abuse.
Abuse that is absolutely real.
“If kids are disclosing sexual abuse, it's very rare that they're making false allegations.”
In fact, it’s estimated that only 4 to 8-percent of child sexual abuse reports are fabricated, according to Darkness to Light.
Zuidema says she is seeing the same thing in Kent County.
“I've been doing this for over five years, and we've maybe had one or two kids where they've made a disclosure, and then we realized it wasn't the truth. it just doesn't happen.”
But what does happen at the advocacy center is healing.
"A lot of times, children are much more resilient than adults and so we honor what they've been through, and we support them, we validate their feelings, and we talk to them about, you know, this isn't going to define you, this will always be part of your life, but it was not going to define your life," Zuidema said.
Akerman also says parents can help their kids by communicating with them without judgement.
"I think it's important to talk to your children, it's never too early to give them the language, to talk about their body, to use the right terms for your body part. and to always believe your children, tell them when you tell them, whatever you tell me, I'm going to believe you, you start laying that foundation of communication, and just open dialogue.”
In case you missed it, watch our Facebook panel discussion with experts from around West Michigan.