Research shows kids often tell as many as four adults before someone actually reports the abuse to an investigative agency. So why doesn’t the abuse stop after the first adult is told? The answer is complex.

Nearly every day I see, hear, and read headlines about another adult who has harmed a child. My heart goes out to these kids. These are the children who’ve found the courage to use their voice. They’ve told an adult who ensured the child’s voice was heard and reported so the child’s report can be investigated. I see the articles on social media and find myself reading not only the article, but also the accompanying comments. I often find myself wondering when we as a community and a society will be so outraged that we put a stop to the abuse. I also worry about those victims who’ve not felt safe enough to come forward. Will some of our comments discourage them from talking?

I want to take a moment to recognize the courage children exhibit, sometimes against overwhelming obstacles, to report their abuse. Research shows kids often tell as many as four adults before someone actually reports the abuse to an investigative agency. So why doesn’t the abuse stop after the first adult is told? The answer to this question is complex. Sometimes children share small details to gauge the reaction of the adult they are telling. If that adult reacts in a way the child doesn’t feel protected or safe, the child may not disclose everything. Disclosure of abuse is a process. It is not an event. If you are raised in a home where love is shown through hitting, touching you places you don’t want to be touched, and/or not providing nourishment, you simply want those things to stop happening. Your love for the person causing this hurt doesn’t diminish. You simply want the bad stuff to go away.

I often read the question: “this happened six months ago (1 year ago, 3 years ago) why did the child allow it to continue?” Again, this is complex. Children who’ve experienced sexual abuse often wait six months or more before telling someone what happened. Sexual abuse often happens in secrecy. Perpetrators have often “groomed” the child, their caretakers, and the public to help the perpetrator gain access to victims and help prevent the relationship from being discovered. “Grooming” allows the offender to identify victims, gain their trust, and break down defenses. Often times when you read about scandals involving sexual abuse, you see comments like “what a nice person this is”, “how helpful this person is”, “they are an upstanding citizen in their community”. No one can believe this person could do that. Offenders work hard to build this persona which gives them access to children. Offenders are very good at getting adults to believe they would never do something like this. The grooming process for a child may start with what seem to be innocent behaviors which gradually grow over time until the child is so far into the situation, they don’t know how to get out and they feel as though they are to blame for the behaviors or that they are going to be in trouble.

Many times I read and see comments that blame the victim for bringing the abuse upon themselves. Often this is implied when commentors say the child was: “wearing the wrong clothing”, “flirted with the offender”, “they didn’t tell immediately, they must have wanted it”, “should have known better than to text or meet that person”. Many readers misunderstand the power differential between the adult (teacher, doctor, pastor, fire fighter, police officer, friend) who knows better and the child who may feel pressured, have a lack of understanding, and the power held by the adult. As a society, we often teach children that these are the people that deserve our trust and respect-and most of them do, but there are exceptions. So often these kids are discouraged from reporting abuse because “if we report this, this person’s life will be destroyed”, “if we report, everyone will know it was you who told”, “if you tell they might lose their job”, or “what if you misunderstood the situation”. I question, what if the child is right? What if they aren’t the only one? What if their disclosure stops the offender? Victims are often scared and vulnerable. News stories can cause victims to be re-traumatized believing now everyone knows what happened, reading comments of those who don’t understand the dynamics of sexual abuse and trauma, or simply by having the many intimate details of their abuse being shared with strangers.

I’ve read comments stating if the child is lying, they should be prosecuted. Do kids lie? Yes. Do we all lie? Yes. However, false reports of sexual abuse are very rare. When a child discloses abuse, we should believe them. Children lie about a lot of different things. Typically they lie to get themselves or someone they love out of trouble. Why would they lie about this? The offender is likely a trusted adult in a power position, someone they like, love, and trust. The abuse has taken place in secrecy. The child may have been threatened that if they tell, the family will lose their house, the offender will go to jail, there will be no one to support the family, the offender will hurt someone the child loves. Take a moment to consider what a child gives up when they talk about their abuse. They may be removed from their home to live in foster care, they may be separated from a sibling, they might have to change schools, they lose their privacy, no one believes them, they are separated from a beloved pet. In my experience, and common knowledge in the field, children are more likely to lie to cover up what has happened rather than lie about something that is happening. It is easier and more comfortable for adults to believe the child is lying because the alternative is horrible.

When will we as a society become so outraged by our children being hurt that we put a stop to it? When will we put safety factors in place to eliminate or severely limit isolated one on one situations between children and adults? If adults can’t recognize abusers and potential grooming behaviors, how can we expect children to? It is TIME to realize the safety of children is our responsibility as adults. We must educate ourselves and those in our communities to put into place policies and procedures to protect children. Over the years, I’ve met many survivors of child sexual abuse. Almost every time I give a community presentation, at least one adult in the audience shares their story of being abused as a child. They often tell me this was the first time they’ve told anyone. Each survivor has their own unique story and each one gives me hope that other victims will find the courage to come forward. These are my heroes. For more information about Kids’ Harbor, please visit www.kidsharbormo.org, like us on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/KidsHarborInc/) or call 573.348.6886 (Osage Beach) 573.336.8634 (St. Robert)