How many opportunities to listen to kids are missed because grown-ups have so much on our minds? I’ll be the first to admit that as a parent, I was often distracted and inattentive when my child was talking. I’ll own up to being dismissive and assuming that their chatter was not as important as the tasks at hand. I know better now. You might describe my job as a forensic interviewer as “talking to kids,” but when I introduce myself to a child I prefer to explain that it was my job to listen. Is listening to kids part of your job too?
As parents, grandparents, teachers, administrators, childcare providers you are truly the first responders to a child’s outcry. When a child has worked up the nerve to trust you with their most intimate fears, your response sets the tone, or trajectory, from then on...throughout the entire investigation and the child's future. Are you ready? Chances are you are not.
Would you be surprised to learn that a child can be more emotionally traumatized by being not believed than by what the offender did to them? It takes a lot of guts for kids to open up to a grown-up that another person has hurt them. Many things get in the way: fear of being embarrassed, fear of being blamed, fear of being punished, and even fear of causing harm to the offender who is most likely someone they care about.
Research on adverse childhood experiences tell us that child abuse can inflict lifelong damage if the adults who are supposed to come to a child’s aid don’t step in. You don’t want to hear the words coming from a child that he or she has been touched inappropriately. Your first reaction, at a gut level, is to think and say “no!” or “that didn't happen,” or “surely you misunderstood,” or worse... “you're lying!” Those words have the power to crush a child's spirit and chances of recovery...even though that is not your intent. Will you offer uplifting support, or trigger a downward spiral that confirms the child’s fears?
You must be ready to listen to the child’s message. Even with doubts racing through your mind, you can say "I'm sorry that happened to you,” “I'm glad you were brave enough to tell me,” or “I'm here for you." Even without knowing all the facts, you respond in a way that puts the needs of the child first! Thankfully, it's not your job to determine what did or didn’t happen. That duty goes to the “next” first responders, trained law enforcement officers working alongside trained child protection workers who gather the evidence and determine if a crime occurred.
If you take the easy route and dismiss the child’s outcry, and fail to report it to the authorities as required by state law, you have left that child in the lurch...in harm’s way. And you have left many other children in danger as well since statistically there are four other children harmed for every one of them that tells. Have you ever considered, before reading this, that listening gives you the power to help a victim of child abuse along the path to healing and provide safety to many others as well? That's where the Dearing House slogan of hearing helping healing comes from. The importance of hearing the child's words allows us to help him or her and the family on the path to healing. But without your support as the first adult they trusted, they may never get that chance. Who’s listening now?
Some of you may be surprised to learn that there was a time when I avoided public speaking at all costs! I was a painfully timid child. As late as 4th grade I couldn't enter the classroom without being accompanied by my mother. But something changed over the years. Now I am happiest when I have an audience and today was a really good day. I gave a talk at Rotary entitled "Alphabet Soup" to explain how Dearing House partner agencies (using acronyms....DHS, PCPD, KSO, OSBI, ICW, TPD, DA, SANE, EFCMHC, etc) work together to solve crimes against children.
Once I got over being shy, I love, adore, long to share information about Dearing House and our mission of hearing, helping, healing victims of child sexual abuse. I'm very grateful for the opportunity to talk about the great work being done by the professionals on our MDT... one of many acronyms we use....referring to the Multidisciplinary Child Protection Team which includes child welfare, law enforcement agencies, medical and mental health professionals, and others! It's always encouraging when people care enough to ask questions following the presentation. This was a smart bunch of people who offered a lot of food for thought.
Nineteen years in the field of child protection (DHS before Dearing House) has taken its toll and sometimes I make the assumption (never a good thing) that others know how things work at Dearing House. Responding to questions from the group opens my eyes to how child abuse is perceived by those who don't work in day after day. As much as I dreaded being called upon in 4th grade, I now love questions!
I learn from questions. I was reminded today that terms like "child advocacy center, (CAC)" and "court appointed special advocate, (CASA)" are easily confused. Both programs provide advocacy...we need a sidebar to define that term...and both focus on victims of child abuse. We just do it at different points along the continuum of intervention for abused kids.
The CAC...Dearing House...is ground zero, the very first stop in determining what, if anything, happened to the child. The child and family come to us immediately following the disclosure of abuse. It's our job to provide a setting and situation where the child victim, who is typically the only eye witness to the crime, can provide as much detail as possible. Next, the professionals on our MDT (defined above) utilizes their broad range of expertise to determine how to keep the child safe, and to further investigate the alleged crime from all angles before presenting their findings to the District Attorney. CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) have their opportunity to get involved once the child's case reaches the court room. The judge determines when to appoint a CASA volunteer, a trained "extra set of eyes," to look after the needs of the child during the court process. This could be weeks, if not months, after the child was interviewed at Dearing House, and many cases are cleared up without going to court and won't involve CASA at all. Likewise, many of the kids helped by CASA have not been to Dearing House. Its more than the acronyms that can be confusing!
That's your serving of "alphabet soup" for today. From your questions, I can tell you want to know more about how all the agencies in this alphabet soup are effective and avoid duplicating services. We are in agreement! For example, the CASA Director and I discussed this article before I published it. Dearing House serves a unique position to coordinate with all the agencies responding to child sexual abuse victims so that the needs of the child are never forgotten in the process....or lost in the alphabet soup.
Now that I'm over being bashful, I look forward to more of your questions!
Maggi Hutchason, Executive Director and MDT Coordinator!
Have you ever worried about how kids overcome terrible experiences like sexual abuse?
The single most important predictor of a child’s ability to survive the unthinkable is at least ONE stable relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver or other adult! Are you the one? Of course, you are! Maybe you didn’t realize it yet!
When you give a kid a high five for doing their best at a sporting event, you are complimenting the child’s abilities. When you help a child with homework or read a book with them, you are strengthening their problem-solving skills. When you take a child to visit a museum or go to a concert, you are sharing important traditions. When you look a child in the eye and respond to their questions, you are showing the child he or she is valued. And every time you do this, whether you are a parent, coach, relative, teacher, or neighbor, you are tipping the scales in their favor. You are building resilience.
One way to understand the development of resilience is to visualize a seesaw or balance scale. The Center of the Developing Child at Harvard University explains that a child’s positive experiences and coping skills on one side counterbalance adversity and abuse on the other. To tip the scale toward resilience, a child needs:
Over 100 children come to Dearing House every year for help coping with abuse. Every child who comes to Dearing House experiences a place where they feel important. Every child sees the team of strong adults working to protect them from further harm. Every child hears that they are brave and strong and will no longer face evil alone.
We see resilient kids every day. It was evident this week in 9-year-old Denise. She admitted to being nervous about having to talk about what happened to her, but in spite of describing multiple incidents of hideous abuse, her words to me were “This was not so bad.” I think she knew that the focus of everything we do here is about hearing, helping, and healing.
We thank you for the ways you are the one building up kids and supporting Dearing House. Now go tip the scales in favor of a child.
Click here for more info on resilience from Harvard
Were you ever scared as a kid? The scariest thing I can remember is getting lost. I was a middle-schooler in the high school marching band and got separated after the parade in an unfamiliar city. Found myself totally isolated from anything or anyone familiar. And this was DECADES before cell phones. With help from a kind stranger, I was able to get back to the bus where the other band members were impatiently waiting on this dorky kid so they could leave. Scared me.
Most of the time I avoid scary. Very few of us, especially little children, want to do things that are scary.
If you ask nine-year-old Melissa* what's the scariest thing she's ever done, she'll tell you it's talking to me. And you better believe her. My job is to listen to kids describe how a person they cherish and adore has violated every tidbit of their trust, and probably every opening on their body.
I'm a Forensic Interviewer.
I don't relish the idea of being a child's scariest thing. Dearing House doesn't look scary. There is a reason why the walls and furniture are colorful. We go out of our way to make sure the child feels welcome and comfortable. The scary thing for a child is to find the strength to tell a secret when she has been threatened and bribed and groomed not to tell. Over 3/4 of child victims keep abuse a secret for at least a year, and many are too scared to ever tell. That's what the offender is counting on. Sexual abuse only happens in secret.
Was I brave to find my way back to the band bus? I thought so at the time, but my "bravery" pales in comparison to the children I meet here at Dearing House every week. It takes every ounce of their being to find the words to describe what happened to them, especially with doubts and fears about what will happen next.
Melissa was able to describe things that had been a horrible secret, but the most important thing she said was at the end of her interview: "I'm happy I came and talked to you. I thought it would be scary, but I'm not scared anymore." That's bravery! A child is no longer scared of the dark, dreadful secrets forced on her. The investigative team and process at Dearing House provided the safety net she needed to be brave. And as a result of her bravery, the offender has lost his power over Melissa.
Here's what we see every day, and what keeps us here every day: a child like Melissa crosses our threshold scared and worried, with a big burden on her little shoulders. She finds a place and group of people who are willing and able to carry that burden for her, and in the end, she can say, "I'm happy I came and talked to you." In the course of an hour, years of secrets are released and immediate safety measures are put in place. Score one for the good guys.
Every time we do this, a child is given a chance to be heard, to be believed, and to take the first steps toward healing. We know it's a scary thing.... you better believe it.
*to protect the confidentiality of our clients, names and circumstances have been changed; however, the quote is the exact words of a child at Dearing House.
Do the "back to school" displays of crayons, rulers, and spiral notebooks bring back good...or bad....memories of your school years? What about your favorite teacher? The first person who comes to mind is my second grade teacher and memories of the creative ways she used the chalkboard. She was the first person I wanted to tell about the arrival of my new baby brother. Sharing things with her seemed to be the most natural thing in the world. Teachers are often the first person a kid turns to with exciting news...and scary secrets. Identifying a teacher or person at school who a child can trust to tell if they have a problem is an essential part of every child's interview of at Dearing House. We recognize and appreciate the role of teachers in child protection!
I have other favorites, too. My fourth grade teacher began every morning in her classroom with piano playing and hymn singing. (Yes it was public school many many decades ago.) I was literally petrified to go to school and she must have known that singing would ease my fears. In middle school I considered my science teacher to be a slave driver, but you can guess who taught me the most....not just about cell division but more importantly, accountability. I learned perseverance from my Algebra teacher who was willing to work extra hours to get those formulas through my thick head. I credit my senior English teacher with nurturing my love of grammar! Each of these teachers provided support in very different ways without my even knowing it!
The impact of teachers goes WAY beyond reading, writing and 'rithmatic and there are decades of research on children's brain development to support that. School can be a safe haven for children in our communities who live in households plagued with violence, drugs, and alcohol. Unfortunately many children live with in an environment of toxic stress which compromises their learning, behavior, and health. Key to overcoming these obstacles is a relationship with at least one supportive adult....often a teacher or coach. While understanding mathematical formulas is a valuable skill, having a stable, supportive relationship with a teacher makes an even bigger difference in the healthy development of a child's mind.
Let's add a fourth element to the famous 3 R's of learning: Resilience! Relationships with teachers (and other supportive adults) offer significant opportunities for children to experience good outcomes in spite of adversity. More times than I can count (despite the efforts of my teacher to improve my math skills), children at Dearing House have shared how a teacher has made a difference in their lives.
Is there a teacher you can thank TODAY for bolstering you when things weren't easy? If you're a teacher reading this, thank you for each and every time you give a pat on the back to a discouraged child, or spend an extra minute (or hour) helping a child master their assignments. Do you know you are changing the architecture of that individual's brain in ways that will matter way beyond the end of the school year? And that child's sense of self-worth and mastery is the key component to preventing child sexual abuse because a child that is valued and appreciated by someone appropriate is significantly less likely to fall prey to a sex offender who targets emotionally starved children.
Resilience. Kids enjoying a good outcome...a good life... in spite of adversity. Teachers, parents, community leaders: Dearing House is working right alongside you in supporting healthy development and celebrating the future of children! The website for the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University has wonderful information on brain architecture and ways to help kids. Check out the video below as a quick example about resilience.
Visitors tell us the learn a lot on our website so please send your friends to www.DearingHouse.com for more resources and lets stay connected daily on Facebook!
I’m sure my former English teacher would love to take a red pen to this commentary, but hopefully she would appreciate that I eventually came around to understanding the merits of research papers!
My first thought when the Duggar story hit the news last week was to sort out all the facts, write about it, and enlighten the world. (visualize the sweep of my cape!)
In my humble opinion, rarely is any news or portrayal of child sexual abuse accurately reflected in the national media. (Quick story...my husband prohibits the viewing of Law and Order SVU in our home because of my screaming at the tv when they interview children....I don't care that it's a fictional show. That is not how it is done). But, alas, the opportunity to sort Duggar fact from fiction has come and gone due to contradictions, omissions and distortions from every direction. So I put my cape away and I will not sort out the Duggar mess today.
But there is much to learn about adolescent sexual offenses. To put things in perspective, nationally one third of all sexual abuse of children is committed by someone under the age of 18, who is usually a family member. (Pick up your jaw and continue reading please). The team at Dearing House is very familiar with allegations of children and teens with sexually harmful and abusive behaviors. No two cases are the same and neither are the families involved.
Would you agree sibling sexual abuse is a parent's worst nightmare. Put yourself in the shoes of a parent who has just discovered that one (or more) of their cherished children has been sexually abused by another of their cherished children? The range of emotions would no doubt be anger, fear, disbelief and overwhelming grief. What would any of us do in that situation? Most families have a plan for responding to a crisis like a fire or tornado, but are we equipped for this kind of "perfect storm?"
Children who sexually harm another child do so for very different reasons than an adult who abuses. Yes, the behavior is wrong, damaging and must be addressed, but I fear that the media leads you to believe that the behavior cannot be corrected. Not all inappropriate sexual acts indicate a sexual behavior problem. Behaviors in youth may be a result of other issues such as impulsivity, social skill deficits, family trauma, etc. Qualified youth treatment providers can make assessments to help determine the nature of the behavior as well as appropriate safety planning and services. As difficult and scary as intervention with law enforcement, social services, and counselors may be, timely response is key. The parent's love and encouragement, along with specialized treatment ,will make it easier for both children to stay safe and to recover successfully. Contrary to some news reports, it is ok to move forward and heal after an experience like this. Providing the essential support for a positive outcome for the family is our role at Dearing House.
I'm going to go back on my word, for just a moment. The heartbreaking commentary by the Duggar sisters that reliving the traumatic situation is "1,000 times worse" than the abuse itself," is a poignant reminder of how vital the services of Dearing House are to this community. With collaboration and community response at Dearing House, children in our hometown can be protected from re-victimization. While the trauma of national media exposure is unique to families with reality tv shows, it does affirm that the investigation process can be traumatic to children. It's the awareness of that that has created over 800 child advocacy centers across the country and globe. Every time I hear a child sexual abuse story in the news, my first question is "was that child helped at a child advocacy center?" and I hope it will be your first question too, knowing the importance of a timely and effective response by specially trained professionals who focus on PUTTING THE NEEDS OF CHILDREN FIRST!
You will find additional information on Why a Child May Sexually Abuse Another Child and other up-to-date research on our website. With this knowledge you can wear a cape and be a champion for children, too!
When was the last time you heard (or said) "when it rains, it pours?" Although we're having an abundance of rainfall now, I must acknowledge the reference is not about the weather. When anything bad, or good, happens in our lives often and in a short period of time, it can be as overwhelming as the incessant rain. Whatever it is that's pouring, planning and preparing become almost impossible.
At Dearing House every day we experience "when it rains it pours". Our schedule operates under the premise that things will happen often and on a short, unpredictable schedule. We rarely know what each day will bring, which requires us to expect (and adapt to) the unexpected. For instance, last month we had a rare event of 21 straight days without a child coming through our doors. (I could make an point out that April Showers does not compute in this scenario). Could be any number of circumstances, all beyond our control. And we make good use of that time preparing for what might happen next. Then....just as parts of Oklahoma have not gone a day in May without rain, Dearing House has not had a weekday this month without the opportunity to help kids. (Oh but wait....before I could get this posted, we had a last minute change and an interview postponed but it speaks to our unpredictable calendar!)
So is the need and demand for Dearing House services good news or bad news? Would you be surprised to learn we consider it great news? We stand ready every minute of every day, always prepared for the call from law enforcement or DHS that says "we need your help with a family." Our whole existence is based on being here when needed, so we're glad to get the call. The bad news is that in order for us to get a call, a child has been involved in a reported abuse incident, but the good news is that specially trained professionals are on their way to us with the child and family to make use of our facility and services.
The schedule at Dearing House changes as quickly as Oklahoma weather and is just as difficult to accurately predict! When it rains, it pours means we use more fruit snacks and juice, drink more coffee and eat more chocolate. If you're looking for ways to help, don't worry about umbrellas, but we can never have too many Hershey miniatures! Call us anytime we can help answer your questions or help in any way. We're here and ready!