Believe Children When They Tell You

By Pam Henderson

Over the past week, many women came forward to address their abuser in a Michigan courtroom.

It might have been an easier course for these women and young girls if they had been traumatized by the kind of imaginary storybook monster who dons heavy fur, a deafening roar and sharp teeth.

Instead, their monster was anything but imaginary. He was the seemingly everyday guy, a physician to some and family friend to others. He was the monster that no one recognized – except for his scores of victims.

This monster used his power, trust and lies to access some of our nation’s most storied gymnasts and athletes. He was charged with treating the injuries of young athletes. But, the healing he practiced was a misnomer, deepening the wounds and widening the aches.   

Amidst the accolades and glory that come with being on a world stage, these women were burdened by a horrific secret of abuse. Every time they cartwheeled through a floor exercise or smiled for the camera, they had to muster up all of the strength they could to cope with the pain, embarrassment, intimidation and loss of innocence they endured. They were expected to perform and be the envy of little girls everywhere, as if nothing happened. Those who dared to raise questions were forced to believe that every touch, every action was a proper and appropriate medical procedure.

The abuse took its toll. Victims recounted the depression, eating disorders and family strife from parents who didn’t believe them. One victim attributed her father’s suicide to his own refusal to believe what she had endured. These women must have felt like they were screaming for years for help to an empty wilderness.

The stories that have been bravely shared by victims bring into national headlines what experts have been telling us for so long – that the problem of child sexual abuse is pervasive. Darkness to Light, a national organization working to bring awareness and education about sexual abuse, reports that “About one in 7 girls and 1 in 25 boys will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday.” Townsend, C., & Rheingold, A.A., (2013). With numbers like that, the likelihood is high that each of us knows a victim of a child sexual abuse. It may be a child’s classmate, neighbor, colleague, friend or family member.

You may be surprised to learn that nearly 70% of all reported sexual assaults (including assaults on adults) occur to children ages 17 and under, according to the National Crime Victimization Survey (2002). Yet, it’s not a topic that we hear a lot about. It’s not an easy conversation. These crimes can be unnoticed because, unlike the bruises, broken bones or burn marks that are visible in physical abuse, sexual abuse’s damages are typically hidden underneath clothing or are internal. Perpetrators rely on adults’ oblivion to secure their ready access to children. They are adept at manipulating naïve children and ingratiating themselves with their parents or guardians.

The toll on victims reaches far beyond the physical pain and mental anguish. One victim told how she believes her father’s suicide stemmed from the fact that initially, when she disclosed the abuse to him and her mother, she wasn’t believed. Knowing that he believed his friend over his own daughter was too much for him to bear.

Sadly, it’s not uncommon for a child not to be believed. A fallacy exists that children often lie about sexual abuse. Data collected by Darkness To Light shows that less than 1% of the time the child fabricates sexual abuse.

Instead, only about 38% of child victims disclose the fact that they have been sexually abused. As many as 80% of children deny or are tentative in disclosing,. Broman-Fulks, J. J. et al., Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology. (2007) One of the reasons for hesitancy in disclosing is the fact that in 95% of child sexual abuse cases, the abuser is someone the child and his family know, love and trust. Imagine the shock, grief and disbelief from hearing that a loved one could be capable of doing something so horrific.

A child who is not believed may develop coping skills to block the abuse from his thoughts. In the long-term, though, this oftentimes fosters problems for the child. Children who are sexually abused are at significantly greater risk for later post-traumatic stress and other anxiety symptoms, depression and suicide attempts. Behavioral problems, including physical aggression, noncompliance, and oppositionality occur frequently among sexually abused children and adolescents. National Survey of Adolescents. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology. (2007)

These brave women who have stepped up to personally tell their stories or to have their stories heard give credence to the need to believe children who come forward with an allegation. In the moment of disclosure, there will likely be sadness and shock, maybe feelings of helplessness. But, the best thing an adult can do for that child is to believe him or her. Next, call your local police or the Department of Child Services at 800.800.5556. They can help you keep the child safe and help you connect to resources to help with the healing that is essential for the child to thrive.