Not Enough is Being Done About Childhood Sexual Abuse
"In a tiny bedroom, a young girl lies, swirled in dreams of innocence. A shaft of moonlight beams through worn drapes, exposing yellowed wallpaper and stark metal bunk beds. Nestled asleep in the lower bunk, she draws thin, coltish legs closer to her chest as her breathing deepens and her eyelids flutter. Wispy, brown hair scattered about her face, frames small bones, and delicate features. A rosary creeps from under the pillow, its beads still warm with prayer, the cross dangling above the hardwood floor. Under the bed, a multi-colored mutt named Rusty hiccups his way through his own nighttime visions as he twitches in time to a windup clock that sits in protective watch on the dresser.
As slumber guards the scene, the handle on the door turns, creaking in protest. It opens slowly, shrouding the room in a hazy light. A tall man, gray slivering his temples, casts sharp shadows that spill into the corner. He watches for a moment as she sleeps, then enters, closing the door in a surreptitious manner.
Her life will never be the same."
I buried the memory of what happened deep in my unconscious mind, to be lost for over thirty years, as my emotional growth became locked in time. At the age of thirteen, I didn't even know the meaning of the word rape, much less incest.
Thus begins a book I wrote called Let Me Hurt You and Don't Cry Out, about my father entering my bedroom to begin an incestuous relationship with me that brought
devastation and turmoil into my life for the next thirty-two years. Tens of thousands of others have gone through a similar experience. The details vary but they all spell the same fate: a life filled with shame and unhealthy choices, a life bereft of joy and serenity, a three sided cage that all will live in until they get help, not just help, but help that will make a difference in their lives. When I completed my more than four years of recovery my motto was: If I'd have known life was going to turn out this good I'd have started it sooner. My dream is to have that motto become the one of all who have suffered childhood sexual abuse. It's a monumental task, especially since not enough is being done to prevent it.
The National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, an arm of the Centers for Disease Control, has called childhood sexual abuse epidemic. Their web site states:
In 2000, 879,000 substantiated cases of child abuse were found of which 10% were sexual. Data on the confirmed number of U.S. child maltreatment cases in 2002 are available from child protective service agencies but these data are generally considered underestimates. 906,000 children in the United States were confirmed by child protective service agencies as being maltreated. Of these 10% were sexually abused (cdc.gov).
That's a conservative 90,600 children sexually abused, in one year. That's 32,432 more than were killed in Vietnam. That means that in two years the number of childhood sexual abuse victims increased from 87,900 to 90,600. What is being done?
Or better yet, what is not being done that our children's safety should skyrocket to such a degree?
Focus Adolescent Services, an Internet clearing house of information and resources on teen and family issues, says one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually assaulted before the age of eighteen. They add that childhood sexual abuse has been reported between 300,000 to 400,000 times a year but that the number of unreported instances is far greater because the children are afraid to tell anyone what has happened and the legal procedure for validating an episode is difficult (focusas.com). These are haunting figures.
There are more. Pandora's Box, a web site dedicated to childhood sexual abuse has chilling data:
§ An average of 5.5 children per 10,000 enrolled in day care are sexually abused, an average of 8.9 children out of every 10,000 are abused in the home.
§ It is estimated that there are 60 million survivors of childhood sexual abuse in America today.
§ Approximately 31% of women in prison state that they had been abused as children.
§ Approximately 95% of teenage prostitutes have been sexually abused.
§ It is estimated that children with disabilities are 4 to 10 times more vulnerable to sexual abuse than their non-disabled peers.
§ The typical child sex offender molests an average of 117 children, most of who do not report the offence.
§ About 95% of victims know their perpetrators (prevent-abuse-now.com)
As the mother of two daughters who were sexually abused by my ex-husband when they were four and five years old and one who was raped at gunpoint when she was seventeen, I want to add my own alarming statistic: The children of an untreated sexually abused victim stand a five times greater chance of being sexually molested themselves. One final statistic is mind-boggling. The total annual costs of both direct and indirect child abuse and neglect in the United States is $94,076,883,529.00. Yes, that figure is in the billions. (preventchildabuse.org). While this figure is representative of all child abuse, not just sexual abuse, given the earlier figures of ten percent as the sexual abuse number, we are still looking at a huge number.
The key Federal legislation addressing child abuse and neglect is the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment act (CAPTA), originally enacted in 1974. This Act was amended several times and was most recently amended and reauthorized on June 25, 2003, by the Keeping Children and Families Safe Act of 2003. It defines "child abuse and neglect as: at a minimum, any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker, which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation, or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm" (focusas.com).
I have a problem with this fuzzy description. If a 14 year old runs away from home and is sexually molested or a child is kidnapped and sexually molested, this doesn't fit the description of child abuse since there is no "act or failure to act" by a parent and yet it is definitely childhood sexual abuse. Do we need to redefine and rewrite some of these federal descriptions?
Some of the identifying individual behavior patterns that illustrate someone who has been sexually abused as a child, whether from a member of their family, or otherwise are the following: people-pleasing and rescuing at an early age, insomnia, excessive need to control, obsessive, compulsive behavior patterns, needy, low self esteem, suicidal, weak boundaries, unhealthy choices in members of the opposite e sex, neurotic tendencies, addictions, eating disorders, chronic illness, manic-depressive behavior and severe depression. Family System denominators include Patriarch family system, obedient/co-dependent mother (father), religiously regimented household, eldest daughter, alcoholic or other addition parent and a family history of sexual boundary violators.
Despite available help, the numbers continue to multiply. Web sites, addressing childhood sexual abuse, are abundant on the Internet. Countless therapists counsel patients every year with this problem. Women's shelters, guidance clinics, and domestic violence and childhood sexual abuse coalitions are available. Attendance at Incest Survivor's Anonymous and CoDependents Anonymous, both Twelve Step programs, has increased in the last few years. Incest Survivor's Anonymous is active in some states, but not in others. As a childhood sexual abuse survivor I can attest to the importance of this life-changing and often life-saving program and the impact it has on others. Yet, the numbers continue to grow and not just because people are more willing to come forward. Secrecy is still the number one reason why childhood sexual abuse is rampant. What we are seeing is the tip of the iceberg.
When a child is sexually abused, it impacts not only the victim but other family members as well. In my own family, my mother, once she found out what my father was doing, became almost comatose with despair and depression; my two sisters who slept in the same bedroom with me were victimized in different ways than I was. One sister, a year younger than me, who slept on the top bunk, became a neurotic, her whole life a series of fears and challenges that she was not only unable to respond to but terrified at the very thought. Our relationship over the years was a mirror of Dr. Jeckle and Mr. Hyde; a few months of caring and closeness followed by emotional hysteria on her part towards me always for some imagined wrong. At one time she shrieked repeatedly at me with mounting terror, "You're Dad, you're Dad and I'm terrified of you." My baby sister, Jeanne, who slept in a crib next to our bunk beds, wet the bed and was unable to talk except for a lispy prattle that only I understood until she was almost ten. I wrote in Let Me Hurt You and Don't Cry Out, the following excerpt describing our family life a year after my dad began entering my bedroom in the middle of the night.
My family life reminded me of a camp of mutilated and injured soldiers from some obsolete war, indescribable in its agony. All the figures were shadowy and disoriented, as if only half alive and that half living in a well of misery. We moved in and out of our days appearing to wait for some catastrophic happening, all of us knowing that once it did, we would be ill prepared to handle it.
The statistics on childhood sexual abuse victims don't include other family members impacted by this trauma. Rarely do you even hear of anyone specializing in help for these kinds of victims. When you add this to the pile, the results of this childhood horror extend even further and with larger stats and more far reaching consequences than originally thought.
Of the many studies being done in the area of childhood sexual abuse, the Adverse Childhood Experiences study is the most impressive I have seen. In 1998, Dr. Vincent J. Felitti, then Director of Preventive Medicine for Kaiser Permanente in San
Diego, California, joined with The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta Georgia to conduct a study they called the Adverse Childhood Experiences. It states:
The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study is one of the largest investigations ever conducted on the links between childhood maltreatment and later-life health and well-being. A questionnaire was mailed to 13,494 adults who had completed a standardized medical evaluation at a large HMO. 9,508 (70.5%) responded as they provided detailed information about their childhood experience of abuse, neglect, and family dysfunction. Seven categories of adverse childhood experiences were studied including sexual abuse. The number of categories of adverse childhood exposures showed a graded relationship to the presence of adult diseases including ischemic heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, skeletal fractures, and liver disease. The seven categories of adverse childhood experiences were strongly interrelated and persons with multiple categories of childhood exposure were likely to have multiple health risk factors later in life (cdc.gov. The ACE Study).
I have spoken with Dr. Felitti in the arena of childhood sexual abuse and the pernicious trail it leaves that follows into adulthood. Dr. Felitti's original audience targeted preventive medicine care centers and providers, but as the ACE Study continues to publish its findings both in medical journals and on the Internet, it is reaching more and more of the general public. To date, over 30 scientific articles regarding the ACE Study have been published and over 100 conference and workshop presentations have evolved from it. (cdc.gov. The ACE Study). The Study continues to follow the participants and document their findings.
Part of the serious harm laying in wait for our children is sex offenders and the too lenient laws regarding them. The National Alert Registry has a website that posts all sex offenders and their whereabouts. That's a start. We need to begin educating our children in the first grade, with a class on how to protect themselves, how to set boundaries, and how, what and when to tell their parents about possible dangers. If we did so, these numbers would go down.
Many say this type of educating should be done in the home by the parents. Sometimes these very parents, or one of them, is a perpetrator. Do you think they are
going to teach their children how to protect themselves? Furthermore, some of the children, and I am one of them, are unable to put a name to what happened to them. I spoke recently with a woman who had been a counselor for some of the organized
religions in the Verde Valley. She said they were the biggest offender of childhood sexual abuse; based on a patriarchal system, it sets obedience to the head of the family as one of its primary rules. It is not the first time I have heard this. In the little town of Petersburg, where I lived when I was raped, after doing his deed, my assumption is that my father went to confession on Saturday night telling the priest of what he was doing and after Sunday mass and communion went back to his old ways. Priests should be legally obligated to report sex offenders just as counselors and other mental health workers are. As it is, they are not allowed to repeat anything they hear in the confessional.
The very nature of a patriarchal society is that it is built on a foundation of obedience and submission. John Bradshaw, a giant in the field of recovering from childhood sexual abuse says, "Celebrate the day your children say no for the first time." Perpetrators look for the most obedient child in the schoolyard. Do we really want our children to be puppets? Or do we want them to be strong, assertive, and freethinking?
Many parents refuse to believe that childhood sexual abuse exists and those who do are afraid of taking away their children's innocence by teaching them how to set boundaries and report offenders. Wouldn't it be great if children's innocence could continue without interfering with their growth in emotional maturity and their ability to
make healthy and mature decisions? I, too, was an innocent as I lay in my bed praying my rosary. If I had been taught a self-protection class, I'd have known to call the police, my grandparents, or anyone who would have been objective enough about my father's behavior in order to protect me. My mother was not such a person. Many mothers are not such a person. So why are we not making a class taught at the first grade level mandatory? If I had taken such a class, I could have saved my three daughters.
Awhile back, I spoke at a local Lion's Club dinner on the subject of childhood sexual abuse and domestic violence. Most of the attendees were older and despite having softened my words so as not to offend them, I saw looks of dismay and shock as I spoke. Some averted their eyes; some actually turned their bodies away from me, as if by doing so they would not be tainted with my "ugly" facts. I felt sad at this. Keeping childhood sexual abuse secret is why it is able to multiply so fast. I believe that this is a topic that
should be spoken of freely and openly. These same people (and I told them so) would not hesitate to call the police if their home had been burgled or their car stolen. And you can be sure that they would be talking about it to the neighbors and on the phone to their
family and friends. They would feel violated and angry that someone should do this to them. And yet childhood sexual abuse is a crime of a much more heinous nature. We need to not only educate our children, but also educate the older generation. The embarrassment they feel when this subject is introduced causes the victim to feel shame and to not want to share.
According to a web site called Jessica'slaw.com: "California has 63,000 registered sex offenders. One in every four sex offenders in California is currently
missing. How can we protect our children if we don't even know where the sex offenders are? Jessica's Law needs to be implemented in every state". As of June of 2006, 24 states had passed some variation of Jessica's Law. The comparison of current law vs. Jessica's Law is several pages long and can be viewed on the following web site: http://www.jessicaslaw2006.com/. It is a much tougher law against child molesters, closing loopholes, eliminating "good-time credits" for violent sex offenders and mandating that offenders be evaluated as sexually violent predators after one crime, rather than waiting for a second victim (jessicaslaw2006.com).
What are we going to do about this problem? Are we going to sit back and wait for the numbers to continue to escalate? Are we going to wait until it hits close to home
and then react? We must do more than we do. Now.
In addition to writing REPAIR Your Life: A Program for Recovery from Incest & Childhood Sexual Abuse and REPAIR For Children: A Children's Program for Recovery from Incest and Childhood Sexual Abuse (both available at any book distributors Internet Site as well as from Loving Healing Press) I have started a movement for recovery from child sexual abuse, rape, incest, sexual assault and domestic violence called The Lamplighters. It emphasizes the importance of REPAIRing the damage. Feeling that one voice would give more power to survivors, we hope one day to have Lamplighters all across the nation. To date we have 40 chapters in three countries. The link between childhood sexual abuse and domestic violence is closer than people realize. Most domestic violence victims were sexually abused or at least abused in some way as children. It is because their self-esteem is so low that they choose unhealthy and abusive partners. It is because the shame that they carry from their child abuse permeates their every move that they choose unhealthy and abusive partners. They feel it is all they deserve.
My task is not easy. I need an army. I need people who have been violated to come out of hiding, to know that it wasn't their fault, to get into a recovery program so that they can keep this from happening to their children. The Internet is a marvelous tool for finding organizations and support groups that are fighting this battle. Only an army will make each soldier in this battle feel as if he or she is not alone. Once we remove their feelings of isolation, we can encourage victims to talk, then to heal, and finally, to save their own children. We need to not only make sure Jessica's Law is implemented in every state, but to make talking about childhood sexual abuse as open a conversation as the theft of a car or a television, maybe even more.
If only people would step out from behind their shocked looks, their averted eyes, their feeling of shame and embarrassment long enough to hear what childhood sexual abuse victims have to say, then the numbers would dramatically decline. It would take
courage; it would take compassion; it would take a willingness to allow others to be open. Maybe someday this will be true. Maybe someday we'll have Lamplighters all across the country. In the meantime, I will continue to protest loud and long that not enough is being done about childhood sexual abuse.