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Society Needs to Provide Better Support for Children Who Have Been Sexually Abused

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Editor’s Note: The names of the children in this piece have been changed to protect their privacy. If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

Thump. Stumbling through the mental fog that fills my head when I fall asleep, I struggle to figure out the source of the sound. Thump. There it is again, clearer this time as I open my eyes. Sitting up, I look around my dimly lit room, the lamp by my desk shining feebly in the darkness. Thump.

• What is PTSD?

Worry begins to fill me as I slip on my glasses, my feet protesting as they touch the cold, hard floor. Thump. I stagger around the basket of half folded laundry at the foot of my bed and make my way to the door, trying to shake that last niggling bit of sleep from my brain. Thump.

“What’s going on, dear?” asks my husband, the din waking even him from his quiet snoring.

Without answering, I open the door and step on to the carpet in front of my youngest step-daughter’s room. Thump. “It’s coming from Li’s room.” I call back, gently opening the door and peering into a room that is lit with string upon string of multicolored Christmas lights. I can see her thrashing about on her bed, whimpering quietly as her feet slam against the wall, as if she’s trying to flee from some unknown assailant.

I move forward as quickly as I can through the debris that seems to always make up a teenager’s room — books, clothes and other unknown items litter the floor, taking every chance they can get to make me regret not putting on a pair of slippers. Reaching Li’s bed, I gently shake her. “Li, sweetie, wake up. Sweeie, please wake up,” I quietly plead.

A feeling of relief fills me as her eyes fly open, quickly replaced once again with worry as her eyes dart around the room. She throws herself into my arms, sobbing and clinging to me as if I was the only thing that could protect her from whatever she was running from. “I can’t get away.” she sobs. “They just keep coming… I don’t want them to hurt me again, Mommy.”

With my heart breaking, I do my best to soothe her as my husband stands helplessly at the door. Neither of us can help our little girl, leaving us, as well as her, at the mercy of the men who harmed her years before. The men might be sitting in jail, but they’re still hurting her, coming after her at night in her dreams. Even with the therapy she’s been going through, she’s still being hurt in the one place we, her parents, can never protect her — her mind.

As I sit there, I can’t help but think how my family is exposed practically every day to headlines and news stories about criminals sexually abusing children, how with the child’s help and a crack legal team, the man gets put away for life. The children are thanked and called heroes for stepping forward and speaking out, the jury is thanked for their time, and the judge hands down his sentence. Or in the case of Richard Taylor, 21 life sentences and no chance of parole. I constantly hear about how “we as a nation” are stepping up the laws and surveillance to catch predators and criminals, including websites where you can type in your address and see if there are any predators living near you. What I don’t hear about though is what happens to the children who were abused. What happens to them once the man or men are put behind bars?

According to the Franks Foundation, a group formed from the tragedy of abuse that was experienced by Polly Frank’s children, the rates of abuse are astonishingly high. Higher than most of us as parents want to believe. At least one in three girls and one in five boys will be sexually abused by age 18. This number is made even more frightening when one takes into account the fact that only about 25 percent of the cases are even reported, and of that, only 5 percent of those reported make it to court. If this isn’t frightening enough for parents, the majority of abusers are known by their victims, sometimes even living in the same house as the rest of the family.

While I read all these statistics for the children harmed, and I have articles telling me about the capturing and putting away of the people who abused the children, there is a thought that has been keeping me up at night ever since my biological daughter, Melin, was abused by my ex-boyfriend. After the dust settles, how do I, as a parent, pick up the pieces of my child’s life and help them put themselves back together? Once an energetic, outgoing child, Melin is now afraid and overly cautious around members of the opposite sex, even her uncle Paul, who she’s known her entire life.

Thankfully, Melin is covered under my parents’ insurance, so we’re able to get her in to see some of the best child psychologists and counselors in the area. My step-daughters are covered under the state medicaid, and therefore qualify for one of the few state programs aimed at offering counselors for children of troubled homes. But I have to wonder… what about the families that don’t have private insurance (with mental health coverage) that don’t qualify for state medicaid? What happens to their children? In a country so concerned with getting the abusers off the streets, it’s scary that it is left to the parents and family to “mend” the abused child. In some cases, because there’s no real help for those who can’t afford it or get government help, the abused becomes the abuser.

A close friend of mine, who I refer to often as my adopted brother, is one of those such people. When Max was little, he was abused sexually by his uncles. Not knowing how to deal with the situation, and too frightened to tell his mother (who was in the process of escaping an abusive husband), Max did the only thing he understood when he hit puberty and began feeling sexual urges — he began to sexually abuse his brother. It wasn’t until Max was caught and sent off to a juvenile detention center (where he was repeatedly told he was a horrible person and the scum of the earth), that his uncles were caught and sentenced. To this day, Max has trouble being around children, even though he doesn’t have a single urge to harm or abuse them. Because there was no one there to help him, he was punished for acting on what little he knew. He would ask me several times over the time he lived with me, “I’m scared, Sis. I would never do anything to Melin, or my own kids, but what if they told me was true? What if I am a monster?”

He still has nightmares to this day of his abuse, but unfortunately, as an adult, he doesn’t qualify for any of the state programs that would be there to help him. He’s tried putting his life back together, tried to undo the brainwashing that was placed on him while he was in the detention center, but still he struggles. It makes me wonder if things would be different, if he would be different, if there was more focus on helping the children learn to overcome their fears and face their pain instead of just sweeping them under the rug after the abusers are put away. If there were programs out there that instead of just focusing on showing you where the abusers were, also showed you where to get help if your child had been hurt.

All three of my daughters (one biological and two step-daughters) have unfortunately been abused. Melin was harmed by someone familiar to her, and Marie and Li still refuse to tell us about who their abusers are. Marie and Li came into the care of my husband and myself after it was discovered that their mother was living with multiple sex offenders, and that the girls had been left alone with said offenders on multiple occasions. I’ve seen the pain in my husband Edward’s eyes when he has to go in and comfort the girls at night, or when we’re taking the girls to their sessions with the counselor. He tries to put on a strong face for them, but I can see it in his posture, he’s just as helpless as I am at removing their pain. He couldn’t be there to protect his babies, and now he’s helpless in trying to help them put their lives together because they’re too frightened to tell who harmed them.

Even if we catch the person or persons responsible for Marie and Li’s abuse, it falls completely on our shoulders as parents to help our children mend. I know from my experiences with Melin’s case, that the impotent rage that fills my body, is just the beginning. We are told that as parents, it is our duty to protect and nurture our children, but what happens if we fail? I failed in protecting my daughter from being sexually abused at the age of 4, and now, four years later, she’s still struggling with nightmares, is still shy around men (even family), and even with therapy, is having trouble mending.

With Marie and Li, my husband and I don’t know how long they were abused, and they’ve only been with us for a few months. The helpless feeling is exponentially greater in their cases, and it’s apparent in Marie’s case that even with counseling, the abuse has left a lasting effect that we will probably never be able to remove. I hope she won’t become like Max, and abuse people because she was abused, that we caught the damage early enough in the cycle to stop it, but we know that she’s never going to be completely normal after all that has happened to her.

As I sit here thinking back on everything, I try to imagine how different things would be if instead of just putting abusers away, or in some cases, putting them to death, the courts and public also took focus on the children, coming together as a community to help the child mend and recover. Would that stop what has come to be called “The Cycle of Abuse”? Is there a way people could help those children regain the trust they lost? The innocence is gone forever once the abuser does what he does, but the trust can be rebuilt through lots of work and patience on the parts of not just the parents (who currently are the only ones responsible for making the child once again a functioning member of the community) but society as a whole. Instead of sweeping the children under the rug and forgetting about them, isn’t it time society brought them to the front and work towards repairing their shattered and broken lives?

If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.

Unsplash photo via Rachael Crowe

Originally published: October 15, 2017
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