By Tammi Pitzen, Executive Director of the Children’s Advocacy Center of Jackson County
I have a birthday in April. I have no qualms about the number. I will be turning 47.
26 of those years have been spent working in one role or another in the field of child abuse. Wow!
That equates to more than half of my life spent responding to child abuse and trying to bring awareness to one of the most pervasive public health issues of modern times (or at least in my opinion.)
The pendulum has swung from one end of the spectrum to the other and everywhere in between, as far as practice in securing safety and investigation of child abuse during my career. When I began, you were told to believe everything a child told you and then, later, it was to be suspicious of everything a child told you.
Somewhere along the way, there were guidelines put in place for talking with children in a way that invited an open narrative, that minimized contamination of the information and was more trauma informed.
There are still people who will never believe what a child tells them about abuse. If I had any advice for anyone trying to figure this out in their own life — it would be that it is better err on the side of keeping the child safe.
Here are some things that I have learned along the way about figuring out next steps and what to believe, and because I think ranking is overvalued, they are not in any particular order:
- In most cases, there are only two people in the world that can be 100% sure of exactly what happened in suspected child sexual abuse cases…the child and the perpetrator. These things do not generally happen with witnesses around. Child sexual abuse events generally do not generate C.S.I. type evidence.
- Ask yourself what the child victim has to gain by making a false allegation. Usually the answer is — nothing but heartache. In my career I have spoken to literally thousands and thousands of children, some in a forensic interview and some out in the “field” on scene and otherwise, and what my experience has been is that most of the time if you asked a child what they wanted to happen to their offender (and by the way this is a BAD idea for a lot of different reasons) they generally would tell you they want the abuse to stop. They do not launch into a tirade about wanting him/her shot, hung, or otherwise dismembered. They do not spout off about wanting to ruin them. Many times child victims of all ages lose so much. They lose friends, family, and stability to name a few. And they gain anger, pain, blame, ridicule and shame many times.
- On the flip side of the last one, what does the person accused have to gain by lying about what happened? If there is more than one person making an accusation, I generally go with the “where there is smoke, there is fire” line of thinking. This is particularly true when the children do not know each other or have no contact with each other. Believe it or not there are not groups of children plotting to ruin the adults in their lives.
- NO MATTER what age, no matter what clothes they had on, no matter how “bad” they are, no matter what their grades are in school, the child did not ask for it. The adult is ALWAYS responsible for what happens between an adult and child. ALWAYS.
- Offenders are not the scary people we do not know…they are people we like. They are people we love. They are people in our life. They are people who are respected. They are people we have previously deemed to be safe to be around our children. I know. I know. This one is enough to make us become paranoid and distrustful of every one.
- Identifying and responding to physical abuse many times is easier for all of us. We see a child who has sustained injuries at the hands of an adult and we pretty much understand that should not happen. Although, I still occasionally run into people who feel like it is a parent’s “right” to do whatever they would like to their child. In fact, I have, in a few instances, had said parent yell that in my face.
Most non-offending caregivers want to believe their child and want to believe the abuser because what does it say about their character to not believe their child? And WHAT does it say about their character if they allowed an offender into their child’s life. Those offenders are tricky and manipulative. You can do everything right and they still are able to slip into our lives. So what does it really say about them? Does it mean they are a terrible parent? I do not believe so. Does it mean they do not love their child? I do not believe so. Does it mean they are a horrible person? Nope. The really important thing is once they learn of the abuse, what is their response to their child? Do they do whatever needs to be done to keep them safe? Do they do whatever needs to be done to help their child begin healing? Do they engage in that healing process with them? We always hope so.
When faced with having to make a decision on whether to believe a child or the accused offender, you should never base your decision on what the offender tells you.
If there is an investigation (and there should be, because if a child tells you something, you should report it so that it can be fully investigated by professionals specially trained to do so, in order to get unbiased opinions and to secure the safety of your child) then talk to the professionals investigating, talk to people who work with offenders in a treatment process, talk to anyone involved who will talk to you. Listen to what they have to say. Listen to what their opinion is. Then carefully make a decision.
But don’t make a decision out of fear…fear of not having money to pay the bills, fear of being alone, or fear of the unknown. Don’t make a decision that is based on the least painful path.
Believing a child, keeping them safe, loving them, and giving them support does not sound painful, but it can be. But know that however painful it is for you, it is much more painful for that child. Children are very protective of the people they love. It is painful for them to hurt the non-offending people in their lives. They know that their words will change the world. They know their words can bring the walls in on top of them. They know their words will bring on a domino effect that cannot be reversed.
My birthday wish this year is that if you are struggling with making a decision of whether to believe or not believe your child…..that you will reach out …..to someone who is unbiased, who has some experience in dealing with this issue, to help you.
If you reach out to me, know that I will help you, but also know that I will make a report to either law enforcement or child protection. Your child’s health, happiness and future depends on my doing so.