Nonprofit group helps young sexual abuse victims
December 27, 2008
GLENWOOD SPRINGS ” The sexual abuse of children happens across all ethnic and socioeconomic lines and far more frequently than anyone thinks, according to Susan Ackerman, executive director of Childhelp River Bridge Center.
Nationwide, a study by the Center for Disease Control showed that one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before the age of 18.
Local cases are fairly common as well.
Childhelp River Bridge Center, a public-private partnership based in Glenwood Springs and serving Garfield, Eagle and Pitkin counties, saw 80 new child victims of sexual abuse between this December and last, Ackerman said. Pitkin County has reported seven cases of child sexual abuse so far in 2008 and Garfield County has tallied 88. Eagle County did not have data readily available.
But it’s unlikely those numbers include all the 2008 victims, Ackerman said. Citing recent studies, she said many victims never report sexual abuse.
“Kids have every reason not to tell,” Ackerman said, listing the harsh consequences of an admission: Deterioration of the family, lost income for a parent, or physical and/or verbal threats.
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For the last year, Childhelp River Bridge Center has worked to make it easier for kids to tell an adult about sexual abuse. The center provides a place gentler than the police station for child victims of sexual abuse to be interviewed and examined. It also provides ongoing assistance for victims and law enforcement.
It was started, said Ackerman, after a community needs assessment indicated a need for a local child-advocacy center, based on the number of locally-reported child-abuse cases. Though 13 similar centers exist in Colorado, the nearest one to the Roaring Fork Valley is in Grand Junction.
When a child reports sexual abuse to an adult, the Department of Health Services and local law enforcement agency are usually the first to be notified. An investigation is launched, and an interview with Childhelp River Bridge Center is scheduled.
The child is then brought to Childhelp River Bridge Center by a non-offending caregiver. To mitigate trauma, the child is interviewed once, and the interview is taped. If necessary, the child also is given a medical examination by a nurse.
In between, the child plays in a waiting room with toys and games. Before leaving the child chooses a “comfort item,” such as a stuffed animal or crayons.
Childhelp then follows up with the victim and family, to facilitate healing. Meanwhile, the nonprofit facilitates regular meetings among law enforcement, social services, the District Attorney’s Office and other interested parties to make sure the legal case moves forward.
A joint venture between Garfield County and the national Childhelp child-abuse nonprofit, the center runs on an annual budget of about $200,000, which is funded by Garfield County, Childhelp’s national arm, and grants and donations.
According to Ackerman, child advocacy centers have been shown to provide better outcomes for the victim and a greater likelihood that the perpetrator will be convicted.
But so far, she said, it’s too early to tell if the local center has resulted in more convictions, as most cases are still in progress.
If a child reports sexual abuse, said Ackerman, the most important thing an adult can do is to react immediately.
“One of the key factors in a positive outcome for the child is the response by the non-offending parent,” she said.
On the topic of prevention, Ackerman’s advice doesn’t differ much from the advice of most parenting advocates: Keep open communication, know where your kids are and keep track of who they spend time with.
Cases of child sexual abuse can be reported to the Department of Social Services or the Childhelp hotline, 1-800-4-A-CHILD.