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Agencies organize to fight sexual assault of minors

Posted: Wednesday, May 31, 2000

"I don't feel good."

A common complaint of youngsters -- expected by those who care for them. Cuts get bandaged, temperatures are taken, and runny noses are wiped.

Healing is initiated. Life goes on.

For 1,874 Alaska children in 1999, the problem was something far more serious than tummy aches, fevers or colds, according to the Division of Family and Youth Services.

These children were victims of sexual abuse.

Jan Johnson, coordinator of Central Peninsula General Hospital's Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner program, reported that between October 1998 and April 2000, it completed 84 examinations.

"Sixty percent of those were children," Johnson said.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry reported that sexual abuse of children has been reported up to 80,000 times a year, but the number of unreported instances is far greater because children are afraid to tell anyone what has happened.

Behind that fear is the sobering fact that sexual abuse of children happens to all kinds of families and children. In 85 percent of the reported cases, the offender is known by the child, according to the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse. That adds weight to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's advice to caution children about certain kinds of situations or actions rather than telling them to beware of strangers.

"The community must first come to terms with the fact that adults use children for sexual gratification," said Johnson. "Society expects children to say no, run, tell. In reality, most children do not tell and because of the power differential (between them and their abusers), they do not scream, struggle or run."

Alaska Children's Trust was created by the Legislature in 1988 to improve the status of Alaska's children. Its Community Resource Kit, including suggestions for how the business community can be involved in preventing abuse, is available online at www.eed.state. ak.us. It describes the workplace as one of the most effective places to reach Alaskans with information about child abuse prevention and ways to offer family support.

On the central Kenai Peninsula, several agencies and organizations have taken the lead in the war against sexual abuse of children by forming the Sexual Assault Response Team. Members include the Division of Family and Youth Services, Alaska State Troopers, Kenai and Soldotna police departments, the Central Peninsula General Hospital Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner program, Women's Resource and Crisis Center and the district attorney's office.

Separately, each team member has specific responsibilities. Working together, they are able to minimize the trauma suffered by abuse victims of all ages.

The role of the Division of Family and Youth Services is to investigate cases of abuse and provide support and follow-up to the child and the family.

"We are generally the first contact," said Bill Galik, DFYS intake supervisor. "In all cases, we coordinate with the appropriate law enforcement agency."

Law enforcement agencies provide victims with safety. They also are involved in investigations, identify and arrest suspects and prepare reports and provide testimony if a case goes to court.

Kenai Police Chief Dan Morris said officers receive special training for interviewing children.

"Talking with a child is a critical part of an investigation," Morris said. "Depending on the age or maturity level, there are definite ways to approach an interview." Sexual assault nurse examiners perform examinations needed to collect and document evidence. They provide testimony in court, follow-up exams and can make referrals when appropriate.

"People say they don't want to put their children through the exam, but it isn't as horrifying as people seem to think," said Johnson, who spends time getting to know a child and making her or him comfortable prior to an examination.

The Women's Resource and Crisis Center stands ready with support, crisis intervention and safe shelter.

"We are also involved in educating the community, giving presentations and raising the public's awareness about abuse," said June Harris, who has 16 years of experience working with victims of abuse.

The district attorney's office can provide information and answer questions about court proceedings. It also works closely with law enforcement to develop a solid case that will stand up in court.

"It is my role to determine when a case is brought to me, if I can prove it beyond a reasonable doubt," said Dwayne McConnell, Kenai district attorney.

Open lines of communication are the key, whether maintaining a safe environment or helping remove a child from an unsafe situation. To help with the latter, the Sexual Assault Response Team offers the following dos and don'ts if a child trusts you enough to tell you about an incident of sexual abuse.

Keep calm;

Believe the child;

Give a positive message such as, "I'm proud of you for telling";

Explain that the child is not to blame;

Listen and answer the child's questions;

Respect the child's privacy;

Be responsible and report the incident;

Arrange for a medical exam; and

Get professional counseling.

Don't:

Panic or overreact;

Pressure the child to talk or avoid talking about the abuse;

Confront the offender in the child's presence; or

Blame the child.

There are a number of pressures placed on children who tell about incidents of sexual abuse. Sometimes those pressures cause them to change their stories.

"But children don't lie about these things," said Soldotna Police Chief Shirley Warner.

"We must be alert to symptoms of abuse and, most importantly, be willing to listen to the child's story," said Johnson.

Whatever a child's complaint may be, adults need to listen.

Then healing can be initiated, and life can continue.



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