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Info & Answers

What is Sexual Abuse?

Sexual Abuse occurs when a person forces a child to have any form of sexual contact or makes a child perform sexual acts. Sexual Abuse may involve touching private parts (clothed or unclothed), penetration using an object, forced sexual acts between children, or making the child view, read or participate in pornography. These acts are abuse even when offenders say they were gentle and did not hurt the child

Sexual abuse is also known as molestation and exploitation. Sexual molestation does not always mean sexual intercourse. Sometimes older children molest younger or smaller children. Sexual acts between children become molestation when one child uses coercion, force, or violence to get the other child to do the acts. Young molesters should be reported to social service agencies so they can receive help. Sexual molestation is overwhelming to children, especially when an adult is involved. Most children are taught to trust adults. They tend to believe what adults tell them is true rather than to rely on their own feelings. This works against them in two ways. If the molester tells them that what is being done is OK, they may doubt their own feelings that it is not. If a parents’ initial reaction when they hear the child’s molestation report is “This can’t be true!” the child may wonder if his or her feelings are mistaken. Children almost never tell about abuse “to create problems”. More often, they fear that telling will make people angry at them. It is extremely difficult for children to report abuse.

How to act toward your child…

  • I believe you.
  • I know it’s not your fault.
  • I’m glad I know about it.
  • I’m sorry this happened to you.
  • I will take care of you.
  • I’m not sure what will happen next.
  • Nothing about YOU made this happen. It has happened to other children too.
  • You don’t need to take care of me.
  • I am upset but not with you.
  • I’m angry at the person who did this.
  • I’m sad. You may see me cry. That’s alright. I will be able to take care of you. I am not mad at you.
  • I don’t know why he/she did it. He/She has a problem.
  • You can still love someone but hate what they did to you.

Some things you can do…

  • Return to a normal routine as soon as possible.
  • See that your child receives therapy as soon as possible. Trying to sweep the problem under the rug usually causes more problems because it will not go away.
  • Find help for yourself. You don’t have to do it all alone. Contact the Victim Service Coordinator for assistance.
  • Teach your child the rules of personal safety. Tell them what to do if someone tries to touch them in an uncomfortable way.
  • Be careful not to question your child about the abuse. If you do, you can jeopardize the case in court against your child’s abuser. Specially trained professionals at the Child Advocacy Center will interview your child to obtain necessary information. If your child wants to talk about it, listen supportively, but do not probe.
  • Keep your child away from the person suspected of the abuse. This is to protect you, that person and the child.
  • Avoid discussing the case with other victims or their families.
  • Avoid discussing the case openly in front of the child.
  • Never coach or advise your child on how to act or what to say to professionals or investigators. This could seriously damage the case.
  • Avoid the suspect.
  • Your child may need an extra sense of physical security. Stay close and assure your child you will keep him/her safe.
  • Remember to give attention to your other children.

How the legal system responds to abuse

The legal system can be confusing and frightening to children and families. Part of this confusion stems from the fact that two different “legal systems” can be working on the same case at the same time. These two systems are the “criminal” and the “civil” system. In addition, there are two different court systems that can work on a child abuse case, Criminal Court and District Court. Both courts may work on the same case at the same time, but they have different purposes.

The Criminal Court is concerned primarily with the guilt or innocence of the accused and often uses a trial to decide on the suspect’s guilt or innocence. The criminal trial focuses on issues such as:

  • Is there evidence to prove the child was abused?
  • What illegal acts occurred?
  • Was there a confession?
  • If proven guilty; what punishment should the offender receive?

The District Court is concerned primarily with the safety of the child and focuses on issues like custody, supervised visitation and counseling. A number of different court hearings can be held to decide these issues. The decisions in the civil system do not depend on whether the criminal system finds guilt or not.

The Team of Professionals

We are fortunate to have a highly trained team of professionals which meets monthly to respond to child abuse reports. The roles of the team members are described below.

  • The District Attorney/Prosecutor: The prosecutor leads the team and has the final decision as to whether charges will be filed. Consideration is given too many factors which will affect the likelihood of success in court. Some of the factors considered are: age and maturity of the child, the child’s ability to testify, whether or not the suspect has confessed, presence of medical evidence, and whether or not there are other witnesses.
  • The Victim/Witness Coordinator: The VWC is a professional in the DA’s office who coordinates the court preparation school, helps victims and their families understand the legal process, and provides other valuable services to victims and their families.
  • The Law Enforcement Officer: The Police Department and the Sheriff’s office have investigators on the team. They interview children, non-offending parents, suspects and other witnesses, and gather evidence from the scene of the alleged event.
  • The Social Worker: The role of the Department of Human Services is to help protect your child. The DHS social workers conduct forensic interviews and develop safety plans. They should refer you and/or your child to counseling.
  • Medical Personnel: Medical professionals working with the team have years of experience examining children for possible abuse. The exam for sexual abuse involves a regular check-up with magnification of the genitalia. Magnification is done with an instrument called a colposcope, which is a big magnifying glass with a good light source. If the child is having a discharge or other symptoms, cultures may be obtained by swabbing the genitalia with a Q-tip. This exam should not be traumatic or painful and most children are calm and seem not to mind. Remember, however, an exam may not indicate if the child has been abused. The team does not rely on the exam outcome alone to prove abuse. One definite advantage is that it allows the examiner to assure the child that his/her body is OK.
  • Mental Health: Mental Health professionals (therapists) on the team help decide how the abuse has affected the child and family and what can be done to assist them in healing from the experience. Therapists also help in the investigations by doing what we call “Forensic Evaluations”. If a child is too young, frightened or confused to tell the whole story at the first interview, the therapist may use “Forensic Evaluation” with the child for up to eight sessions. This gives the child time and a feeling of safety so he/she can tell what has happened.
  • Victim Service Coordinator: The Victim Service Coordinator is a trained professional who helps the non-offending caregiver when abuse is reported. The VSC helps the non-offending caregiver connect with services in the community and provides support as the non-offending caregiver protects the child in the aftermath of the abuse report.

The Investigation

The following are the basic steps to an investigation of child sexual abuse:

  • Someone reports suspicion of abuse to authorities, either law enforcement or the Department of Human Services.
  • Interviews with the child are conducted, usually at the Child Advocacy Center – Sara’s House. A trained Forensic Interviewer will do the interviews.
  • Medical exams are conducted, if necessary, by a trained sexual abuse examiner. Only those children who disclose during an interview or are under the age of three. A Family Advocate will be available to the Non-Offending Caregiver throughout the process.
  • Law Enforcement and/ or DHS will continue the investigation, which will include an interview with the alleged offender, if possible.
  • A team of professionals (discussed in the previous section) will meet to discuss the case and decide how to manage it. The team consists of doctors, prosecutors, law enforcement officers, social workers and mental health professionals.
  • The case may be referred to District or Criminal Court, or some other plan may be made for managing the case.
  • The team will staff each case monthly to monitor the progress.

The District Court Process

If a report of sexual abuse is made against a parent or step-parent or someone who has a lot of contact with the child, a DHS worker will talk to the non-offending parent about a plan to protect the child. For the child’s safety and the best interest of everyone involved, the alleged offender will be asked to leave the home. If the non-offending parent is unable or un-willing to ask the offender to leave the home, the worker must find the child a safe place. If the child is giving believable details of abuse or has medical evidence of abuse and the non-offending parent does not believe the child and does not keep the offender away, the DHS worker may determine that the child is in danger of further abuse and remove the child from the parent’s custody. If this happens, the following steps will be taken.

A hearing will occur in District Court within 72 hours. This is not a criminal hearing. It is known as a show cause hearing, and parents have the right to an attorney. The court will give the child an attorney. The Judge will make one of the following decisions:

  • Leave the child in DHS custody
  • Return the child to the parent
  • Place the child with a relative

If the child stays in custody or with a relative, DHS will work with the non-offending parent to try to make the home safe for the child to be returned. The issue of keeping the offender away from the child has to be settled. DHS will also provide supportive services to help the non-offending parent protect the child.

An adjudication hearing will be held, usually within three months. The Judge will hear the facts again and make a decision on where the child will live.

If the child still cannot be returned home, DHS will continue to work with the family to try to find a safe way for the child to go home. As long as the child stays in DHS custody, the Judge will review the case every three to six months. This will continue until the Judge decides to return the child home or terminate parental rights.

The Criminal Court Process

Using evidence discovered through the investigation and the input received from the team, the DA’s office determines if there is enough evidence to take the case before a grand jury.

The grand jury consists of 18 anonymous citizens. Then decide if there is enough evidence (probable cause) to take the case to trial (called a “true bill”) or not (called a “no bill”). They make this decision by listening to the evidence gathered during the investigation and then voting on how the case should proceed. This voting is done in secret, and it is against the law for anyone to reveal what the grand jury has done or why they did or did not “true bill” a case.

If enough evidence is found, it can take up to a year for a case to be placed on a court docket for trial. The case can also be settled by agreement without a trial. This is commonly known as “plea bargaining”. Most cases are settled by agreement without trial. A “plea bargain” is reached when the District Attorney, the victim, the defendant, the defense attorney and the Judge agree on a charge and a sentence. The offender may have to pay a fine, do jail time and /or be placed on probation with required counseling. In a plea bargain, a conviction will appear on his/her record and he/she will have to register as a sex offender.

Even if the case does not go to trial, it is important to remember that your child and family may need some help in dealing with the after effects of your experience.

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