Fear paralyzed Annie Fisher. Un-spoken dangers left her constantly on guard as a child, her body tensed up at all times, so unfocused that one teacher wrote she had a “severe emotional disturbance.” As a teenager and young adult, she threw herself into addictive behavior, whether it was food, cigarettes, alcohol, “anything I could get my hands on,” she remembers. The emotional pain was constant; trust was completely absent from her life. “I would have these really traumatic emotional reactions to things,” says Fisher, a Collingswood resident, “but I didn’t really know what I was reacting to.”
Therapy finally unleashed the searing memories that had long been dormant: sexual abuse. The first incident happened at just 4 years old, at a Bible study camp. At age 7, Fisher had sexual experiences with multiple children, including a neighborhood boy who was three to four years older. How did it feel for Fisher—now 44 years old and a therapist for sexual abuse and addiction cases at The Starting Point (a nonprofit counseling center in Westmont)—to finally have an explanation for a lifetime of emotional torment? “When I really understood what happened to me,” she says, “there’s nothing to feel but heartbroken.”
There are few things as tragic as lost innocence from the sexual abuse of a child. In New Jersey in 2009, there were approximately 925 cases of child sexual abuse. Older generations compounded the heartbreak by keeping such crimes secret—a devastating truth that never should be revealed. Increased awareness and education has reversed that dynamic and brought the issue to light in recent times. And yet, it is believed that up to 90 percent of child sexual abuse cases go unreported.
Now, a trio of explosive scandals has thrust child sexual abuse into the national spotlight. In November, long-time Penn State University football coach Jerry Sandusky was arrested for allegedly molesting and sexually assaulting young boys through his work with The Second Mile foundation, a nonprofit children’s organization he helped to create in the late ‘70s. Even though Sandusky was said to have been witnessed having sex with a child on Penn State’s campus, the incident was never reported to law enforcement, and that failure cost the jobs of (among many others) both the university president and a legendary football coach, the late Joe Paterno.
A mere two weeks later, allegations arose that long-time Syracuse University men’s basketball assistant coach Bernie Fine sexually abused children. And then, in a massive local shocker, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that four people accused Philadelphia Daily News sportswriter Bill Conlin of molesting them as children. (The total has since grown to seven alleged victims, including members of Conlin’s extended family). The abuses were alleged to have occurred during the 1960s and ‘70s in Washington Township (where Conlin has a house) and Margate. The Gloucester County Prosecutor’s Office investigated the allegations, but concluded that no action could be taken because the statute of limitations had expired. Conlin, who was inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame last year, retired just hours before accusations were made public.
These tragedies shed light on the enduring fact about child sexual abuse: It harms children and creates emotional trauma they carry for the rest of their lives.
“This stays with people for a long time. This is not something that goes away easily,” says Charles Robinson, who led the Mount Holly HOPES support group (for victims of child abuse, sexual and otherwise) for 13 years. The list of disorders is extensive. Children can experience trust issues, have sleeping disorders, wet the bed, act out, become depressed, change their behavior or become hyper-sexualized. As they grow into adults, they carry self-esteem issues, have unhealthy relationships, turn easily to addiction, become either sexually promiscuous or asexual, and can easily become abusers themselves, says Robinson.
The clearest fact about child sexual abuse is that, in nearly all cases, the abuser is not a stranger. “Parents need to understand that it is somebody close who has gained their child’s trust,” says Rush Russell, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse New Jersey.
Abusers create a relationship with the child through “the grooming process”—something that starts off innocuously and then escalates (through compliments, rewards and game-like activities) to physical interaction. And once that occurs, perpetrators intend to keep the relationship going. That makes it harder to identify cases of sexual abuse, says Dr. Martin Finkel, because 95 percent of children in sexual abuse cases won’t show physical evidence of abuse. “The dynamic of sexual victimization is so very different, because most perpetrators don’t intend to physically harm the child,” says Finkel, founder and director of the CARES Institute in Stratford and a pioneer in medical diagnosis for child sexual abuse.
While the scandals at Penn State and elsewhere highlight the devastating effects of sexual abuse on children, they also underscore the need for training and effective reporting and prevention policies. New Jersey, regarded as a leader in this issue, already requires anybody with a suspicion of child abuse to report it to the state’s Division of Youth and Family Services. Now, in the wake of PSU, State Sen. James Beach (D-Cherry Hill) and others have co-sponsored a bill that mandates additional reporting to law enforcement, while making the failure to report a felony (instead of a misdemeanor). “We have to do everything within our power to protect kids,” says Beach. The bill has many proponents, but detractors, too. They worry that law enforcement could damage children because they lack the special skills to handle such matters. In addition, “I think that creating a dual system of reporting,” Finkel says, “is only going to create confusion, havoc and will delay investigations.”
Just as people can be punished for failing to report sexual abuse, so too can organizations be held liable in civil court for inaction or suppressing information from whistleblowers.
The greatest scrutiny of Penn State centered on its institutional dithering—which underscored the need for a rock-solid organizational reporting system when children are involved. “There is nothing wrong with a policy that is overly cautious and encourages reporting a problem, because it protects you from civil liability,” says Joseph P. Testa, a retired family law judge and of counsel attorney with the law firm Adinolfi & Lieberman.
Not every organization utilizes a “Safe Child” policy, but it’s practically a must when children are involved. Like many organizations, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Burlington, Gloucester and Camden Counties uses background checks and personal interviews to screen its volunteers. But it follows up with a procedure called Matched Support, where a staffer separately talks to the mentor, child and parents to see how the relationship is faring. BBBS staffers put in questions to mark areas of possible grooming, and will often conduct in-person match support calls to read the child’s body language. In addition, says chapter CEO Robert Jakubowski, mentors are trained to detect possible signs of abuse.
“A parent should still question me and my staff and make sure you can still trust and believe in us,” says Jakubowski, whose organization found mentors for 625 kids last year. “That’s the only way we’re going to keep getting better.”
With increased parental vigilance, stringent organizational training, and greater societal awareness, progress can be made to prevent children from being sexually abused. And while it may be too late for some, it’s never too late to ease the pain of the past. Through individual therapy and meditation, Fisher tempered her addictive urges and quelled the pain. Her demons conquered, she became a therapist four years ago; in leading the Women’s Sexual Abuse Survivors group at the Starting Point and working with clients, she helps others build skills to manage their trauma. Pressed for a message for other victims, she doesn’t equivocate: “There’s hope for healing.”
What else can parents do?
Establish boundaries early with your child by talking about “good touch” and “bad touch.” With sexual abuse, children will not realize that such contact is inappropriate, and might even enjoy it because it makes their body feel good.
“I think the most important thing for parents is to talk to their children that they’re the ones in charge of their bodies,” says Rena Essrog, director of programming and clinical services for the Samost Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Southern New Jersey.
In cases of abuse, children won’t volunteer information unless they are asked. When that’s done, it’s important to establish that a child shouldn’t keep secrets, and that they will be believed when they say something. “If the parent doesn’t believe them or blames them and doesn’t do anything to stop [the abuse], the long-term effects will be detrimental to their healing process,” says Anne Blair, a Voorhees-based licensed clinical social worker who works primarily with adolescents.
Abuse victims can carry guilt and shame for years and decades after they are abused, and so it’s important to alleviate that burden by telling them it’s not their fault.
Take proactive steps to make sure your child isn’t put in a compromising situation. Step in unannounced when your child is at an event, and talk to them when they come home.
Ideally, have two sets of adult eyes at children’s events to eliminate excessive one-on-one time.
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 11 (February, 2012).
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