Why is child abuse awareness stuck in the 1950s?

Posted on September 29, 2014 in The Augusta Chronicle

 Margaret Hoelzer is a two-time U.S. Olympic athlete in swimming and a child sexual survivor.

Margaret Hoelzer is a two-time U.S. Olympic athlete in swimming and a child sexual survivor.

I was in the audience as she spoke to a group of child advocates – professionals who, like our employees at Child Enrichment, work with child victims of abuse every day. Margaret informed us and motivated us in many ways that day, but one particular thing she said has really bothered me, and I can't shake it, because I too cannot understand. She asked, "Why is child sexual abuse awareness stuck in the 1950s?"
SHE ALREADY HAD spoken about her abuse and how well her family handled it, and how a grand jury chose not to bring charges against the alleged perpetrator, and how difficult it was to deal with all of the stigma and pressure – besides the abuse.

"How can you do something like that to a child and have nothing happen? No community service. No fine. Nothing?" Margaret asked. "Now that I'm older ... I realize that's not how it is. A lack of evidence is just a lack of evidence."
Estimates are that 90 percent of child sexual abuse goes unreported, and if Child Enrichment's statistics are typical, only 10 percent of the reported cases are criminally prosecuted. We surmise that there are hundreds of thousands of sexual predators out there seeking children for sexual gratification.
Margaret turned her experience into motivation. She told us about standing on the pool's edge, looking down the line of competitors whom she would swim against in a minute, and she said to herself: None of these people are as strong as I, none survived what I survived! And she won almost every time she raced.
THEN SHE TOLD US about her grandmother who was diagnosed with breast cancer in the 1950s, and who died of the disease at a young age. Her grandmother couldn't talk about it to anyone. Even conversations with her doctor and her husband were short and not repeated. She was alone with her cancer – just like most of the child victims of sexual abuse are alone with their abuse and torture.
"Why?" Margaret asked. "How long will it take for child sexual abuse awareness to get to where breast cancer awareness is today? Will it take six decades? Will we ever have an awareness campaign with ribbons and with men and women talking about child sexual abuse with the goal of eradicating it?"
Other than her parents, Margaret Hoelzer never told anyone about her abuse. After setting world records and winning Olympic medals, she thought, I need to tell about this. Maybe it will help a child recover, or prevent another victim.
She also wondered: "What if no one cares?"
Margaret told us, "I've learned what sexual abuse does. It undermines people's value. It undermines self-confidence. It just attacked my self-esteem. My first lesson, that not all people are good, that adults don't always have your best interests at heart? Yeah, I learned that at 5 years old."
So how long will it take for child sexual abuse to achieve a level of awareness and prevention efforts such as breast cancer?

  • I DO NOT UNDERSTAND why so few other people want to understand child maltreatment. Yet, most everyone is quick to say: Children are our future! As a society, we seem to tolerate the brutal images of animal maltreatment and foreign child malnourishment and poverty, but when it comes to our child citizens, we don't seem to want to know.

I am very, very happy about the government-funded attack on child and human-sex trafficking by both the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But why not confront child sexual abuse? The only answer I come up with is a bad one: Children are considered property, and unless the sexual abuse is witnessed by an adult, or captured on video, we as individuals and as a society just don't want to know about the torture and exploitation of children within families.
If the alleged perpetrator is a stranger, OK, we are all over it. If the alleged perpetrator is a parent, relative or even someone trusted by the family – as the vast majority of child sexual abuse cases are – we don't handle it well.
Child Enrichment's mission is to serve the abandoned, abused, neglected and sexually abused children of the region, and to bring resolution of child sexual abuse cases through collaboration with key partner agencies; provide a safe and compassionate environment that puts the well-being of the child first; help children become survivors and to recover from the trauma of abuse; and to break the cycle of abuse through training, education and prevention.
LAST YEAR, CHILD Enrichment served 676 children from Richmond, Columbia and Burke counties. Most of these children were victims of child sexual abuse, and the others had experienced severe neglect or physical abuse. If only child advocates work to help these children, we never will achieve the goals of prevention and protecting children from sexual abuse.
Your help is needed. You can help the child victims today who need our counseling and court advocacy services, and you can become aware yourself and help to promote and spread that awareness. Please support Child Enrichment, and learn more about child abuse prevention.
You also can volunteer; donate to our annual fund-raising campaign; attend or sponsor a fund-raising event such as Art of Chocolate, which will be Oct. 10 this year; or simply tell others about our work. Go to www.ChildEnrichment.org.
LET'S MOVE THIS issue forward and help the millions of children affected by child sexual abuse. Darkness to Light, the child abuse prevention program, reported that there are 39 million adult survivors of child sexual abuse. Learn more: www.D2L.org For those of you on Facebook, please "like" Child Enrichment Inc., and Cookin' for Kids, and share our posts when you can. You can help bring awareness to child sexual abuse and help to prevent it – and we all can help to protect children from it. Everyone can do something to protect children.

(The writer Dan Hillman is executive director of Child Enrichment Inc., the Child Advocacy Center and CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) for abused children in Augusta.)


Ariel's Story

Posted on December 16, 2012

 To ensure privacy, actual names have been changed. The child pictured is not the actual child written about in the case summary.

To ensure privacy, actual names have been changed.
The child pictured is not the actual child written about in the case summary.

Ariel was just 14 when she was referred to Child Enrichment’s Child Advocacy Center in Augusta, Georgia by the Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS). During the forensic interview, Ariel disclosed recurrent sexual abuse by her stepfather, Ralph, over a several year period.

She currently lives with her mother and her 11-year-old brother Andy, who was also physically abused by Ralph. In addition, Ariel’s mother was a victim of domestic violence at Ralph’s hands, and she was at risk of failing to protect the children due to her emotional dependence on him, and fear of him. A frequent crack cocaine user, Ralph often assaulted Ariel when he was using. She reported that he forced her to smoke crack with him, had his friends sexually abuse her, and beat her when she refused to cooperate.

When Ariel began therapy through Child Enrichment’s Child Advocacy Center, she verbalized thoughts of suicide, demonstrated significant depression, and high levels of fear and anxiety. She had frequent nightmares, insisted on sleeping fully clothed. Her grades dropped significantly due to her emotional problems and her inability to concentrate. The Child Advocacy Center provided Ariel with weekly individual counseling, including her brother Andy in many sessions to mitigate his guilt about being unable to protect his sister. His guilt was compounded by the fact that his sister had once confided in him but had sworn him to secrecy since Ralph had threatened to “beat her until he couldn’t beat her anymore” if she told anyone.

Ariel’s mother received individual counseling to enlist her support of Ariel and to educate her about how child molesters manipulate their victims into keeping the abuse secret. She rapidly came to the conclusion that she had to leave Ralph and began filing for a divorce. The entire family was paralyzed with fear of this man because of his strength and his past violent attacks. Ariel also participated in an eight-week therapy group through the Child Advocacy Center for sexually-abused teens. Through therapy, she recognized that she was not alone. She came to believe that “My body is my own personal property and no one has the right to touch me like that.” She became a positive group leader among her peers and assisted in challenging their negative statements about themselves. Ariel even coordinated slumber parties and other social gatherings with the other girls to continue their friendships after the group was completed. While Ariel met in the girls group, her mother participated in a support and education group with other non-offending parents at the Child Advocacy Center. She became convinced that Ralph alone was responsible for his behavior, and the many crimes he had committed on her family. Ariel learned about the court process and how to best help herself to heal. During treatment, Ariel was able to process each incident in great detail, progressing to where she exhibited little avoidance or self-blame. Her grades improved along with her ability to concentrate at school. Ariel’s confidence grew and her depression lifted. Ralph pled guilty to three counts of sexual abuse (including one count of aggravated child molestation) and received a 20-year prison sentence, and was required to register as a Sex Offender.

The Child Advocacy Center director accompanied Ariel and her family to the sentencing hearing where they were able to share with the judge the Victim’s Statements that they has written while Ariel was in therapy. Ariel was pleased, and greatly relieved, with the outcome. Pre-therapy assessments had been conducted, and subsequent standardized assessments of traumatic symptoms documented her improvement. Her distress was minimal, with no symptoms in the clinically significant range for depression, or suicidal risk. She no longer had thoughts of harming herself and was able to stop taking anti-depression medication. Ariel reported her fear and panic episodes were gone. Knowing Ralph was in prison was significant to Ariel’s final steps to recovery. The salaries for the counselors who treated Ariel and her family were partially funded by donations. The clinical director led the children’s therapy group that Ariel joined, and supervised the interns who led the parent’s group and assisted with the children’s group.

Fortunately, Ariel’s long-term prognosis is good. Her success and resilience are due in large part to donor support of Child Enrichment.

Donor monies funded the therapy that Ariel received. The total cost of therapy, forensic interviewing, and time spent in court by employees was $1,878.

Dan Hillman, Executive Director, Child Enrichment, Inc.