Advocacy program tackles sex abuse

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As many as one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before they reach 18 years. We can help them.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and Child Abuse Prevention Month, a co-occurrence that helps to focus attention on the issue of childhood sexual abuse.

The occurrence of sexual abuse is staggering. Estimates are that one out of every four girls and one out of every six boys are sexually abused before age 18. Fifteen percent of rape victims are under age 12, and 22 percent of child sexual abuse victims are under age 8. Nearly 70 percent of all reports of sexual assault involve children as victims.

Children. Our children.

Who is hurting the children? According to the Darkness to Light, only about 10 percent of child sexual abuse victims are assaulted by strangers. Most (93 percent) child victims know the person who abuses them. Thirty to 40 percent of child sexual abuse victims are abused by a family member; 50 percent are abused by trusted friends of the family. For 40 percent of these children, the abuser is an older or larger child whom they know.

Children are unlikely to report sexual abuse, even to their parents. Frequently, a child’s disclosure of sexual abuse is accidental, not intentional. The process of disclosing sexual abuse is often traumatic for the child and for their family members, and the reaction of the people hearing the disclosure can directly impact the child’s recovery process. Children who tell and are not believed are likely to experience the most severe adverse long-term impacts such as depression, eating disorders, suicide and self-mutilation.

If your child discloses sexual abuse, it is important to stay calm, let the child know that you believe them, and take steps to protect the child from further abuse. It is also important to get help with the situation. If you think a child is being abused, call your local law enforcement agency or Child Protective Services.

Agencies in Androscoggin County are working together to improve the response to cases of child sexual abuse. At the Androscoggin Children’s Advocacy Center, the first center of its kind in Maine, children can be interviewed about sexual and physical abuse in a comfortable environment by an interviewer who has special training in conducting forensically sound interviews. A team observes the interview from another room via closed circuit TV and communicates questions to the interviewer. In this way, multiple agencies can get necessary information from a child in a single interview. This coordinated approach reduces the number of interviews a child must undergo.

Currently, 17 agencies participate in ACAC, including law enforcement, child protection, prosecution, victim advocacy and medical, social and mental health providers. Cases that are referred to ACAC for investigation are also regularly reviewed and recommendations for services are made. In addition, support services for non-offending family members are available at ACAC.

ACAC’s mission is to promote the healing of child victims by strengthening the community’s response to investigation, treatment and prevention of sexual and physical child abuse. Imagine if this was everyone’s mission. It would create a safer, healthier world for children.

All our children.

Bridget O’Rourke is coordinator of the Androscoggin Children’s Advocacy Center.

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