Part 12: Best practices for protecting your child

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(WSAW) -- Sexual assault can be devastating at any age, but especially as a child while their brain is still developing. 7 Investigates has provided the basic context around the number of sexual assaults in north central Wisconsin, but in Part 13 of this A Cycle of Abuse series the experts have advice for parents and caregivers, and things you can look out for to protect and support your child.

The unspoken center of child sexual assault is silence. It’s how perpetrators are able to hurt children and how that abuse can continue to unknowingly affect victims and their families for generations.

"Generally sex offenders rely on our silence and they rely on secrets," Jessica Lind, the program coordinator for the sexual assault victims program at the Women’s Community in Wausau said.

"It's our responsibility as an adult to make sure that abuse stops."

Educating Your Child

Lind explained stopping the abuse starts by giving kids the words and education to identify the abuse.

Jacqueline Gremler and Alicia Resch, forensic interviewers at the Child Advocacy Center in Wausau urge parents to teach the correct or scientific terms for body parts.

“So I mean like, your penis, your vagina, your bottom or your butt,” Gremler stated. “And that's all with toileting that you would talk about those things and identifying what's safe and not safe. Identifying, depending on what age they're in, who is able to see and touch those parts and who is not. And then, you know, giving them the ability to verbalize if something doesn't feel right, to say no. To tell a safe adult immediately."

"The research has shown that that helps them to be able to talk about those things if something would happen,” Resch explained. It allows children to better be able to identify if something is potentially sexual assault, adding an extra layer of protection for that child.

“As a parent, if that feels uncomfortable with you, recognizing that -- and we talk about that as interviewers and trainings, you know -- saying words that you might not think they should hear at that time, but it’s okay, and it’s safe to talk with them about those things, or about those body parts and it’s important,” Resch said.

Stephanie Hamann, a child and family therapist with Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin indicated these conversations are difficult for children to talk about too.

“It's hard for kids to say sometimes because it's a little embarrassing to talk about their private parts, but it's something that moms and dads can make very normal, and it can just be in regular discussion, so it's not so overwhelming or scary to say the words.”

Jeff Stefonek, investigations lieutenant for the Marathon County Sheriff’s Office said teaching children the difference between secrets and surprises can keep perpetrators at bay as well because secrets are generally negative, while surprises are often positive.

“So when talking to your child, and talking about private parts, if you tell your child there's no such thing as secrets that helps eliminate some of that grooming behavior where if somebody has normalized this behavior to them and says, 'it's just between us', or 'this is a secret,'” He said. “Even though that child might not recognize how bad it is they still might bring it up in conversation because you've taught them that there's, there's no secrets about this, this kind of thing.”

Learning and teaching about what consent is adds another layer of protection.

“First of all, consent it something that only can be given by adults, so children cannot give consent to sexual contact or intercourse just so that’s clear,” Marathon County District Attorney Theresa Wetzstoen asserted. “So an offender, even if they felt reasonably that the person was consenting. If that person wasn’t in fact freely and willingly agreeing to have sexual contact or intercourse, they’re not consenting.”

She explained that the other person does not have to say ‘no’ to the sexual contact, they have to say ‘yes.’

“The presumption is that nobody wants to be having sexual intercourse or contact unless they give some indication that they do.”

Wetzstoen said people can confuse this concept of consent and what it means to agree to it freely and willingly.

“That’s not the same as being talked into it or coerced or persuaded or threatened, that’s not freely agreeing.”

These experts emphasize the importance of educating your children because if you don’t, they’ll learn about it from somewhere else and that could be too late.

"It happens often, where they'll become educated, and then they'll disclose," Resch said.

Supporting Your Child

If you learn your child has been sexually assaulted supporting them is crucial.

“It probably took them a long time to pick the person that they chose,” Lind said. “They probably were working themselves up to say, okay, I think I'm going to tell my teacher, I think I'm going to tell my mom, I think I'm going to tell my grandma. It took them a long time to build up that courage to tell someone. So the response that that child gets is so vitally important to say, thank you for telling me. I believe you. I'm going to get you the help that you need and we're going to make sure that this stops from happening. So that's the response I feel like as a community we need to focus on rather than saying, 'well, no, that couldn't have happened.'”

Christa Jensen, Marathon County Child Protective Services Supervisor also encourages parents to let their child tell them their story as they are comfortable.

“I think as a parent we want to know all of those details and what did I miss as a parent? And parents start blaming themselves for ‘I should have known, I should have protected,’ and so I think they need that support to know it is okay to have your own emotions and to allow your child to disclose to you as they feel ready, to not push them for those details. To just believe them.”

Lee Shipway, Peaceful Solutions Counseling’s executive director said parents need to exercise patience as the healing and therapy after the trauma is also a process of finding a new normal.

“It's not like you're going to go right back to, ‘oh, this is what an eight year old would be like, who's never been sexually abused.’ They're going to be different,” she said, “and I need people to know that.”

She explained victims, especially those age 8 and older, go through several stages, starting with guilt.

“They think it's their fault, and there's a psychological reason for that. If I blame myself subconsciously, then that gives me the illusion that I had some control over what happened to me. So I help that victim understand that they didn't do anything wrong. They're not to blame. So then the next emotion that comes up is feeling of out of control. That I had no power, I am powerless, and I was powerless. That's really difficult to deal with that feeling.”

The next step is anger she said either at the perpetrator or sadness of the loss of innocence and of their childhood.

“That's very sad when victims get to the point that they're angry at the perpetrator,” Shipway noted. “That's very healthy. I know that we're making good progress in therapy because now they're putting the blame where it belongs on the perpetrator instead of on themselves and that's a really important thing.”

The last stage is acceptance. “Accepting that ‘this happened, no, I don't like it. I'm never going to like it, but this is something that happened to me and it's something that I've dealt with and something I might continue to deal with as I grow older and different life circumstances come to me and life experiences, and this might get retriggered at points in my life, but I know that I can handle this and I can go back and see my therapist if I need to.’”

That process can also be very difficult for parents too. "A lot of times parents are kind of the lost victims in this where they're still needing to be mom and dad,” Lind said. “They're still needing to take care of everything they take care of, but they don't really have any other people to turn to.”

Advocacy organizations like the Women’s Community have resources and advocates to help both the child and the parent navigate the process.

“Parents, of course feel guilty,” Shipway said. “They're impacted mom and or dad, whoever the non offending parent is. needs to have therapy to help them deal with all those strong, strong emotions that come with that.”

Possible Signs

In Part 6 of the Cycle of Abuse series, 7 Investigates touched on grooming and manipulation tactics of perpetrators. After a child is assaulted, depending on the child, their development, and their relationship with their perpetrator, there are certain symptoms of abuse parents can look out for. This, however, is not exhaustive list and assault can impact people in a variety of unique ways.

“Lots of times smaller children have really poor boundaries, especially with the gender of people that they were abused by,” Hamann said. “They were abused by an older, an adult male. They might go towards adult males and be a far too close with them or climb on their laps and try and do physical kinds of things with them. Sometimes they're very afraid of of men that are adults, sometimes they go just go right towards them.”

While there are some normal tendencies for children touching themselves, oversexualized touching and conversation is another sign of sexual abuse.

“We sometimes see kids who put things inside themselves or they pull down other people's pants or they do different things that are a little more sexual in nature.”

Hamann said an obsession with wetting the bed or their pants beyond the normal potty training stage is another sign.

“Ongoing things, a lot more anxiety, a lot more clinginess, a lot more fear of a certain person or event or sometimes it just shows up in anxiety or depression in general. and I think sometimes even ambivalence about going places because sometimes we have children and I think of, especially girls with adult males that that adult male gives them special things or they give them treats or presents.”

“It kind of permeates through a lot of different things,” Shipway said. “When people don't get treatment, usually what you're going to see is posttraumatic stress disorder and the symptoms of that is a lot of depression symptoms, a lot of anxiety symptoms, not sleeping well, nightmares, flashbacks of the event, either overeating or under eating. The appetite issues is usually affected, not able to trust other people. Always been what we call hyper vigilant. Looking over your shoulder and making sure people aren't following you, that you're in a safe place. It makes a big impact on a lot of different parts of that person's life.”

If you see these signs from your child, but aren’t sure, Hamann said a good place to start is the doctor’s office.

“They can have their child just examined to see if there's damage or to see if there's something like that. They can just ask some questions about if there's people that do something to their private parts or touch them in a way they don't like or are there people that are scary to them. They also can make an appointment with a counselor and sometimes we're able to kind of figure out and see some of those same symptoms,” she said.

Another place to seek a second opinion is reaching out to social services or law enforcement departments.

“If families have concerns that their child has been or their child is displaying some symptoms that we are able to be contacted even just to consult,” Jensen said. “So, you don’t have to only contact us to make a report. If you have any concern, take that off of your own chest and put it onto ours. It’s our responsibility to make those decisions and there’s a lot of behaviors for children that are normal child sexual exploration.”

“Erring on the side of caution and reporting it and allowing law enforcement to investigate just protects their child,” said Stefonek. “If they've decided to talk about it to you as a trusted adult, the best thing you can do is believe them and show them support.”

Reporting to law enforcement or social services can be scary given it can flip a family’s life around, but Jensen says not all cases are criminal, and their main concern is the safety of the child.

“I think the other thing (misconception) is that if a report is made to Social Services of sexual abuse then no matter what that alleged maltreater says, you’re going to be substantiated.” Jensen said that’s not true. “We have to have proof of that. So, it’s not always black and white and it very rarely is black and white.”

"I'm a parent and I want parents in our community to feel empowered to protect their children against this type of behavior. Protect them from being victims,” Stefonek urged. “I understand we can't keep our children inside a bubble and protect them from everything, but you can talk to your children about these topics."