Part 7: Believing the children in sexual assault investigations

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(WSAW) -- “Kids don't lie about this,” Lee Shipway, the executive director of Peaceful Solutions Counseling said. “I have never once in my career had a child who I saw for therapy that lied about the abuse.”

“Our default should be to believe,” the trauma counselor of 35 years urged.

While 7 Investigates has uncovered data showing reports happen multiple times a day across north central Wisconsin, those numbers don’t tell the whole story. They don't capture the assaults that never get reported.

The professionals who help combat child sexual assault said adults have a tendency to not believe children when they share their trauma--but that it’s actually extremely rare for children to lie about abuse. While the statistic varies, most professionals put false reporting at less than 3%.

“A lot of adults want to believe that there's some other explanation for what is happening," Marathon County Investigations Lt. Jeff Stefonek noted.

He explain the child’s parents or family are often close with the perpetrator as well.

“That perpetrator may have already developed a very plausible explanation for why that child might be saying that,” Stefonek said.

Despite that, and even if children are coached by adults to come up with a different story, he said it’s very difficult to fool highly trained investigators.

“Children usually don't have a reason to make something like this up,” he explained. “A lot of times they don't even know that they're reporting something, they're just telling you information about their day.”

Part of the problem is that it’s so hard for a parent to believe sexual abuse could happen to their child, especially when it’s committed by someone in the family’s circle of trust.

“I have been struck by the fact that people who are in a relationship with the suspect or the perpetrator, how often they will choose to believe that person's denial over their own child,” Marathon District Attorney Theresa Wetzsteon said.

Shipway explained that is a natural defense mechanism many people’s brains use.

“When something so horrible occurs, the brain does an automatic psychological twist to try to say there's gotta be some other reason for that...So a quick way out of that is to just, 'oh well this than the victim must be making it up.' Or 'the victim must not be telling the truth' or 'the victim must be remembering it differently than what it really was' because it's just too hard to admit that human beings can be that bad.”

Adults also expect fully-developed accounts of what happened--despite the fact that’s often not how our brains remember a memory.

“When kids aren't able to give the who, what, when, where, and every single detail from perfect detail from start to finish, then that's when people start to say, 'I'm not sure if this kid's credible. There's so many holes or gaps within their story,'” Jacqueline Gremler, a forensic interview with the Child Advocacy Center said.

She explained the development of the child can limit the details a child can give, and because the assault is often traumatic, the way the brain keeps that information may limit the details the subject is able to remember all at once.

“It's just the nature of our brains and how it uncovers trauma when it has happened and that it lets out a little bit of information until it feels safe enough to let out more,” said child therapist Stephanie Hamann.

That’s not to say there aren’t inconsistencies at times in a child’s testimony. But in the forensic interviewers’ experience, those inconsistencies are more often the result of poor listening--than poor reporting.

“If you go into it by saying, ‘I’m not quite sure I understand; something about what you said differs from this,’ usually you’re able to figure it out,” Gremler explains. “And oftentimes in my experience, the inconsistency is because of the listener, not because of the storyteller.”

At the end of the day, Wetzsteon points out that children can usually intuitively understand the difference between normal affection--and assault.

“Kids get hugs all the time. They get kisses all the time. They’re not reporting sexual assault,” she says. “The child came forward because they knew something was wrong.”