When I was a patrol officer, I once was dispatched to take a report for a 7-year-old girl who had been sexually assaulted by her mom’s boyfriend. The child’s aunt brought her to the hospital and notified police after her niece made some comments about the male anatomy and sex to which the average 7-year-old would not be privy.
The little girl had to have a rape kit completed, which is used to collect evidence such as clothing fibers, hairs and bodily fluids, which might help identify an assailant and provide evidence during a criminal trial. It’s an intrusive process that no one should have to endure — especially a little girl.
As I conducted a preliminary investigation, I couldn’t help but notice that the little girl was laughing and playing with the toys that the hospital staff brought for her. She certainly didn’t resemble a child who had been molested, and I secretly wondered if her aunt had misconstrued what she said or jumped to conclusions. After all, the girl didn’t seem scared or outwardly afflicted.
I followed that case to the end. As it turned out, the little girl’s mother didn’t believe her child. She vehemently defended her boyfriend, with whom she had been in a relationship for two months before allowing him to move in and babysit her daughter. The boyfriend was eventually arrested and charged.
I would go on to respond to many similar cases. I learned very quickly that there are some common myths associated with sexual assault, and that the human psyche is very complex.
One might think that a victim of sexual assault would be fearful of their abuser, but quite frequently, that is not the case. Depending on how savvy the abuser is, there is a level of manipulation that is choreographed. Humiliation, shame and fear equal silence.
Offenders reinforce these feelings by what they say and do to their victims. They use the shame and fear to bind the victim to them and isolate them from others who might help them. Victims are often terrified that they will not be believed and ashamed that they don’t know how to stop the abuse. They often feel trapped between wanting the abuse to end and being terrified of other people learning what has been done to them. That fear can keep victims silent while the abuse continues. Seventy-five percent of victims never disclose abuse, keeping it a secret forever.
Some victims remain silent because they don’t have any proof of the abuse, which makes allegations their word against that of their abuser. While it is helpful to have physical evidence (which normally results from immediacy in reporting), it isn’t always possible to obtain. That doesn’t mean there cannot be a solid case for a conviction based on victim testimony.
And though it might be difficult to understand, some victims defend their abuser and may even deny they are being abused. People react to trauma in different ways. It is not uncommon for victims to maintain contact with their abusers, because they might still feel affection for them even though they hate the abuse. This is especially prevalent when the abuser is a member of the family or a close family friend and in instances where the victims are children. There is no “book” on how children respond to trauma. You would be wrong to assume that you know how a child would or should respond.
Sexual abuse doesn’t just occur when a mom allows her new boyfriend to move in. It happens in families with blood relatives and close friends in backdrops you might not suspect. When you discuss “stranger danger” with your children, also reinforce that, if anyone ever abuses them, they need to tell.
Be vigilant in safeguarding the children in your life by listening to your intuition. When something feels wrong, it usually is.