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Ending child abuse begins with hearing, believing

February 5, 2018

The case against Larry Nassar is closed; the doctor faces life in prison for his countless sexual assaults of young female athletes. Nationally, through the #MeToo movement men, women and children are finding their voice – and ears willing to hear – to discuss publicly their experiences of sexual assault and abuse. The U.S. House and Senate passed legislation requiring amateur athletic organizations to report sexual abuse.

We are inspired by, recognize, and celebrate the social change these events are creating, but it is too early for a victory lap. These advances are part of an evolution, a work in progress that continues toward a destination – a day when no child is injured, betrayed, exploited, used, or abused; and where predators exist only in nature, not neighborhoods.

But we are not there yet.

The most encouraging change we see is this new willingness to listen, to acknowledge that, “We’re ready to believe you.”

For decades, children, like women in Hollywood and elsewhere, have come forward with claims of abuse and sexual assault, but absent clear and obvious injury, many of their claims were not acknowledged or investigated; certainly not prosecuted, simply because the accused denied it.

So we must seize on this willingness to believe to prove to children that this is a safe space, that it’s OK to tell, that they will be heard and believed and, more, that they will be protected.

Make no mistake. Children are watching. The #MeToo movement has created a safe space for young people to speak out about their experiences, so some are taking very bold, terrifying steps – disclosing abuse, asking for help, hoping to be believed and protected.

That’s huge, given that studies show that up to 80 percent of injured children don’t disclose abuse. Safe harbor may increase those numbers; empower more children to come forward with their stories, to demonstrate the scope of abuse.

Today, 28 percent of adults report being abused as a child; 21 percent of adults report being sexually abused as a child and a significant percentage of them, absent help, go on to become second or even third generation abusers themselves.

But even as more children step up, others closely watch the evolving landscape. They see and hear – even feel – the criticism, anger, and pushback some are heaving at women who are coming forward to name their abusers.

At the first hint that ears are closing, the majority silently will slip back into the shadows – disclosure will not be worth re-injury atop things they already feel – betrayed, shamed, deceived, manipulated.

So it is for us to keep those conversations going, to be their safe place and to be their advocates. As adults, we are responsible for their safety and security, their well-being, especially since children have no political power and have limited say in decisions that affect their lives.

So, it’s critical that we seize the momentum of the #MeToo to demonstrate that it’s #KidsToo, that children also are being abused. And that they face the same obstacles to disclosure women have – judgment, guilt, shame, ostracism, fear, betrayal, self-blame, and perhaps the greatest barrier – fear of not being believed.

We cannot help but think about how life could have been so different for the adults Nassar abused if only they had been heard and believed as children. And how many children might not have suffered abuse had those who had been hurt were previously believed.

At Family & Children’s Place, we work daily with children that have been physically, sexually, and emotionally abused, along with their families. We believe absolutely that every child deserves every opportunity to succeed in life and we strive every day to stand for every child, to be the voice he or she need.

We know that every child is worth it.

So let’s use these stories to inspire us to do more, to be better, and to be vigilant … to fulfill our most important role: raising happy, healthy and safe children.