Samantha was 5 or 6 years old when she was first molested.
Some names have been changed to protect the identities of the people involved.
Samantha was 5 or 6 years old when she was first molested.
It happened at a day care she and her brother attended while their divorced mother worked. Between eight and ten children were at the day care on a typical day.
While playing a chasing game, a teenage boy working at the day care cornered Samantha in a garage and told her to lift up her dress.
“I froze, and I felt the heat in my face,” Samantha said. “I was used to just doing what older people said. The next thing I knew, he pulled my dress up and my panties down, and that began a process that went on for four years.”
Samantha was not the only child this boy abused at the day care. In fact, he abused every child in that day care on a regular basis, but no one spoke up. In Samantha's case, she didn't know what to think and didn't tell anyone, and the boy convinced her it was because she liked and wanted it.
“Suddenly, I was culpable,” Samantha said. “I was involved. I didn't have anyone to tell, and I didn't feel like I could.”
April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, and Heart 2 Heart is making an effort to reach out to the community and shed light on child abuse and its consequences.
Prevalence and impact
Samantha’s story is not unique.
“Abuse happens far more often than we realize,” said Kerry Grosch, executive director of Heart 2 Heart in McPherson, Marion and Harvey counties. Heart 2 Heart is a child advocacy center that coordinates investigations into child abuse allegations. “A lot of people don't know what to do.”
Grosch said Heart 2 Heart conducts between 120 and 160 interviews each year in McPherson, Marion and Harvey counties, each interview corresponding to a new allegation or suspicion of abuse. The majority of those interviews are with children, though sometimes adults with cognitive development delays are interviewed at the center as well.
“The cases we do here are not usually for neglect,” Grosch said. “We tend to get sexual or physical abuse cases.”
Law enforcement officials in McPherson County responded to 265 reports of maltreatment in 2013. In 2014, that number was 528. Not all of these reports uncovered abuse; some were the result of a misunderstanding, difference in opinion, or a custody dispute.
Grosch said cases that come to Heart 2 Heart are based on more than just an allegation. They have something more that suggests the abuse could be real.
The CDC estimates abuse cases cost the country billions, with an estimated $124 billion spent in 2008. This includes dealing with improper brain development, impaired learning, lack of social and emotional skills, blindness or cerebral palsy from head trauma, anxiety, and substance abuse.
As many as 80 percent of young adults who had been abused met diagnostic criteria for at least one psychiatric disorder at age 21, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders and suicide attempts. Children who experience maltreatment are more likely to smoke or abuse alcohol and drugs, and are 25 percent more likely to experience problems such as delinquency, teen pregnancy and low academic achievement.
They are also more likely to be arrested as juveniles and adults. They are 30 percent more likely to commit a violent crime.
“It affects you for a lifetime,” Samantha said. “You don't trust yourself or your instincts. You feel a heavy burden of personal guilt, accountability and shame.”
Child abuse is also underreported. Grosch said this is because people don't know what to do, or are afraid to act.
“People want to deny that they've seen abuse,” she said. “They get scared when they see it, and wonder if they're overreacting. They tell themselves it's not their business, or they worry if they say something they can be dragged into the situation or even sued.”
Victims may not report they've been abused for a variety of reasons. In Samantha's case, her abuser made her feel she would get in trouble if she told anyone, while at the same time telling her he loved her.
This guilt and confusion led her to stay silent, even when she saw her abuser doing the same thing to another child. When the day care manager asked if she had seen anything, she denied it because she didn't want to get in trouble for not saying anything before.
Abuse victims may not tell anyone they are being abused, but there are signs that indicate a child is the victim of abuse. Children who are being neglected may have poor hygiene, inappropriate clothing for their size or weather, and malnourishment. Victims of physical abuse may have injuries, burns, sprains or broken bones, and bite marks.
Younger children may exhibit excessive fear or crying, feeding problems, sleep disturbances or a general failure to thrive. Older children might develop sudden, unexplained fears of certain people or places, regress to old behaviors like bed-wetting or stranger anxiety, depression, suicidal behaviors, aggression or self-injury.
Older children might also victimize others, withdraw from family or friends or run away from home. They might also become pregnant at a young age or resort to fire-starting or animal torture.
Kathy Melhorn, a clinical professor in pediatrics with the University of Kansas School of Medicine - Wichita, said not all victims of child abuse exhibit these traits, nor are all children who exhibit these behaviors victims of child abuse. However, abuse is more likely to bring out adult problems, and the more a child was abused, the more likely it is they will experience these problems.
Those who suspect a child is being abused should report to law enforcement or child protective services. Reports can also be made to the Kansas Protection Report Center at 1-800-922-5330.
At Heart 2 Heart and other child advocacy centers, the goal is to make children feel comfortable and reduce the number of times they are questioned. Heart 2 Heart in McPherson offers a centralized location for investigators to coordinate efforts in looking into an abuse case.
Grosch said when Heart 2 Heart handles a case, the child is brought to the center, which is decorated with child-friendly images and includes toys and other object to help the child feel comfortable and at-home. Those who interview the children must complete 40 hours of training, where they learn the kinds of questions they should or shouldn't ask to ensure the child doesn't feel threatened.
“It's not about hiding or being scary,” Grosch said. “It's about providing a neutral, safe, developmentally appropriate area.”
Interviews are recorded for all involved agencies to review. While this approach doesn't always persuade a child to share everything he or she knows, Grosch said it does help avoid unnecessary trauma and connect families to community resources they might need.
“Some kids share what happened, some don't,” Grosch said. “It's about providing a safe environment, minimizing trauma and finding out needs.”
Samantha said one reason she never told her story as a child was because she never felt safe enough to do so. She said a place like Heart 2 Heart could have given her the courage to tell and get her abuser behind bars much sooner.
“If someone made me feel safe, I probably would have told,” she said.
Samantha and her brother escaped their abuser when their mother died, and they were forced to move out of state. Decades later, she found out her abuser was eventually convicted of child molestation. Since then, she has written letters to his parole board, asking them to keep him off the streets.
“Can you imagine how many other kids he abused before someone was brave enough to tell?” she said. “I've done all in my power to keep him there, but I can't undo the past.”